The Thirteen American Colonies

By 1720, thirteen British colonies existed on what is now the eastern seaboard of the United States. In what is now Canada, Rupert’s Land around Hudson Bay had been claimed by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1660’s and Nova Scotia became English in 1691 as part of Massachusetts and then a separate colony in 1713. The United Kingdom of Great Britain acquired the French colony of Acadia in 1713 and then Canada and the Spanish colony of Florida in 1763.

There was also an early unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to establish a colony at Darien, and the short-lived Scottish colonisation of Nova Scotia (Latin for 'New Scotland') from 1629 to 1632. Thousands of Scotsmen also participated in the English colonisation even before the two countries united as Great Britain in 1707.

From 1756 to 1763, Britain, whose forces were led by James Wolfe, defeated France in North America and took control of France's possessions in the continent, mostly in what is now Canada. Britain now controlled the entire eastern half of North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Islands. A Proclamation Line was declared west of the thirteen American colonies in 1763, preventing further western settlement in order to preserve lands for the First Nations. This upset many of the American colonists.

British Guiana

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), whichestablished 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. Theisland 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 (1577–1580) 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.​

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

Empire in the Americas

A famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe as the British capture Quebec and bring Canada into the British Empire

Meanwhile, during this war, Spain intervened on the side of France, so Great Britain also declared war against Spain in 1762 and invaded Spanish possessions in the West Indies and in the Far East. The British sailed from Madras, India and occupied Manila in the Spanish colony of the Philippines in the Pacific. The British also captured Havana in the Spanish colony of Cuba in the West Indies. The British faced massive resistance to their occupation in the Philippines. Havana and Manila were returned to Spain as a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, but Spain was required to cede Florida and Minorca to Great Britain. Spain received French Louisiana as a payment for intervening in the war on the side of the French and as compensation for having lost Florida to the British.

The British found themselves in debt from the war against the French, so they imposed taxes on their American colonies to pay for them. The colonists resented this and their lack of representation in the British Parliament to have any say in the matter. They also resented lands set aside for native people keeping settlers out. This source of resentment led to the united thirteen colonies declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776 as the United States of America. This was followed by the War of Independence, and with French, Dutch and Spanish help, the Americans were victorious by 1781. Great Britain recognised the independence of the U.S.A. by treaty in 1783.

In the War of 1812, the U.S.A. tried unsuccessfully to annex Canada with many battles fought in what is now southern Ontario. This occurred while the British were also fighting Napoleon's French Empire in Europe. The British and Canadian troops under General Isaac Brock successfully defeated the invading Americans. American forces had occupied and burned down the Town of York (Toronto). In retaliation British troops burned Washington D.C. The war ended in 1814 with no political or boundary changes. Napoleon was also defeated in Europe by 1815. The British Empire come out of both the European and North American conflicts intact.

In the north, the Hudson's Bay Company actively traded for fur with the indigenous peoples, and had competed with French fur traders. The company came to control the entire drainage basin of Hudson Bay called Rupert's Land. The small parts of the Hudson Bay drainage which are south of the 49th parallel went to the United States in in the Anglo-American Convention of 1818. However, in both the Canadas, there was sufficient discontent to lead to rebellion in 1837. A Declaration of Independence was even issued by mostly French-speaking rebels in Lower Canada (Quebec). After the suppression of these risings, Lord Durham was sent out to advise on the affairs of British North America; his report, published in 1839, became the basis for the future structure of the Empire. In accordance with his recommendations, the two Canadas were united in 1840 and given a representative legislative council of their own: the beginning of colonial self-government. In 1849, the addition of Vancouver Island stretched British North America to the west coast.


Click on the gallery of maps below of the British Empire in the Americas to enlarge them.
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South America

South America is the one part of the world where British expansion was rather small.  Only British Guiana, taken from the Dutch in 1804, and the Falkland Islands and its dependencies - the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands - annexed in 1833, were successfully added to the British Empire in this part of the world. The Falkland Islands and the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands were originally claimed by the British in 1775 but never occupied. Sovereignty over the islands changed hands several times among France, Britain, Spain, Argentina and the USA, until finally a permanent British settlement and administration was established in 1833. Venezuela claimed a large part of western British Guiana, west of the Essequibo River, which is about two-thirds of the country. It still claims this territory today based on old boundaries. Argentinaclaims the Falkland Islands and its dependencies, calling them the Malvinas. This dispute erupted into war in 1982 when Argentina invaded the islands, but were defeated by the British.

