2. North America

Like many other parts of the empire, British dominion in North America began as a series of small scale, private enterprise initiatives. Competition with other European nationals inevitably led to more protection, control and direction by British monarchs and their government in London. North America became Britain’s first large colonial empire, home to large numbers of people originating from Britain, and it contributed to the rapid growth of British power in the eighteenth century. The bitter war leading to American Independence left Britain with colonies containing mixed Anglo-French populations bordering the United States to the north and significant numbers of First Nation peoples in the lands acquired as they spread westward.

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1492 The New World is revealed to Columbus’s expedition, financed by King Ferdinand of Castile and Queen Isabella of Aragon, whose unitary rule effectively created the new state of Spain.

1493 The organisation of the new lands is soon established by a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI. Ferdinand and Isabella are eventually given possession of all lands beyond a line 370 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde islands. A virtual monopoly on the lands east of the line, including the route around Africa to the rich lands of the East Indies, remains in the hands of Spain’s maritime competitor, Portugal. North of the Azores the seas are open to other European nations. By this agreement, Portugal is able to claim Brazil in South America. Spain quickly overcomes the indigenous polities in Central/South America and establishes colonial settlements, accumulating vast wealth in the process. For a time no other European country is able to challenge the closed Spanish hegemony in the lands in and around the warm water Caribbean Sea.

1497 Henry VII and English merchants help finance John Cabot’s voyage of discovery to discover a North West passage to India and Cathay (China), thus avoiding the Spanish control of a more southerly route. They land in New Found Land, whose precise location is now not known. Cabot recorded that the seas teemed with fish.

1508/9 Sebastian Cabot son of John, completes the second of two exploratory voyages, during which he appears to have surveyed the coast from close to Hudson’s Bay to perhaps as far south as the Chesapeake Bay. However, the new king Henry VIII had little interest in further exploration of the American landmass.

1517 Spain contracts an Asiento de Negros with European traders to deliver African slaves to the American colonies. The slave trade soon becomes dominated by the Portuguese, who control the West African coast.

1562 Sir John Hawkins takes 300 African slaves from Portuguese traders and sells them in the Spanish American colonies in Hispaniola.

1564 Hawkins’ second slaving voyage, supported by Queen Elizabeth I, takes more slaves from West Africa and sells them to Spanish settlements in Venezuela and Curacao.

1567 Hawkins is accompanied by his nephew Francis Drake on his 3rd slaving voyage, but Portuguese authorities in Africa and Spanish authorities in the Caribbean prove hostile. His fleet is attacked at anchor in San Juan d’Ulua in Mexico. Four out of six ships are lost. Hawkins and Drake return to England, having lost crews and their human merchandise.

1576 Martin Frobisher explores the North West Passage.

1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert claims Newfoundland for the Crown but no permanent settlement is established.

The American Colonies

1585 An attempt by Sir Walter Raleigh to colonise Roanoke Island, off the coast of present day North Carolina fails.

1587 A second attempt to settle on Roanoke fails. The Spanish Armada event of the following year prevents attempts to re-supply the settlers and they have all disappeared by the time relief is sent in 1590.

1607 A Colony is established at Jamestown by the chartered Virginia Company of London.

The Popham colony in present day Maine, established the same year by the Plymouth Company of London, is disbanded the following year.

1619 More than twenty African slaves are sold in Jamestown, establishing the practice of slavery in the American colonies.

1620 The Plymouth colony is established by the separatist religious sect remembered as the Pilgrim Fathers, who arrived aboard the Mayflower.

1624 The Virginia Company is dissolved and Virginia becomes a self-governing Crown colony, following a massacre of the settlers by the indigenous population.

1630 The Massachusetts Bay colony is established around Boston with a resident board of Puritan governors headed by John Winthrop. The board is free of London’s oversight. The entire region becomes known as New England.

1632 Charles I grants land for the colony of Maryland with religious freedom for Catholics.

1636 Roger Williams, exiled from Boston, founds the Provident Plantation which develops into the colony of Rhode Island.

1637 Dissident colonists led by Puritan minister Thomas Hooker establish a settlement on the Connecticut River which becomes a separate colony.

