What drove England to colonise North America?

In the mid-1500s, England was a small country with little global influence. By the early 1900s, more than one-quarter of all the countries today were controlled by Britain in one of the largest empires the world had ever seen – the British Empire. This Empire had significant consequences on both Britain and the territories it controlled. But where did it all begin? And why did England bother to colonise other regions anyway?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you cannot download the worksheet, complete the tasks in the yellow boxes below.

– I can describe the details of England’s first colony in North America.
– I can make two inferences on the consequences of England’s first colony from two historical sources.

Colony = a foreign territory that is controlled by another country.
Empire = a group of territories that is controlled by a single leader, such as a King or Queen.

DO NOW: What do you already know about Britain’s link to America after exploring the slave trade?
You should use the following words in your answer: Middle Passage, plantations, slaves.

TASK ONE: Where did the British Empire begin?

Read the information below. This will help us to understand how the British Empire began. On your worksheet, answer the following questions based on the information:

1) How did Spain benefit from colonising the Americas?
2) What was the name of the first English colony, founded by Sir Walter Raleigh?
3) Why would Britain benefit from growing tobacco in Virginia and exporting it back to Britain?
4) Which two groups of people were forced to move to the American colonies?
5) CHALLENGE – Look at Source B. It shows a drawing of a fort in Jamestown in America. Why might the English have had to construct walls around their new settlement?

How did England colonise North America?

In 1492, Spain’s most famous explorer, Christopher Columbus, made a remarkable discovery for Spain – the Americas. For the next fifty years, Spanish explorers continued to sail to the continent, setting up colonies in many parts of South America, Central America and Florida. This new Spanish Empire was making Spain very rich as it imported huge quantities of gold and silver from its colonies.

Source A: A map of the Spanish Empire at its height. Notice the land it had colonised in South and Central America.

Queen Elizabeth I of England was desperate to see her own British explorers challenge the dominance of Spain, and funded many explorers to claim land in the Americas for her. By the late 1500s, an English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, established a colony on the Atlantic Coast of America he named ‘Virginia’. Many English people settled in Virginia, and began setting up a new life there.

The first successful English colonies: Jamestown and Plymouth

Although Virginia was the first English colony, its success was limited and eventually failed (all of the settlers eventually died, probably of starvation).

Instead, the first successful colony would come in 1607 when English colonists founded Jamestown, a new settlement in Virginia. The colonists discovered a new crop that the native Americans grew very well there: tobacco. Over time, plantations developed and this tobacco was grown on a mass scale by African slaves. By 1621, Virginia was exporting 160,000 kilograms of tobacco per year to Britain.

SOURCE B: A mid-20th century illustration of what James Fort looked like in Jamestown, Virginia. This is probably what the settlement would have looked like in its first few years.

England’s second colony was established thirteen years later in 1620 when English explorers were blown off course to ‘New England’ (Another part of the West coast of North America). This new colony was named Plymouth.

It rapidly became apparent that fishing opportunities in the new colony of Plymouth were very promising. By the 1680s, hundreds of thousands of barrels of dried cod were being sent from New England to Britain.

As more and more money was being made in the new colonies in the Americas, more companies were set up, more ships set sail for America, and more people from Britain chose to journey across the Atlantic for a new life in America.

Yet some of the colonists did not choose whether or not to go to America. Tens of thousands of slaves were sent to the Americas to work on plantations. In addition, around 50,000 convicts (criminals) were sent from Britain to work on cotton plantations in the colonies as a punishment for their crimes.

SOURCE C: The locations of Jamestown and Plymouth on a map of modern America.

TASK TWO: What were the consequences of these colonies?

Look at the two sources below. In your table:
1) Explain what you can learn from this source about the colonies in North America, and;
2) Explain how useful this source it. Make sure you look at who has written the source to help you decide.

SOURCE D: Information from a school textbook, outlining some of the long-term consequences of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies:

– By 1700, over 700,000 people had emigrated from Britain and more colonies were founded.

– Between 1607 and 1732, 13 colonies were established by the British on the North American Atlantic coast

From a KS3 History textbook, Exploring History, written in 2018

SOURCE E: A painting from 1912 showing a Thanksgiving meal between the colonists of Plymouth in 1620 on the coast of America. Notice the native Americans are also sat at the table.

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