Birth of a nation

In the second extract from his new book about the British Empire, the author looks at how the English, through procreation, made their colonies flourish and turned entire continents white.

THE BRITISH EMPIRE was the biggest empire ever, bar none. It governed roughly a quarter of the world's population, covered about the same proportion of the earth's land surface and dominated nearly all its oceans. How and why this happened - how an archipelago of rainy islands off the northwest coast of Europe came to rule so much of the world - is one of the fundamental questions of history.

It used to be thought that the British Empire was acquired "in a fit of absence of mind". In reality the expansion of England was far from inadvertent: it was a conscious act of imitation. In the European race for empire the English were late beginners. It was only in 1655, for example, that England acquired Jamaica. At that time the British Empire amounted to little more than a handful of Caribbean islands, five North American "plantations" and a couple of Indian trading ports. In contrast Spain's American empire stretched from Madrid to Manila, encompassing Peru and Mexico, the wealthiest and most populous territories on the American continent. The English were envious, but what they envied most was what the Spanish discovered in America: gold and silver. It was the "great hope of gold (and) silver" that inspired Sir Francis Drake's expedition to South America. The expeditions of Martin Frobisher in 1576, 1577 and 1578 were likewise all in pursuit of precious metals.

It would all have been worthwhile if someone had found the yellow metal. No one did. All Frobisher came home with was one Eskimo; and Sir Walter Raleigh's dream of discovering the "Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guiana" was never fulfilled. As his wife reported, he returned to Plymouth "with as gret honnor as ever man can, but with littell riches". The Queen was unimpressed.

There was only one thing for it: the luckless English would simply have to rob the Spaniards. In the period of recurrent war with Spain from 1585 to 1604, between 100 and 200 ships a year set off to harass Spanish vessels in the Caribbean, and the value of prize money brought back amounted to at least o200,000 a year. This was a complete naval free-for-all, with English "ships of reprisal" also attacking any and every vessel entering or leaving Iberian ports.

From the reign of Elizabeth I onwards, there was a sustained campaign to take over the empires - and the imperial techniques - of others. Having stolen gold from the Spaniards, Britain copied the financial institutions of the Dutch, defeated the French in the scramble for territory and took over the tax system of the Moguls.

Yet commerce and conquest by themselves would not have sufficed to achieve a world-beating empire. There also had to be colonisation. Between the early 1600s and the 1950s, more than 20 million people left the British Isles to begin new lives across the sea. Only a minority returned. No other country in the world came close to exporting so many of its inhabitants. In leaving Britain, the early emigrants risked not merely their life savings, but their very lives. Their voyages were never without hazard; their destinations were often unhealthy and inhospitable. To us, their decision to gamble everything on a one-way ticket seems extraordinary. Yet without millions of such tickets - some purchased voluntarily, some not - there could have been no British Empire. This Britannic exodus changed the world. It literally turned whole continents white. Why?

Little now remains of Jamestown, Virginia. Although it can legitimately be called the first successful British colony in America, for almost ten years Jamestown teetered on the brink of extinction. Malaria, yellow fever and plague meant that by the end of their first year there, only 38 men were left of the original force of more than a hundred.

What saved Virginia was cheap land and a cash crop. As an inducement to attract new settlers the Virginia Company offered 50-acre plots of land at negligible rents in perpetuity. Moreover, a settler received 50 acres for every dependant he brought with him. With the discovery that tobacco could be grown with ease in Virginia's soil, the plantation ceased to be precarious. By 1621, exports of the addictive weed from Virginia had soared to 350,000lb a year.

Yet there was an additional inducement to cross the Atlantic, over and above the profit motive: religious fundamentalism. After breaking with Rome under her father, wholeheartedly embracing the Reformation under her brother, then repudiating it under her sister, England finally settled on a moderately Protestant "middle way" at the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. For the people who came to be known as Puritans, however, the Anglican Establishment was a fudge. When it became clear that James I intended to uphold the Elizabethan order, despite his Scottish Calvinist upbringing, a group of self-styled "Pilgrims" from Scrooby in Nottinghamshire decided that it was time to leave.

On November 9, 1620, the Pilgrims landed on the northern shores of "New England". It is interesting to speculate what New England might have been like if the Pilgrims had been the only people on the Mayflower. After all, they were not just fundamentalist; they were also in a literal sense communists, who intended to own their property and distribute their produce equally. In fact, only around a third of the 149 people aboard were Pilgrims. The rest were more concerned to make good than be godly, and what attracted them to New England was not so much the absence of bishops and other relics of popery, but the presence - in immense quantities - of fish. The coastal waters of New England were simply alive with cod.

One final ingredient made New England flourish: procreation. Unlike European colonists farther south, the New Englanders very quickly began to reproduce, quadrupling their numbers between 1650 and 1700. Indeed, theirs was probably the highest birth rate in the world. Here was a key difference between British America and Latin America. Spanish settlers tended to be solo male encomanderos. Most male Iberian migrants took their sexual partners from the (dwindling) indigenous or (rapidly growing) slave population. The result within a few generations was a mixed-race population of mestizos and mulattos (Hispanic and African). British settlers in North America were not only much more numerous, but they were encouraged to bring their wives and children with them, thus preserving their culture more or less intact. As a consequence, New England really was a new England, far more than Latin America would ever be a new Spain. Tobacco made Virginia rich; but as an imperial money earner, it paled into insignificance alongside sugar. For this reason, the majority of British emigrants in the 17th century went not to America, but to the West Indies. The problem was that mortality on these islands was fearful, particularly during the summer "sickly season". The Portuguese had already demonstrated in Madeira and S

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