1651 The First Navigation Act bans British possessions from trading with foreign ships or markets. It encourages the development of an English merchant fleet and contributes to the outbreak of the First Dutch War.

1663 Charles II grants land for the new colony of Carolina, south of Virginia.

1665 New Amsterdam is surrendered by Dutch settlers and becomes an English colony named New York in honour of James Duke of York brother to King Charles II. West of the Hudson River, the previously Dutch settlements become the separate colony of New Jersey.

1673 The Dutch briefly retake New York but finally cede the colony to England the next year.

1679 New Hampshire separates from Massachusetts and becomes a separate colony, although the two remained close through various constitutional realignments until 1741.

1681 the colony of Pennsylvania, between Maryland and New Jersey/New York, is founded by the Quaker William Penn.

1691 Plymouth merges with Boston and others to form the colony of Massachusetts Bay.

1701 The ‘Three Lower Counties’ of Pennsylvania become a separate colony named Delaware. The two colonies share the same governor.

1729 Carolina is divided into the two colonies of North and South Carolina.

1732 James Oglethorpe founds the colony of Georgia for settlement by poor Londoners and tries to ensure it remains free of slavery.

1749 France controls the entrance to the St Laurence and Mississippi rivers and the Great Lakes and constructs Fort Duquesne in the Ohio valley to cut off English colonies’ access to the Mississippi and Mid-West.

1755 Battle of the Wilderness begins the American French and Indian War, a side-shoot of the Seven Years War between Britain and France. General Braddock attempts to take Fort Duquesne but is fatally injured and his burial is organised by Colonel George Washington, who guides the defeated British force back to safety.

1755-63 British expulsion of French Acadians from the maritime regions of Canada lead to establishment of the Cajun culture in French Louisiana.

1763 The Treaty of Paris ends the Seven Years War. French colonisation in America is restricted to Louisiana west of the Mississippi. Britain gains sovereignty over French Canada. Britain is also awarded the area east of the Mississippi to the Appalachian mountain range. She also for a time takes over the Spanish colony of East Florida.

1764 A Sugar Tax replaces the Molasses Tax. The American colonies regard it as an example of British mercantile policy undermining their own economic needs, whilst continuing to favour the Caribbean sugar lobby.

1765 the British government, attempting to pay off debt arising from the war, levies a Stamp Act on all legal documents and printed materials in the colonies, the first internal tax levied in the colonies by Britain.

1766 Most collectors of the stamp tax resign in the face of violent disapproval. The Stamp Act is repealed, but Britain asserts the parliamentary right to legislate for the colonies.

1767 The Townshend Acts impose taxes on goods imported into the American colonies.

1768 Colonists begin to boycott British goods. More than 2000 British troops are sent to Boston to enforce the acts.

1770 The Townshend duties are withdrawn, except for tea, which the colonists continue to boycott, choosing to buy the smuggled Dutch East Indies Company product instead.

1774 The ‘Boston Tea Party’. The government removes duty from tea supplied by the British East India Company, whose warehouses are full of unsold tea, and imposes a tax on it when it arrived in colonial ports. Colonists storm East India Company ships and pour their cargo of tea into the sea.

The British government passes the Coercive Acts (known in America as the Intolerable Acts). Boston harbour is closed and the Massachusetts constitution is suspended, legal proceedings are transferred to British-administered courts and British troops are quartered in colonial houses.

The First Continental Congress is held in Philadelphia. All 13 states except Georgia attend. Joint moves to oppose British tyranny are agreed.

1775 the War of American Independence begins with skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The rebel Continental Army is established, commander in chief George Washington.

1776 The Declaration of Independence is adopted by the Continental Congress.

1777 A British army led by General Burgoyne surrenders at Saratoga New York – a turning point for the revolution.

1778 France recognises the United States of America and the British Navigation Acts are violated by a trade agreement between the two countries. Britain declares war on France.

