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British Empire

First British Empire

The landing of the Pilgrims from the Mayflower in 1620The landing of the Pilgrims from the Mayflower in 1620The discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, together with Portuguese voyages around the coast of Africa opening up trade with East Asia, began the era of European colonization of lands overseas. England trailed behind the other European powers—Portugal, Spain and France—in establishing colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas in the 16th century. The British Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of North America and Caribbean islands. This period, lasting until the loss of the Thirteen Colonies following defeat in the American War of Independence (conceded in 1783), is sometimes called the "First British Empire".

Map of English and Scottish plantations in IrelandMap of English and Scottish plantations in Ireland

Plantations in Ireland

England's colonial ambitions lay closer to home in the 16th century. Ever since the Norman invasions of Ireland in the 12th century, English monarchs had been lords of Ireland. In 1541 King Henry VIII strengthened English control and made himself king of Ireland. English settlers (called "planters") were then given tracts of land (plantations) in Offaly and Laois, while Scots settlers moved into northern Ireland. The English and Scots, however, were now Protestant, while Ireland had remained overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Protestant plantations continued to expand throughout the 1600s, despite a series of Irish Catholic rebellions.

A replica of John Cabot's shipA replica of John Cabot's ship

North America

The term "British Empire" was first coined by John Dee (1527–1608/9), an Anglo-Welsh mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. An expert in navigation, he trained many English naval adventurers who went on voyages of discovery. He believed England would gain strength through imperial expansion into the New World—and that England's claim to it was stronger than that of Spain because a Welshman, Madoc, had discovered America centuries before Columbus.

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