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First steps: 1497-1600

England makes tentative first steps towards establishing a presence beyond the ocean in the same decade as Spain and Portugal, the 1490s. In 1497 Henry VII sends John Cabot on an expedition across the Atlantic to look for a trade route to China. The explorer probably reaches Newfoundland, but his journey provides no lasting result (apart from a theoretical claim to Canada, and news of the rich fishing potential in north Atlantic waters).

During the 16th century, when English seamen are honing their skills, Drake and his colleagues find it more profitable to raid the Spanish main as privateers than to go to the expense of transporting colonists across the Atlantic.

The exception is Walter Raleigh, who sponsors two attempts to settle a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now north Carolina. Both are disastrous. The colonists left there in 1585 are soon desperate to return, and are brought back to England by Drake in 1586.

Another group of settlers is brought to the island in 1587, a year which sees the first child born in America to English parents. She is called Virginia Dare (Virginia, in honour of England's virgin queen, is the name given to the colony). But when an English ship next visits the island, in 1590, no trace remains of any member of this pioneering community.

The next attempt to establish English colonies in America comes in 1606, with the founding of two companies for the purpose.

Meanwhile England is also considering a more active role in European adventures to the east. At the very end of the century an initiative is taken which will lead, through the activities of the East India Company, to the longest of Britain's colonial enterprises.

English trade in the east: 17th century

On the last day of the year 1600 Elizabeth I grants a charter to a 'Company of Merchants trading into the East Indies'. Early voyages prove successful; by 1614 the East India Company owns twenty-four ships. But competition with the Dutch in the spice islands leads to violence, culminating in a massacre of English merchants at Amboina by their Dutch rivals in 1623.

This disaster causes the company to concentrate on its interests in India. In 1613 a factory (meaning a secure warehouse for the accumulation of Indian textiles, spices and indigo) has been formally established on the west coast, at Surat. The first English vessel with a cargo of these Indian goods sails from Surat in 1615.

Surat remains the English headquarters on the west coast until it is gradually replaced, between 1672 and 1687, by Bombay (given to Charles II in 1661 as part of the dowry of his Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza, and leased by him to the company in 1668).

Meanwhile the English are establishing secure footholds on the east coast. Fort St George is begun at Madras in 1640 and is completed in 1644. Calcutta is eventually selected, in 1690, as the best site for a trading station in the Ganges delta; it is fortified, as Fort William, in 1696. By the end of the 17th century the three English presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta are securely established.

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