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The building of the Empire

The growth of the British Empire was at first the result of competition among European nations, especially Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands, for new areas in which to trade and new sources of raw materials. Explorers visited the Americas and the Far East, and in the 16th century trading companies, such as the Dutch and English East India Companies, were set up. Many colonies (= places taken over by a foreign country and settled by people from that country) began as trading centres, or were founded to protect a trade route, and were run for the profit of the mother country. Some colonies were founded by people trying to make a new life for themselves, others were originally penal colonies (= places where people were sent as a punishment).

Britain gained its first foreign possessions in the late 15th century. Newfoundland, now part of Canada, was claimed for England in 1497. Canada itself was won in 1763 after war with the French. During the 17th and 18th centuries colonies were established on the east coast of North America, including Plymouth Colony founded by the Pilgrim Fathers. In the 1770s people in the American colonies became angry with Britain, mainly because of taxes they had to pay. This resulted in the American Revolution and later the independence of the United States.

The wealthiest area in the early days of empire was the West Indies because of money made from sugar cane and tobacco. Britain's colonies included Barbados, Antigua and Montserrat and Jamaica. Later, other islands were added. Slaves were brought to the West Indies from Africa to work in the plantations. The slave trade was abolished (=ended) in the British Empire in 1807, though slavery did not end in the West Indies until 1838.

India was controlled for many years by the wealthy English East India Company. After the Company expanded into Bengal, the British Government began to see India as important politically and took a greater interest in the territory. Roads and railways were built to make trade easier and improve contact with more remote districts, a Governor-General was put in charge, and British civil servants and troops were sent to the region.

*Australia, discovered for Britain by Captain Cook, was first settled as a penal colony. The first prisoners and their guards reached Botany Bay in 1788. Originally there were six colonies, including New South Wales and Tasmania, but in 1901 these joined together and became a federation. New Zealand became a colony in 1840.

From 1801 the expanding empire was managed from London by the Colonial Office. District officers and civil servants were sent out to administer the colonies on behalf of Britain. Regular imperial conferences were held in Britain to discuss matters of general concern, such as trade, defence and foreign policy.



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