Topic 2

 The First British Empire



Richard Temple, Lord Cobham,1675-1749


bulletCook, chap. 2
bullet Petition for Iron Making, c1750
bullet Petition against Iron Making, c1750

Notes & Questions

The revolutionary generation's political world was shaped by three related forces:
bulletthe peculiar development and structure of the "First British Empire"
bulletthe theory and practice of Mercantilism
bulletthe structure of politics in Britain and the colonies [subject of Topic 3]


The First British Empire: A term describing the Empire that emerged in the 17th century, peaked in the 18th century, and declined in the Age of Revolutions that ushered in the 19th century. [Look at the BBC site Trade before Empire or Empire before Trade?]
bulletBackground:The plantations of the early 17th century. Economic interest was the principle motive although with the New England colonies religion was also a strong factor. 
bulletCommercial ventures & trading company charters
bulletVirginia and New England
bulletMassachusetts Bay Company Charter, 1629
bulletProprietary charters - Maryland, Caribbean islands
bulletCovenant type settlements in Connecticut and Rhode Island
bulletBy 1650 there were four kinds of colonial structures, illustrating the untidy manner in which the empire emerged
bulletroyal colony
bullettrading company enterprise
bulletproprietary colony
bulletcovenant community
bullet Mercantilism: "Theory & system of political economy in Europe after the decline of feudalism, based on national policies of accumulating bullion, establishing colonies, and a merchant marine, and developing industries and mining to attain a favorable balance of trade." [American Heritage Dictionary]
bulletEmergence of a world market and the policy of mercantilism
bulletNew World gold and silver to Spain in 16th and 17th centuries used to buy products from England, France and Holland 
bullet18th century great increase in global trade and emergence of "world market"
bulletEnglish, French, and Dutch use profits for tea, spices, silks and cotton from
East Asia and India to sell in Europe 
bulletBritish ships carry goods to Africa to trade for slaves and shipped to America
to buy tobacco. The tobacco was sent back to England, processed and sold in Europe for cash. 
bulletSlaves were perhaps the most profitable trade. Click on the thumbnail image and note the slave trade pattern.
bulletTrade enabled England and France to overtake Spain, Portugal and Holland in the 18th century 
bulletEngland and France built profitable empires in the 18th century. 

Mercantilist Economics: From the mid-seventeenth century, the British passed a succession of Navigation Acts and Acts of Trade aimed at the following imperial goals:

bulletColonial shippers must use only British vessels.
bulletCertain products could only be shipped through British ports.
bulletForeign ships trading with the colonies had to stop first at a British port to pay duties.
bulletColonial manufacturing was essentially permitted only for home consumption not export and certain goods were only to be purchased from Britain itself.


bulletRestoration Empire, 1660-1688. With the return of the Stuart monarchy after the Civil War and Cromwell's Commonwealth, London moved to bring more coherence and order to the ramshackle empire, building on some of Cromwell's efforts at mercantile regulation in the 1651Parliamentary Act. Note in this phase the basic importance of commerce and mercantilist ideas 
bulletFirst Navigation Act, 1660: certain colonial staples like sugar and tobacco had to be shipped to England or another British colony. This illustrates the mercantilist principle of "enumerating" certain strategic commodities.
bulletStaple Act, 1663: European goods had to be shipped via England into the colonies. This protected English merchants, giving them a monopoly in supplying manufactured good to colonial markets
bulletColonial export duties: In 1673 Parliament closed a loophole in regulating enumerating  goods. Colonial merchants had been avoiding the Navigation Act by simply stopping at another colonial port before trading their goods outside the empire. The 1673 law established export duties (equivalent to the import duties in England) at the original colonial port. 
bulletThis law required colonial customs officials to collect the export duties.  For the first time a group of imperial office-holders appeared in the colonies.
bulletLords of  Trade (a new agency in England to oversee imperial trade, was established in 1675. It was a committee of the Privy Council. 
bulletThe drive for consolidating imperial authority in the Restoration era produced in the colonies various reactions against some royal governors' use of their power and against the new royal officials in America.
bulletBacon's Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-77
bulletIn Massachusetts & New York, 1688 uprisings against Sir Edmund Andros and the Dominion of New England.


bulletImperial Structure & Policy after the Glorious Revolution, 1688-1714: In this period, which saw England involved  in wars with other European powers, the strategic importance of colonies was added to the traditional economic motivation for Empire.
bullet William and Mary reasserted the policy of imperial regulation
bulletReplaced the Lords of Trade with the Board of Trade, a fifteen-man committee of powerful noblemen and colonial experts. In theory it was to be the central agency for administering colonial affairs.
bulletNavigation Act of 1696: continued the older restrictions and regulations, bolstered by more efficient enforcement such as registration of commercial ships and establishment of vice-admiralty courts in the colonies.
bulletBut William did not move to consolidate imperial power over individual colonies by regularizing their governments. He perpetuated the mixed structures that had existed in the 1670s:
bulletRoyal Colonies [Crown appointed governor and Council]
bulletNew Hampshire
bulletMassachusetts: royal governor but with a council nominated by the Assembly and confirmed by the governor
bulletNew York
bulletNew Jersey 
bulletProprietary Colonies
bulletMaryland (royal  from 1688 to 1715 when the Calvert proprietary rights were restored)
bulletCarolina until divided into North and South Carolina in the 18th century as royal colonies
bulletCorporate Charter Colonies
bulletRhode Island
bulletBy 1714 (the beginning of the Hanoverian dynasty) the First British Empire still had its characteristic contradictions. Its structure did not conform to the consolidated, uniform system suggested by the mercantilist theory of Empire. During the first five decades of the Georgian Age there was a growing division between the theory of empire and the realities of politics in the mother country and its coloniesSee Topic 3.