Historical Atlas of the British Empire

Age of Exploration 1607-1720


Exploration to Colonisation

The first successful British colony was Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, although there was an earlier settlement at Newfoundland in 1583. The Empire was gradually built over the next two centuries as the British established colonies and trading posts in many parts of the world, as well as capturing them from other European empire builders. Settlements were made in Gambia and on the Gold Coast of Africa in 1618; in Bermuda in 1609 and other islands of the West Indies; Jamaica was taken from Spain in 1655; in Canada, Acadia (Nova Scotia) was secured from France by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which recognised Newfoundland and Hudson Bay (as well as Gibraltar in Europe) as British. New France (much of Canada) became British as a result of the Seven Years' War of 1756-63. In North America, the Thirteen Colonies along the Atlantic seaboard between French Canada and Spanish Florida were firmly established by 1733. The colonists had begun to plant cotton in the 17th century, and this plantation crop was grown on a very large scale by the late-18th century. This combined with a scattering of settlements in West Africa and the trade from the West Indies to create the `Triangular Trade': British ships took manufactured goods and spirits to West Africa to exchange them for slaves whom they landed in the West Indies and the southernmost of the Thirteen Colonies. The ships then returned to Britain with cargoes of cotton, rum, sugar, and tobacco, produced mainly by the labour of the slaves. Britain's prosperity was bound up with the slave trade, until it became illegal in 1807, by which time the Empire had ceased to be dependent upon the slave trade as other forms of commerce had become more profitable and Britain was starting to emerge as the leading industrial nation, inevitably reducing the economic demand for slave labour. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire by act of the British Parliament in 1833, while it continued in the United States for another thirty years. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Empire made Britain one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world.

The early growth of the Empire was not laid down in any coordinated plan and it was held together and administered by whatever means seemed most expedient for a particular time and place. Pirates, traders, soldiers, explorers, financial speculators, missionaries, convicts, and refugees all played a part in creating the British Empire. Private individuals or companies often provided the initial impetus for the exploration and subsequent exploitation of foreign lands, frequently in the face of government reluctance, but, increasingly, British governments were drawn in to maintain them. One of the early pioneers of British settlement in North America was William Penn, who gave his name to Pennsylvania


The British ruling class developed a great interest in science during the 17th and 18th centuries and what started out as inquiry and exploration usually led to settlement and eventually colonization. Between 1768 and 1780, scientific naval expeditions commanded by Captain Cook explored the islands and coasts of the Pacific Ocean all the way from the entrance to the Arctic to the then unknown coasts of New Zealand and Australia. However, the British government showed little interest in annexing these southern lands until the loss of the American colonies deprived it of a dumping ground for the convicts and debtors who had up until then been deported to North America. Perhaps the best-known example of private initiative leading the way was the East India Company. An important exception was in the West Indies, where many members of Parliament had commercial interests and so there was frequent government intervention. However, as the Empire grew, Britain became a rich and powerful nation and by the late 19th century British policy tended towards imperialism, annexing countries for reasons of national prestige rather than solely for commercial gain.

Religious Missions

British missionaries of all denominations took the Christian religion throughout the Empire. Although they made relatively little impression in places where advanced religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam dominated, even in those areas their converts numbered several millions. Their success was greater in the West Indies and in Africa south of the Sahara. David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, explored much of what are now Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Like several other intrepid explorers, such as Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, and Sir Samuel Baker, Livingstone explored the River Nile. His journeys also took him to the Zambezi River and to lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa (now Malawi). Following Livingstone's journeys, the Free Church of Scotland sent a mission to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1875, and the country became a British protectorate in 1891, a year after Bechuanaland (Botswana).

West Indies

The West Indies was a very attractive target for colonization due to the huge commercial possibilities of the region, mainly the rum and sugar produced there.  Bermuda was settled in 1609. It has the oldest Parliament outside of Britain. Between 1623 and 1632, English settlers occupied St Kitts, Barbados, St Croix (later lost), Nevis, Antigua, and Montserrat. Cromwell's forces took Jamaica from the Spaniards in 1655, although it was not officially ceded until 1760, and the tiny Atlantic island of St Helena was annexed in 1673. Belize (British Honduras) was governed as part of Jamaica until 1884. 

In 1678, England also took control of the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua in Central America.
The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850) between the United States and Great Britain checked British expansion, but relinquishment of the coast was delayed until a separate treaty was concluded with Nicaragua (1860), which established the autonomy of the so-called Mosquito Kingdom. In 1894, the territory's anomalous position was ended when it was forcibly incorporated into Nicaragua.

Sir William Stapleton established the first federation in the British West Indies in 1674. Stapleton set up a General Assembly of the Leeward Islands in St. Kitts. Stapleton's federation was active from
1674 to 1685 when Stapleton was Governor and the General Assembly met regularly until 1711. The Bahamas became a British colony in 1717, but were briefly taken over by the Spanish during the American Revolution. However, they were returned to British control in 1783 at the conclusion of that war. By the 18th Century each island had kept its own Assembly and made its own laws, but continued to share one Governor and one Attorney-General. Although unpopular, Stapleton's Federation was never really dissolved but simply replaced by other arrangements. Between 1816 and 1833 the Leewards were divided into two groups, each with its own Governor: St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla and Antigua-Barbuda-Montserrat. In 1833 all the Leeward Islands were brought together and Dominica was added to the grouping until 1940. In 1869, Governor Benjamin Pine was assigned the task of organizing a federation of Antigua-Barbuda, Dominica, Montserrat , Nevis, St. Kitts, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands. St. Kitts and Nevis however opposed sharing their government funds with Antigua and Montserrat, which were bankrupt. Governor Pine told the Colonial Office that the scheme had failed due to "local prejudice and self-interest". Thus the only achievement was giving the Leewards a single Governor. All laws and ordinances, however, had to be approved by the each island council. In 1871 the British government passed the Leeward Islands Act through which all the islands were under one Governor and one set of laws. Each island was called "Presidency" under its own Administrator or Commissioner.

