English Empire

The Lion’s Share: A Comparative Look at England’s Trans-Atlantic Empire

Today I’d like to start a series of articles based on an idea I’ve had floating around my head since college. I’m not sure how original this thesis truly is, but I find it interesting nonetheless, and thought it could be a fun way to spend a month or so of research. So, in this series of articles, I’m going to examine the ways the five major colonial powers (England/Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal) went about creating their empires in the New World, and the similarities between their imperial projects in the Americas and the ways in which they went about forming their power-base at home in Europe. In this series of articles, I hope to take a truly Atlantic look at the New World empires that appeared from the 15th-17th centuries. Since this is just a blog, and not a book, I may not be able to give the subject the full breadth of analysis and detail that it deserves, but I hope it’ll be interesting nonetheless.  I’m going to start my series with the English empire and French empire (because, frankly, these are the two I know the most about), and then continue with the Spanish and Dutch empires, before concluding with the Portuguese (because I know almost nothing about Portugal’s Early Modern empire and so, you know, need some extra research time).

But, anyway, without further ado or slightly douchey pontification, I’ll dive into my article on the English empire.

English Empire The Pale
A map of Ireland showing area of English colonization, The Pale

Since the Middle Ages, English kings had claimed sovereignty over Ireland, though in actuality they never really had as much power as they imagined (and centralized authority in the Medieval system of governance, now known as feudalism, was tenuous, at best, anyway). But this claim to authority gave the English monarchy the ability to send English, Welsh, and, eventually, Scottish colonists to colonize the area around Dublin. This area of English colonization was known as the Pale, and became the dividing line between Anglo-Ireland and Gaelic Ireland.

Confronted with a culture completely different from their own, English colonists in Ireland became more and more aware of their “Englishness” and the differences between themselves and the “wild Irish” that lived beyond the Pale (yup, that’s where that phrase comes from).1 And, indeed, the cultures were fairly different. For one, there was the language difference. Most colonists would have spoken that strange mixture of French and German we call English, and the Irish, well, they spoke Irish (also known as Gaelic). But apart from that, the Irish economy was based on a pastoral model, where they raised and shepherded livestock more prominently than they farmed. The English, on the other hand, settled on more fixed plots of land, practicing agriculture that was a mixture of tillage and husbandry.2

The English colonists used these cultural differences as a means of subjugating the Irish and taking control of more and more of their land. Indeed, the Irish who lived within the Pale were often referred to as “mere Irish,” and, beginning in the fourteenth-century, were treated unequally before the law.3 In fact, “the killing of an Irishman was not a felony at law, although, compensation might be due to his lord.”4

As time wore on, the English colonists and nobility who settled outside of the Pale became ‘gaelicized,’ i.e. more Irish than English. But within the Pale, the English retained their firm sense of ethnic identity, which they continued to contrast against the Irish beyond their walls. Under the Tudor dynasty, however, the English empire decided to ‘re-conquer’ Ireland, and attempt to reverse the slow trend of decreasing English influence and power in the land of Eire. The penultimate Tudor monarch, King Henry VIII (you know, that guy who kept killing his wives), claimed he had a right to all of Ireland, not just the Pale, which had been won through conquest.5

As part of this revamped effort to take all of Ireland, the English once again began punishing the Irish for not following English law. Mostly, this took the form of re-enacting old laws or statutes that had long laid dormant or been forgotten. This, most prominently, meant breathing some life back into the Statutes of Kilkenny, originally passed in 1366, that attempted to codify the ethic differences between the English and Irish. According to the Statutes, English persons could not: marry an Irish person, adopt an Irish child, use an Irish name, wear Irish clothes, play Irish music, listen to Irish story-tellers, play Irish games, let an Irish person join an English religious house, or appoint any Irish clergyman to any church in the English settlement.6 One notable law left out of the new version of the Statutes was the proscription of speaking the Gaelic language.7

Such attempts by the English empire to exacerbate the differences between themselves and those they wished to conquer seemed to have an effect on the ground. As you can imagine, any conquest comes with conflict of arms. And though we typically imagine old timey Europeans fighting it out with chivalry, the English, thanks to their ever-present, and still growing, sense of ethnic superiority over the Irish, by-and-large threw conscience to the wind. Indeed, the view of colonists was “that the Gaelic people were not the king’s natural subjects but a servile population which had usurped lands rightfully held by Englishmen… The Gaelic population was thus denied the rights, liberties, and legal protection of Englishmen; their lands and property could be seized for the crown…”8 Ain’t that some shit?! Imagine someone coming to your house and saying, ‘Our king says this is ours, so you’ve gotta get the hell out our we can legally kill you.’

Despite this tendency by many colonists of the English empire to treat the Irish as something lesser-than, others still saw the benefits of trying to assimilate the Irish into Englishmen. As the power of the English empire spread across the island in the sixteenth-century, rewards of land and legal rights were offered to any Irish who took on English ways.

By 1603, all of Gaelic Ireland was conquered and ceased to be an independent polity. By slowly encroaching on Irish lands, using English law as an excuse to take land from Gaelic lords, creating a defined sense of us vs them that allowed for ethnic persecution, and through an effort at assimilation, the English had added Ireland to their domain and another jewel in the monarch’s crown.  

To America! In this section, I’d like to focus on two early hubs of the English empire’s colonization efforts in the New World: Virginia, around the James River, and Connecticut and the factors that led the start of King Philip’s War.

