Why did the English want colonies?

Gravesend, England

Gravesend, England

Great changes were occurring in England during the sixteenth century. Economic changes centered on sheep. During the 1500s, the demand for woolen cloth in Europe soared. In order to meet this demand, a series of legal actions made it possible for English landowners to enclose their farms, fencing off large areas as grazing lands for sheep. Manufacturers spun and wove the wool into cloth, which merchants sold throughout Europe. As a result, landowners, wool manufacturers and merchants amassed great wealth. Many of these people began to look for ways to invest their new-found wealth. One of these ways was to invest in colonies.

At the same time these Englishmen were looking for ways to invest their wealth, others were not so fortunate. The small farmers, who for generations had rented their small plots of land from large landowners, lost their farms and their jobs when the land was enclosed with fences to raise sheep. Men, women and children were uprooted and drifted from the countryside to towns and cities looking for work. Many were reduced to begging or to stealing to survive. Migrating to a new world seemed a hopeful choice for many of these people, as it did for English leaders who saw colonies as a way to solve the problem of the growing numbers of displaced and poor people.

Employments of Englishmen, Theodor de Bry

Employments of Englishmen, Theodor de Bry

England also looked at the settlement of colonies as a way of fulfilling its desire to sell more goods and resources to other countries than it bought. If colonies could send raw materials, such as lumber, from the abundance of natural resources available in the colonies, then England would not have to buy these from other countries. At the same time, the colonists could be a market for England’s manufactured goods.

The English knew that establishing colonies was an expensive and risky business. Therefore, merchants organized a business venture– a joint-stock company called the Virginia Company of London. In 1606 King James I granted the Virginia Company its first charter, including the right to establish colonies in Virginia and extending all rights of Englishmen to the colonists. Under this charter, wealthy men invested money to finance ships and supplies needed for the first voyage to Virginia. A second charter in 1609 invited the public to buy shares in the company. A third charter in 1612 provided for lotteries, with tickets sold in London and surrounding areas and prizes for winning ticket holders. This was another way the Virginia Company tried to raise money to finance the Virginia colony.