How Did the British Empire Begin?

The beginnings of the British Empire can be traced back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the continuing competition for markets and resources which existed between England and the continental countries of France, Spain and Holland. In 1578, Elizabeth I granted Humphrey Gilbert a patent for overseas exploration and discovery. Although he claimed the island of Newfoundland for England in 1583, it was his half-brother Walter Raleigh who established the first overseas colony for England, called Roanoke, in 1584 on the coast of modern-day North Carolina.

The reign of Elizabeth I saw England setting up trading companies in the East Indies, Russia and Turkey while colonies were also being established on the newly explored North American coast. During the early 1600s, these colonies were expanded and the colonization of Ulster in Ireland began. The British Empire then began to grow with the formation of private companies, such as the English East India Company, which was designed to manage the colonies and control overseas trade. This period of time, ending with England’s loss of the American colonies in the American War of Independence, is referred to as the “First British Empire.”

During its height, the British Empire was history’s largest empire and the foremost global power. The empire controlled the affairs of about one-fifth of the world’s population in 1922 and covered almost one-quarter of the world’s land mass.