The above statement can neither be fully validated nor invalidated. First of all, “madness” is not the word to describe the founding of Britain?s colonies in North America, for it is a word that connotes a wildly foolish or rash act. This was not the case. The founding of Britain?s colonies in North America was in fact extremely calculated and founded for one particularly very good reason: economic profit. Britain?s ideas and methods involving colonization were really very sensible, logical, and practical. However, Britain never thought about the consequences of certain actions they took and their treatment towards the colonies. Britain was unprepared to deal with the disgruntled colonials, and because of their inability to foresee the events and new attitudes that were to ultimately follow, the British colonies can then be looked at as being “founded in a fit of madness.” This paper will discuss the reasons for the founding of the British colonies from Britain?s view and the colonial view as well as the colonies? successes and failures. It will also attempt to explain what exactly happened to the colonies and how attitudes and opinions changed.
England?s first attempt to colonize North America came in the 1580s with the founding of the colony at Roanoke off the Virginian coast. The colony proved to be a complete failure, having virtually and mysteriously “disappeared.” The failure of Roanoke was due in large part to the settler?s unpreparedness as well as the lack of funds given to the colony. However, as well financed as Roanoke originally was, it still was not enough and “financially strapped monarchs?would not throw good money after bad into America” (Boyer 43). Despite initial failure, the desire to colonize continued, thus another source of financial backing was needed to continue colonization. “But neither the English Crown nor Parliament would agree to spend money on the colonies, and Roanoke?s failure had proved that private fortunes were inadequate to finance successful settlements” (44). Therefore, the English government left it up to joint-stock companies to raise the necessary funds for settlement through the sale of stock to the public. In this way, Britain could earn tremendous profits with limited risks without becoming too involved and without spending large amounts of money.
In 1606 King James I granted charters to two separate joint-stock companies; the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, whose reasons for establishment were to “exploit North American resources.” The Virginia Company of London received an area of land from Cape Fear to the Hudson River and The Virginia Company of Plymouth received land extending from the Potomac River to present-day Maine. In this venture “the colonists would be business employees, not citizens of a separate political jurisdiction, and the stockholders of each company would regulate their behaviour”(44). By 1608, The Virginia Company of Plymouth had already abandoned their attempt to colonize and went back home to England. However, The Virginia Company of London had succeeded in setting up the first permanent English settlement in North America, Jamestown.
Jamestown, was not initially a success. Problems plagued the colony such as mismanagement and death. By 1616, the colony had not even produced profit for the investors. However, in 1919 tobacco had emerged as a major cash crop and settlers began pouring in and increased steps were taken in order to “attract labour and capital.” However prosperous Virginia seemed to becoming, they faced corrupt leadership, disease, and unfriendly Indians. A series of Indian conflicts eventually left the Virginia Company bankrupt and James I concerned about the company?s management. In 1624, the charter was revoked and control was passed to the Crown, making Virginia a royal colony.
Another colony to be set up for economic purposes was the colony at Plymouth. In 1620 The Virginia Company of London gave a patent to some London merchants to colonize the Massachusetts area. The arrangement was that the settlers had to promise to send lumber, furs, and fish back to England for profit by the investors, but after seven years the settlers would own the land. The reasoning behind the settlement of Plymouth, too, was economically motivated. However, this view, as well as with Jamestown, was a British one. Individuals ventured to North America for myriad reasons, some having not the slightest to do with financial gain.
Over half the settlers that came to Plymouth belonged to a religious group called the Puritan Separatists. Their reason for leaving England and coming to North America was to secure separation from the Church of England. This group of extremely devout settlers “set out to build a ?city upon a hill? (as described by John Winthrop) intended to provide a model of godly living for the world” (Sitkoff 2). As not being Crown favourites, they were given northern territory, which was thought to be potentially less profitable. However, the Puritans quickly prospered after initial hardships “by imposing stern disciplines on themselves” (Boyer 50). And between the years 1629 and 1642 the “Great Puritan Migration” occurred, in which over 16,000 Puritans settled in the area of Massachusetts. Over time, trading, shipping, lumbering, and fishing developed into major industries for the New England region. The basic values that the Puritans brought with them shaped this area. They “believed in hard work, which is one of the reasons why New England was so productive” (jonnaro) and also in family living. Because of this belief in family, towns and cities grew and money was spent, thus enriching the colony.
