In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonization of English America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Maps and Illustrations
  • Letters and Narrative Accounts
  • Document Collections
  • Ideology of Colonization
  • English Imperial Expansion in Context

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Atlantic History Colonization of English America
Trevor Burnard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0013


England was a latecomer in the colonization of the Americas. It drew heavily on the example of Spain for its early colonization efforts in North America and the West Indies. It also drew on its experience in subduing the inhabitants of the Celtic peripheries of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland in shaping relations with Native Americans. The advent of Atlantic history has been decisive in considering 17th-century colonization in comparative context. More effort is deployed now than previously to see English settlement as an encounter with peoples of an Old World rather than as a discovery of a New World by Englishmen and Englishwomen. English America refers to those areas settled by the English on the eastern seaboard of mainland North America (extending from Newfoundland in the north to the Carolinas in the south) and in the West Indies (including islands in the Lesser Antilles, such as Barbados and the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica in the Greater Antilles).

General Overviews

The best general survey, with an excellent bibliography up until 1988, is Greene 1988, supplemented by the comparative analysis of Elliott 2006 and the essays in Canny 1998. Armitage and Braddick 2002 is especially suggestive as to how English America fits into Atlantic history. A major problem for all historians is that before 1776 and certainly before 1700 there was no geographical construct known as English America. Another issue is that a multitude of teleological accounts that pre-suppose English America becoming the United States provide support to an ideology of American exceptionalism that Atlantic history is intended to undermine. For the historical geography of the English Atlantic world, the first chapters in Meinig 1986 are stimulating, but see also Hornsby 2004 for a different idea of how regions in early America should be grouped. Classic works that are still useful are Andrews 1934 and Miller 1971.

  • Andrews, Charles McLean. The Colonial Period of American History. Vol. 1, The Settlements. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934.

    Volume one of three. A classic general treatment of the field, winner of the 1935 Pulitzer Prize in History.

  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    First-rate collection of thematic essays on British America and the Atlantic world. Armitage’s essay provides an excellent explanatory scheme for Atlantic histories.

  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century. Vol. 1 of Oxford University History of the British Empire. Edited by William Roger Lewis. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Part of an important series summarizing and reevaluating Britain’s imperial past. Contains excellent essays by leading practitioners on all aspects of Britain’s 17th-century empire.

  • Elliott, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Magisterial survey of the development of and interactions between two major empires in the Atlantic world that shows the extent to which the English Atlantic world grew out of the earlier example of the Spanish Atlantic empire.

  • Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    A masterly survey, emphasizing works in economic and social history, that sees divergence and variation in patterns of social development in the 17th century coalescing around Anglicization in the late 17th century to create convergent colonial cultures. Organized by regions. Dated but essential.

  • Hornsby, Stephen J. British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2004.

    Uses staple thesis theory to devise a regional grouping of early North American and West Indian regions that is economically rather than geographically derived.

  • Meinig, D. W. The Shaping of America. Vol. 1, Atlantic America, 1492–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

    Superb, pioneering historical geography of English and British America that did much to introduce the concept of the Atlantic world into historical discourse.

  • Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

    Intellectual historiography focusing on Puritanism.

  • Pestana, Carla. The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640–1661. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Important study of how the British Civil War played itself out in the English Atlantic. Makes the significant point that a vacuum in imperial authority in the 1640s allowed English America to develop its political and social institutions outside imperial oversight.

  • Steele, Ian. The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Pioneering study in Atlantic history that deals with how communications increasingly linked the Atlantic world so that by the early 18th century it could be legitimately thought of as a single entity.

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