The first British Empire: 1497-1763

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh

Between 1497 and 1763, English seamen discovered new lands, set up colonies and traded all over the world.

  • In 1497, only five years after Christopher Columbus sailed to the West Indies, the Italian explorer John Cabot, financed by English merchants, discovered new lands in Canada.
  • The first English colonies were formed in north America - in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh organised a small settlement at Roanoke in Virginia, but it failed and in 1607, Captain John Smith founded a permanent colony at Jamestown in Virginia.
  • After 1612, the East India Company began to build up a small empire of trading posts in India.
  • The first successful English colonies in the West Indies were founded in the 1620s. The settlers set up sugar and tobacco plantations and used slave labour.
  • In 1664, the English took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland, which included the state of New Amsterdam. The English renamed this New York. The English also took over New Sweden (which is now called Delaware). Florida became a British colony in 1763.

Fighting the French and gaining control of India

In the 18th century, Britain fought a number of wars against France, taking over colonies established by the French:

  • in 1713, the British took over the French colony of Acadia (New France in northeastern North America)
  • victories by Robert Clive, including the Battle of Plassey in 1757, drove out the French and established British control in India
  • during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) the British won Canada from the French with a notable victory coming from General James Wolfe's capture of Quebec in 1759

The Battle of Plassey

The Seven Years’ War 1756-1763

The Seven Years’ War lasted between 1756 and 1763 and showed just how far Britain was prepared to go in order to protect its colonial interests.

England and France had been involved in small conflicts over territories for many years, going back to the British control of Calais in the Middle Ages. In 1756, Britain declared war on France over a conflict over French expansion in America by the Ohio River Valley. British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Older, funded the British colonies in America to raise armies against the French.

By 1783, at the Treaty of Paris, Britain gained a number of new colonies in North and Central America: Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Tobago.

The British victory was significant as it resulted in an angry France supporting America in the War of Independence just over a decade later.