In 1803 the British assumed control of the three Dutch colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, a control which was given international sanction under the terms of the Treaty of Pare and Convention of London in 1814. As with the Dutch, British jurisdiction was exercised as far west as the Barima, although there was still uncertainty about the precise course of the boundary.

Like the Dutch, the British appointed Amerindian captains in the Barima, Barama and Waini, among other places, and unlike the Dutch they also began establishing mission stations in the interior. Up until 1850, the nearest Venezuelan post to Essequibo was thirty to forty miles west of the Amakura.

In 1840 the British Government decided to take the matter of the border in hand, and employed Robert Schomburgk to make a provisional survey of the frontiers of the then British Guiana. The results of his surveys were intended as a statement of the British claim. The border between Venezuela and British Guiana was settled by a treaty signed in Paris in 1899. However, Venezuela continues to dispute the boundary and claims the Essequibo section of British Guiana (Guyana after 1966) to this day. Venezuela insists on restoring the boundaries of 1810 while they were still under Spanish rule which would give the Essequibo region to them.

Despite having only British Guiana and the Falkland Islands in that region, Britain, at one time, did have plans for a much larger empire in South America. After the loss of the North American colonies, the British decided to expand into the Spanish Colonies of South America. In 1795, a Scot by the name of Nicholas Vansittart wrote a white paper clearly outlining a way to take South America away from Spain. The British Government initially approved the Vansittart plan but later cancelled it, in 1797. Major General Sir Thomas Maitland revised the Vansittart plan in the early 1800's.

The British Government approved this plan and it subsequently changed its name to the Maitland plan. The Maitland plan was put into effect during the Napoleonic War in 1806. Great Britain used the fact that Spainwas now technically an ally of France as the excuse to start the war.

Great Britain sent an expeditionary force of 1,600 men to invade Buenos Aires, in Argentina, under General William Carr. This attempt failed.

A year later, an invasion army of 11,000 men arrived in Buenos Aires under the orders of General John Whitelocke. At the same time, a second fleet with 4,000 men captured Montivedeo and used the city as a staging post and communications centre. The Spanish colonial authorities in Buenos Aires were made to swear allegiance to the British Crown. The people of Buenos Aires single-handedly defeated this huge invasion force in hand-to-hand and street-by-street fighting.

A British force commanded by Lieutenant-General David Baird and Admiral Sir Home Popham took the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope in 1805. The following year, a smaller British force of 1,500 men under Colonel William Carr Beresford was sent across the South Atlantic to invade the Plata region, departing on 14 April 1806. The Spanish Viceroy, Marquis Rafael de Sobremonte, had asked the Spanish Crown for reinforcements many times, but no new men arrived. The residents of the city were pleased to see the British arrive at first, although some feared becoming a British colony and favoured independence.

However, one of the first measures of Beresford was to decree free commerce and reduction of port taxes. This measure displeased the merchants, who benefited from the Spanish monopoly, and so they gave their support to the resistance. French marine officer Santiago de Liniers y Bremond, in service to the Spanish Crown, organised the re-conquest of Buenos Aires from Montevideo, with help of the city governor Ruiz Huidobro. Also of importance was the participation of Juan Martín de Pueyrredón, chief of the urban militias. On 4 August, 1806, Liniers landed at Las Conchas, north of Buenos Aires, and advanced with a mixed force of Buenos Aires line troops and Montevideo Militia toward the city. After two days of fighting, Beresford surrendered on 12 August 1806.

Lieutenant-GeneralJohn Whitelocke commanded the British forces in the second invasion. On 3 February 1807, Montevideo was captured in a joint military and naval operation using British reinforcements of 8,000 men under General Sir Samuel Auchmuty and a naval squadron under Admiral Sir Charles Stirling.