Like earlier groupings this federation was unpopular but was not dissolved until 1956 to make way for the Federation of the West Indies. The Federal Colony was composed of all islands organised under Governor Pine's previous attempt. In 1833 the Windward Islands became a formal union called the Windward Islands Colony. In
1838, Trinidad (acquired in 1802) and St. Lucia (acquired in 1814) were brought into the Windward Islands Colony, but were not given their own assemblies (having previously been Crown Colonies). In 1840 Trinidad left the Colony. The Windward Islands Colony was unpopular as Barbados wished to retain its separate identity and ancient institutions, while the other colonies did not enjoy the association with Barbados (but needed such an association for defence against French invasions until 1815). Thus the individual islands resisted British attempts at closer union. Barbados in particular fought to retain its own Assembly.  From 1885 to 1958 the Windward Islands Colony consisted of Grenada and the Grenadines, St. Vincent and St. Lucia for the entire period. Tobago left in 1889 when she formed a union with Trinidad. Dominica joined the Windward Islands Colony in 1940 after having been transferred from the Leewards and remained in the Colony until 1958. After 1885 the Windward Islands Colony was under one Governor-General in Grenada and each island had its own Lieutenant-Governor and its own assembly (as before).

Attempts at a Federal Colony like in the Leewards were always resisted. The Windward Islands Colony broke up in 1958 when each island chose to join the new Federation of the West Indies as a separate unit. The remaining British colonies in the Caribbean except for British Guiana and the Bahamas were grouped under Jamaica out of convenience and sometimes for historical and/or geographical reasons. British Honduras was surrounded by hostile Spanish colonies and needed the protection afforded by the Army and Navy based in Jamaica. In addition, British Honduras had been founded by loggers and had expanded in population partly by the settlement of Englishmen arriving from Jamaica in the late 1600s and early 1700s (with settlers also arriving from England directly or being born in the colony). So from 1742 British Honduras was a dependency directly under the Governor of Jamaica. Then in 1749 the Governors of Jamaica appointed Administrators for British Honduras. In 1862 British Honduras became a Crown Colony and was placed under the Governor of Jamaica with its own Lieutenant-Governor. In 1884 it finally broke all administrative ties with Jamaica. On 17 December 1918, after a mutiny by the British West Indies Regiment due to harsh discipline, 60 West Indian sergeants met to form the Caribbean League, which although short-lived due to internal divisions centred on island identities, marked a pivotal moment in the emergence of nationalist movements in the Anglophone Caribbean. A memorable and oft-cited slogan emanating from a subsequent meeting of the League was "that the black man should have freedom and govern himself in the West Indies and that force must be used, and if necessary bloodshed to attain that object". The West Indies Federation was a short-lived federation that existed from January 3, 1958 to May 31, 1962. It consisted of several Caribbean colonies of the United Kingdom. The expressed intention of the Federation was to create a political unit that would become independent from Britain as a single state--possibly similar to the Australian Federation, or Canadian Confederation; however, before that could happen, the Federation collapsed due to internal political conflicts. Today, the islands of the British West Indies exist as separate independent members of the Commonwealth of Nations.  Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica are republican members and Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda and Belize (formerly British Honduras) are realms of Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a Governor General in each country.  Bermuda, a colony since 1609, remains a British Overseas Territory, along with the Cayman Islands (formerly governed by Jamaica), the Turks and Caicos Islands (formerly governed by the Bahamas), the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat and Anguilla. An independence movement is gaining strength in Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands have considered joining the Canadian Confederation. The others are too small to become independent or wish to remain British.

North America

John Cabot became the first European since the Vikings to discover Newfoundland (but see João Vaz Corte-Real), landing at Cape Bonavista on 24 June 1497. On August 5, 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert formally claimed Newfoundland as England's first overseas colony under Royal Prerogative of Queen Elizabeth I. The island of Newfoundland was nearly conquered by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in the 1690s, but remained firmly in English hands. Newfoundland celebrated 500 years under the Crown in 1997.

During his famed circumnavigation of the globe (15771580) in which he was ordered to destroy the Spanish flotillas in the New World and plunder settlements, Sir Francis Drake landed on the western coast of North America in 1579 in what is now northern California and claimed the area for Queen Elizabeth I as New Albion. However this claim was later abandoned.
Following the early settlement in Virginia in 1607, British colonies spread up and down the east coast of North America and by 1664, when the English secured New Amsterdam (New York) from the Dutch, there was a continuous fringe of colonies from the present South Carolina in the south to what is now New Hampshire. These colonies, and others formed later, had their own democratic institutions. 

The Dominion of New England was created as an administrative union of
English colonies in the New England region of North America, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. It only lasted from 1686 to 1689. The dominion was ultimately a failure because the area it encompassed (from the Delaware River in the south to Penobscot Bay in the north) was too large for a single governor to manage. Additional factors resulted in its fall, including the fact that its governor, Sir Edmund Andros, was highly unpopular, engaging in actions that offended significant segments of the New England population. After news of the Glorious Revolution in England reached Boston in 1689, Puritans launched a revolt against Andros, arresting him and his officers. Leisler's Rebellion in New York City deposed the dominion's lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson. After these events, the colonies assembled into the dominion then reverted to their previous forms of governance, despite the fact that some then formally governed without a charter. New charters were eventually issued by King William III and Queen Mary II.

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The word dominion would later be used to describe the Dominion of Canada in 1867, and other self-governing British colonies, although no precedent from the Dominion of New England was cited in these cases.

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