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6.2: The British Colonies, ca.1600-1700

  • Page ID
    125130
  • In accounts of American history, “Thirteen Colonies” is shorthand for the English-speaking colonies arrayed along the east coast of North America, which rebelled against Britain in 1775-83. But the term ignores the existence of two other English-speaking colonies — Nova Scotia and Newfoundland — which continued under uninterrupted British rule. It tends, as well, to confuse matters concerning Canada. The French colony was British war booty after 1763, the most culturally subjugated of all the colonies, but it did not rebel either.

    These differences matter because of the critical role the American Revolution played in Canadian history. The creation of the United States of America marked, simultaneously, the destruction of an older polity and a culture of relative colonial autonomy within the empire. The pre-revolutionary society could accommodate both loyalism and democratic urges, but after the Revolution America lost the powerful voice of those who represented loyalty to the Crown. Some of the Loyalists were silenced, and some made their way to Britain; the largest number headed for Nova Scotia and Canada, laying the foundations for a different colonial experiment. To the extent that the British North America of 1783 (pre-Confederation Canada) and thereafter had roots that ran deep in the the Thirteen (revolutionary) Colonies, it is important to understand some of their history as well.

    Colonies of Exiles

    The first century of English colonial settlement in North America can be characterized as a period in which exiles dominated. Religious sects had arisen in England in the wake of the Reformation, many of them highly critical of the new Church of England headed by the monarch. The Quakers and Puritans were among the more vocal and, although they enjoyed the better part of a century of rising influence in England, by the mid-1600s they were pitted against more powerful forces. The English Civil War (1642-51) led to the execution of King Charles I at the hand of a Puritan-influenced Parliament. The Restoration that followed in 1660 turned the tide against the non-conformists. Charles II took an understandably dim view of the sect he regarded as responsible for the regicide of his father.

    The New England colonies established between 1610 and the 1620s were dominated by Puritan settlers. They had chosen exile and the opportunity to build a godly “city on the hill” rather than continue under compromised circumstances in Anglican England. Likewise the Quakers of William Penn’s Pennsylvania considered themselves religious refugees. The Catholics of Maryland, too, left Protestant England in search of asylum.

    Many of the earliest settlers in these colonies were criminals. For centuries the British used their colonies abroad as dumping grounds for dissidents, dissenters, and deviants (however defined). The poor, as well, were shipped out in large numbers, many of them as indentured servants serving terms of five to seven years (which some would not survive). In the West Indies, the English developed an economic model based on African slavery, one they later exported to the southern North American colonies. In short, a great many early settlers in these locales were there as refugees, as property, and against their will. As a result, their relationship with England was predictably complex.

    Key Points

    • The history of the Thirteen Colonies represents a prelude to the early history of English Canada.
    • Several of the Thirteen Colonies were established as denominational-specific refuges during an era of heightened Protestant sectarian disagreement.
    • Not all of the settlers were willing immigrants.