On 10 May, Lieutenant-GeneralJohn Whitelocke arrived in Montevideo to take overall command of the British forces on the Río de la Plata. On 1 July, Liniers was defeated in the environs of the city. Finally, three days after defeating Liniers, Whitelocke resolved to attack Buenos Aires. Trusting the superiority of his soldiers, he divided his army into 12 columns and advanced without the protection of the artillery. His army was met on the streets by a determined militia, and fighting continued on the streets of Buenos Aires on 4 July and 5 July. Whitelocke underestimated the importance of urban combat, in which the inhabitants of the city overwhelmed the British troops. By the end of 5 July, the British controlled Retiro but the city's centre was still in the hands of the defenders, and the invaders were demoralized.

At this point, a Spanish counter-attack defeated many important British commanders, including Robert Crauford and Dennis Pack. Then Whitelocke proposed a 24-hour truce, which was rejected by Liniers, who ordered an artillery attack. After having more than half his forces killed and captured, Whitelocke signed a ceasefire with Liniers on 12 August. He left the Río de la Plata basin taking with him the British forces in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Colonia. Less than three years after the second invasion, the May Revolution took place in 1810, as a prelude to the Declaration of Independence of Argentina of 1816. Sir Thomas Maitland moved on to become Governor of Ceylon.

The planned extensive British Empire in South America was never established as most of the countries on the continent became independent in the early 19th Century. Argentina did, however, become part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’. Many British people decided to settle in Argentina and the country has a large British community of over 500,000 people, including a Welsh-speaking community in Patagonia at the continent's southern end, which was unclaimed until 1902. In that year, the Patagonian Welsh unsuccessfully petitioned the Colonial Office in London for Britain to annex Patagonia into the British Empire. Patagonia became part of Argentina, which had developed a very close friendship with Britain.

The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to recognise the independence of Argentina, in a treaty of 1825. English arrivals and investment played a large part in the development of the rail and tramways of Argentina, and of Argentine agriculture, livestock breeding, processing, refrigeration and export. At one point in the 19th century, ten per cent of the UK's foreign investment was in Argentina, despite not being a colony. In 1939, 39% of investment in Argentina was British.

The British built infrastructure and invested heavily in Argentina, which would last for over 150 years. This came to an end with the invasion of the British-controlled Falkland Islands by Argentina in 1982.

The British colony of the Falkland Islands also included South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands and, after 1908, it also included British Antarctica. The British Antarctic Territory became a separate British Dependency in 1962 and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands became a separate British territory in 1985 after the Falklands War with Argentina.


Fear of further American invasion of Canada led to a movement among leading Canadian colonial politicians for a unified federation of the British North American colonies which would be strong, united, self-governing and could defend itself.  With the British North America Act of 1867, the autonomous Dominion of Canada came into existence with the union of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia with Sir John A. MacDonald as the first Prime Minister. Later, further territories were added until the federal government of the Dominion of Canada controlled all the northern part of the continent, except Alaska, which belonged to the U.S.A. Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, followed by Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 all became provinces of the Dominion. The British Government transferred the Arctic islands in the north to the Dominion government in 1880. The northern parts of Canada remain to this day as territories. Canada gained full autonomy within the British Empire in 1931.  In 1854, Newfoundland was granted responsible government by the British government. Newfoundland remained a colony until acquiring dominion status as the Dominion of Newfoundland on September 26, 1907, along with New Zealand. It successfully negotiated a trade agreement with the United States but the British government blocked it after objections from Canada. In 1927, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London settled the boundary dispute between Quebec and Labrador by ruling in Newfoundland’s favour. In 1934, the Dominion, because of financial difficulties, was obliged to give up its self-governing status and a British Commission of Government took its place. Following World War II, the Commission held elections for the Newfoundland National Convention which debated the dominion's future in 1946 and 1947. Two referenda resulted in which Newfoundlanders decided to end the Commission, and join the Canadian Confederation in 1949 as Canada’s tenth province. Currently, a movement is underway to promote the idea of the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British colony in the Caribbean, to possibly become Canada’s eleventh province.