1779 Spain joins the Franco-American alliance, hoping to regain possession of Gibraltar.

1780 The Dutch Republic declares war when the Royal Navy seizes a Dutch vessel.

1781 Battle of the Chesapeake. A French fleet defeats Royal Navy attempt to relieve Yorktown, Virginia, where the British army led by Lord Cornwallis is besieged and eventually it is forced to surrender.

1783 The Treaty of Paris. Britain recognises the United States of America.


1609 The Sea Venture bound for Jamestown, Virginia, is shipwrecked on Bermuda and it becomes part of the Virginia colony with a permanent settlement.

1615 The island is transferred to the Somers Isles Company.

1616 African slaves are employed – the first Africans in a British colony. However, indentured servants, tenant husbandry men and vagrants from England reduce the dependence on black slaves.

1649 Following the king’s execution, puritans are ejected from Bermuda and settle in the Bahamas, but most are allowed to return in 1656.

c 1680 Bermudans begin to harvest salt in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

1684 The Somers Company is wound up and Bermuda becomes a Crown colony.

1915 White and a black military units are sent to France and engage in hostilities during the Great War.

1941 A 99 year lease gives the United States authority to build bases on Bermuda.

1995 Nearly 75% of those voting in a referendum reject independence. US bases are closed.

2002 The islands become a self-governing British Overseas Territory which grants full British citizenship to Bermudians.

Newfoundland and Labrador

1497 John Cabot explores the North American coast and lands at ‘New Found Land’.

1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert claims Newfoundland for the Crown but no permanent settlement is established.

1585 Sir Bernard Drake (no relation to Frances), on a privateering expedition, captures Spanish and Portuguese fishing boats at the Grand Banks, Newfoundland, as well as other prizes around the Azores.

1610 European settlement is limited to short periods for purposes of fishing and hunting until a first attempt at a permanent settlement is made by English settlers, which ultimately fails.

1662 A French settlement is established at Placentia. Potentially a threat to the scattered English settlers and business on the island.

1713 The Treaty of Utrecht. France leaves Placentia and recognises English sovereignty over Newfoundland with its capital at St Johns.

1763 The coast of Labrador is added to the Newfoundland territories.

1824/5 Newfoundland becomes a British colony.

1832 An elected House of Assembly is instituted.

1855 Self-government is instituted with an elected executive.

1869 Newfoundland votes against joining the Confederation of Canada.

1914-18 Newfoundland sends troops to fight in the Great War.

1927 The land border of Labrador with Quebec is settled by Privy Council edict.

1934 Newfoundland is bankrupt and Britain resumes direct governmental control.

1948 Britain supervises constitutional choices with many citizens opposing union with Canada, but a second referendum decides by a majority of 52.3% to join the Dominion of Canada.


1535 Jacques Cartier explores the St Laurence and claims the land in the name of King Francis I of France, and calls it Canada. Fur trappers and traders continue to explore inland to the Great Lakes and beyond.

1604 French explorer Samuel de Champlain claim lands south of the St Laurence as Acadia. Port Royal becomes the first French settlement in North America.

1608 De Champlain founds Quebec City.

1611 Henry Hudson discovers Hudson Bay in a search for the North West Passage to Cathay. His crew mutiny and he is set adrift in a small boat with his son and seven others, never to be seen again.

1622 A chartered Scottish settlement is attempted at Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal), Nova Scotia, which is also claimed as part of French Acadia.

1627 Cardinal Richelieu institutes the Company of New France to settle and have a trade monopoly with French Canada and Acadia

1629 An English fleet commanded by David Kirke seizes Quebec and takes control of New France (Quebec, Acadia and Cape Breton).

1632 Treaty of Saint-Germain. Quebec and the Scottish colony of Nova Scotia is returned to France as part of Acadia.

1668 Backed by Prince Rupert, two Frenchmen establish the Rupert House Fort in Hudson Bay and return to London with a profitable cargo of furs.