So, if you lived in the ‘90s, you probably saw the Pocahontas movie, and so have probably heard of John Smith. While that movie in no way depicted the real John Smith, he did indeed lead the early English colonies on the James River in Virginia. And much like his predecessors and contemporaries who colonized Ireland, Smith felt the country he was attempting to fill with English men and women was inhabited by “very barbarous” people.9 In the Powhatan Nation, and their surrounding allies, the English found a people whose lifestyle, spiritual beliefs, laws, and speech were different from anything encountered on the isle of Bretagne (or, indeed, anywhere in Europe). Much like the Irish, the Native nations of Virginia were not dependent upon agriculture and husbandry for their resources. Like most nations north of the Rio Grande, the Powhatans relied upon seasonal hunting to augment their diet with meat and protein. That’s not to say that they weren’t agriculturalists; they were, in fact, expert farmers.

Powhatan Village; English Empire
An illustration of what a Powahatan village may have looked like

But, to the English eye, as Smith makes plain, this style of living seemed ludicrous, and ‘savage.’ In one of his writings on the early days of the Virginia colony, Smith states, “we found only an idle, improvident, scattered people, ignorant of the knowledge of gold, or silver, or any commodities; and careless of anything but from hand to mouth, but for baubles of no worth; nothing to encourage us but what accidentally we found nature afforded.”10 As English notions of wealth were based upon land ownership and agricultural production from that land, they sought to spread out from their original settlement, and make use of the land the ‘idle’ Powhatans left ‘untended.’ Though this was a completely false conception of the Powhatans and their system of economic production, this philosophy proved to be the English settlers’ guiding philosophy throughout their colonization of Virginia.

Over the ensuing years, as the English colony at Jamestown began to prosper, more and more Native land was ‘granted’ to the colonists by the governors of the colony and the king back home. Expanding out from their original settlement, colonists felled trees and cleared land in order to expose the arable soil and increase their cultivation efforts, especially of tobacco.11 But, as tobacco is rather harsh on soil, the more tobacco the English planted, the more often they needed to expand out into Native land. This led to increasing conflicts with the Powhatans, as the English encroached on their farming and hunting lands, threatening their economic means of production. During Powhatan’s life, he and his daughter Pocahontas were able to keep the peace, for the most part. But after the great leader’s death, shit hit the fan, and, unfortunately, the Powhatans proved unable to permanently stem the tide of English incursion.    

Farther north, much the same story unfolded.

The English settlement of Plymouth, founded by those oh so famous Puritans, began on the coast of what is now Connecticut. However, as was so prototypical of old timey English folk, the Plymouth colonists began to branch out into Native territory, namely the Narragansett and Wampanoag Nations. Much like the Powhatans, and indeed several other Native Nations up and down the east coast, the Narragansett and Wampanoags depended on a mixture of hunting and cultivation as their main means of economic production. But as Plymouth colonists expanded further and further afield, not only did the English pose a threat to Native lands and crops, but, famously, so too did their cattle and pigs.

Indeed, English livestock proved one of the biggest points of friction between them and their neighbors. Allowing their cows, pigs, and whatever else to roam free in search of pasture, these animals often times ended up in Native fields, eating and trampling their crops, effectively destroying the food they depended on to get them through the winter.12 Fed up with this neglect, a few Wampanoag men killed some English cattle that had come too close to their village. After hearing their livestock had been killed, the English governor of Connecticut demanded the Wampanoag disarm themselves.13 Thus, much like we saw in Ireland, English colonists attempted to subject a native population, who lay completely outside of English jurisdiction, to English law. In another telling event, the Plymouth governor, Josiah Winslow, had a Wampanoag man named Wamsutta arrested for breaking Plymouth law and selling land to a colonist. But, again, Wamsutta and his people were, in no real sense, subject to English law.

In an attempt to not get into a retelling of one of the bloodiest wars to ever to unfold on American soil, I will simply say that, tired of English abuses, a coalition of Native nations led by the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet (aka King Philip), went to war against the English colonists of New England. Ultimately, the allied-nations were defeated by the English, leading the colonists to claim the majority of southern Connecticut for themselves, by right of the conquest.

I know this post went a little long, but this subject is a fascinating one. As I hope I’ve shown, several similarities exist in the ways the English empire went about colonizing and conquering both Ireland and wide tracts of the New World. In both cases, they came first as colonizers, settling on small plots of land. But as time went on, their increased need and desire for land brought them into conflict with the native populations, who they attempted to subject to English law. And, ultimately, after bloody wars, the English empire claimed colonies on both sides of the Atlantic by the right of conquest.

Sources on the English Empire

  1. Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630, by J.S. Connolly (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 46
  2. Ibid, 29.
  3. Ibid, 46.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Steven G. Ellis, Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community, and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1603, (New York: Longman, 1985), 139.
  6. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statute_of_Kilkenny
  7. Ellis, Tudor Ireland, 79.
  8. Ibid, 111.
  9. Travels and World of Captain John Smith, Vol. 1: President of Virginia, and Admiral of New England, 1580-1631, John Smith, ed. Edward Arber, lxix.
  10. Ibid, 148.
  11. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/colonial/indians/
  12. http://www.historynet.com/blood-and-betrayal-king-philips-war.html
  13. Ibid.

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  1. I just found your blog Jordan. I appreciate the effort and really enjoyed reading this installment. I can’t wait to read through the rest of your work here. I never liked my history classes and instructors but have always loved history….go figure.

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