People came to Virginia, and generally the South (which included the Carolinas) for completely different reasons. The South was the major economic force behind colonial America. People generally went there looking for money, usually never finding it, and did not bring their families. “Without families, the seekers could focus more on economic issues, making money and working hard” (prototype). 70% of migrants to this area arrived as indentured servants. Most were young, unmarried men who came here with quixotic dreams of success and wealth. Stories of success in the South?s rich farm market of tobacco, rice, indigo, and other cash crops “lured many who had little chance for riches in the land of their birth, although the majority of indentureds never joined the colonial social elite once their debt of labor was paid”(prototype). In fact, most never even paid their debts because they died of various diseases. Because of the situation there, the development of society there and its future were grim, “for no complex social and economic institutions needed to develop to meet the needs of the single laboring men, many of whom died young” (prototype). This is in major contrast to the Northern colonies where settlement as an investment was not the sole purpose for the founding of the colony. On the other hand, the people who came to the South came for two very big reasons, both economic in nature: poverty and the search for work. These people came at a time when they could not find work in there homeland of Britain, thus they “went out on a big limb” putting their utmost faith in the opportunities that may, and may not have awaited them across the Atlantic. To the poor English, North America seemed to become “a land of opportunity” ( Sitkoff 3).
Other colonies, too, were set up. These included New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Middle Colonies, also known as the Restoration Colonies, were an important asset to Britain due to its major population and healthy economy that included shipbuilding, ironworks, trading/shipping, and lumbering. The Middle Colonies carried with them a very diversified population, consisting of a mix of different religions, as well as ethnic backgrounds. Within this area there were Quakers, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterians, Dutch, Swedes, British, etc. The combining of these peoples, however, also began to shape the new identities that were beginning to emerge in North America.
Despite the economic successes Britain had gained, She was slowly losing her colonies. This loss had been happening since the founding of Jamestown and had slowly been growing. This “loss” is apparent in the foundings of self-government. The London Company, in all reality was too far away to effectively govern its colonies, being 3000 miles and six weeks away. In order for the colony to survive some kind of government was needed, thus the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first representative assembly, was formed in 1619. Massachusetts and Maryland soon followed in 1630 and 1632, respectively, thus “self-government was rooted in the colonies from the very beginning”(Noble 1). The Puritan?s especially, “helped inspire the American vision of sturdy, self-reliant, God-fearing folk across the Atlantic to govern themselves freely” (50).
Britain, being a mercantilist nation, “viewed all of its colonial extremities as a means for increasing the nation?s wealth” (1). To increase profits gained from the colonies Britain issued several acts, including The Navigation Acts (1660), which required the British colonies to only trade with Britain. “This was one of the first steps the British took in driving a wedge between the colonies and the motherland” (1). Another involved Britain?s attempt to interrupt the “Triangular Trade.” New England counted on molasses imported from the West Indies, however, only a small amount could be supplied, and it wasn?t enough to keep the trade going. Therefore, New England merchants began buying large quantities of molasses from the Dutch and the French. In 1733 Parliament passed the Molasses Act that put a heavy tax on any molasses imported from the Dutch or French holdings in the West Indies. This act, however, was ignored on a grand scale, and customs officials were easily bribed, thus the Triangular Trade continued.
This “use and abuse” of the colonies was heavily resented by the colonials. Along with this mistreatment as well as the formation of self-government and of new identities, Britain began to lose grasp of her North American possessions. The colonials gradually began to become agitated by Britain?s all too late attempts to control them. What the colonials found in North America was a new way of thinking, a new individuality and independent thought away from the British. They were, if not in fact, but in mind, no longer Brits, they had formed their own sovereign identity. This was the beginning of the “road to Revolution, ” this was the beginning of where this nation was going and what it was to become. This is what Britain failed to see, until it was too late.
Therefore, if you ask me if the British colonies in North America were founded in a fit of madness, the answer is no AND yes. Britain accomplished what it set out to do, make money, however brief a time it may have lasted. It was their inability to see the future of things and the outcome of their dealings with the colonies that in the end, resulted in failure.