1670 Charles II grants a charter to the Hudson Bay Company with a monopoly on fur trade in Rupert’s Land.

1686 A French overland expedition captures the Hudson Bay Company forts.

1710 The British capture Port Royal, capital of French Acadia.

1713 The Treaty of Utrecht. France gives up all claims to Hudson Bay and Acadia. Nova Scotia becomes a British colony with capital at Halifax and a majority of French-speaking Catholic inhabitants.

1755-63 French-speaking Acadian inhabitants are expelled from Nova Scotia.

1758 The French fortress of Louisburg, commanding the approaches to the St Laurence on Cape Breton Island, is taken by British General Jeffery Amherst.

1759 General Wolf dies as his troops take Quebec, the French capital in Canada, New France.

1763 Treaty of Paris. All of New France is ceded to Britain except for fishing rights and small islands off Newfoundland.

1769 St John’s Island, later known as Prince Edward Island, separates from Nova Scotia and becomes a separate colony.

1774 The Quebec Act allows Catholics to hold public office; the governor is to be advised by an appointed council. Civil Law is to be French but the criminal law is English. The French language and Roman Catholic Church are recognised.

1778 Captain James Cook claims Vancouver Island on the west coast of the North American mainland for Britain.

1779 The North West Company begins trading furs further west and becomes a serious competitor with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

1784 the western part of Nova Scotia is separated off as the province of New Brunswick, which becomes home to many dispossessed Loyalists, including black ex-slaves, from New England when the American War of Independence ends. Maine territory becomes part of Massachusetts State and part of Quebec south of the Great Lakes is also ceded to the USA.

1790 Quebec is split into Upper and Lower Canada. The latter retains French law and language whilst the latter, to the west, supports British language, laws and customs.

1793 Alexander Mackenzie explores for the North West Company, completing the first continental crossing of North America north of Mexico,

1794 The Spanish fort and settlement on Vancouver Island are dismantled leaving British sovereignty unquestioned.

1812 The United States invades Upper Canada but finds little support from the French-speaking and First Nation tribes.

1818 The border with USA is agreed as the 49th line of latitude to the Rocky Mountains.

1821 The North West Company merges with the Hudson Bay Company. The Company controls 3 million square miles and 173 trading posts west and north of the Great Lakes.

1837/8 Rebellions in Upper Canada and Francophone Lower Canada are suppressed during a severe economic recession. As well as expressing nationalist tensions, both sets of rebels seek greater democratic rights against the governor and his unelected close advisors.

1839 The Durham Report on the Affairs of British North America recommends uniting Upper and Lower Canada into a single Province with a measure of self-rule and a Supreme Court.

1843 The Hudson Bay Company establishes a fur trading post on Vancouver Island.

1846 The Oregon Treaty with the United States agrees 49 N latitude as the US Canadian border in the west with deviation to allow Vancouver to remain British.

1848 Nova Scotia becomes the first colony in the British Empire to achieve self-government.

1849 Vancouver Island becomes a Crown colony.

1851 St Edward Island becomes self-governing.

1858 Thousand of prospectors, hearing rumours of gold, move to inland New Caledonia, an area on the mainland opposite Vancouver. The region is declared a Crown colony and named British Columbia.

1866 the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia amalgamate.

1867 Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Lower and Upper Canada Provinces (Ontario and Quebec) form the Confederation of Canada.

1870 Manitoba with its capital at Winnipeg becomes a province of the Confederation of Canada. The North West Territory also joins the Confederation.

1871 British Columbia/Vancouver joins the Canadian Confederation.

1873 Prince Edward Island joins the Canadian Confederation. The North West Mounted Police Force is formed to help reduce tensions with the United States and some of the First Nations.

1905 Saskatchewan and Alberta join the Canadian Confederation.

1914 Canada enters the Great War as a member of the British Empire.

1931 The Statute of Westminster affirms Canadian independence.

1949 Newfoundland joins the Canadian Confederation.

1960 First Nation peoples win the right to vote in federal elections without giving up their treaty rights.

1982 Canada achieves complete independence from the UK.


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