In the reign of Elizabeth Englishmen had made themselves acquainted with the world. They had surveyed it from Greenland's icy mountains to India's coral strand, and from the Orinoco to Japan, where William Adams built the first Japanese navy; they had interfered in the politics of the Moluccas and had sold English woollens in Bokhara; they had sailed through the Golden Gate of California and up the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus; they had crossed the Pacific Ocean and the deserts of Central Asia; they had made their country known alike to the Great Turk and to the Grand Moghul. National unity and the fertile mingling of classes had generated this expansive energy, for the explorers included earls as well as humble mariners and traders; and all ranks, from the queen downwards, took shares in their "adventures." They had thus acquired a body of knowledge and experience which makes it misleading to speak of their blundering into empire. They soon learnt to concentrate their energies upon those quarters of the globe in which expansion was easiest and most profitable. The East India Company had received its charter in 1600, and the naval defeat of Spain had opened the sea to all men; but, with the doubtful exception of Newfoundland, England secured no permanent footing outside the British Isles until after the crowns of England and Scotland had been united.

This personal union can hardly be called part of the expansion of England, but it had been prepared by some assimilation and cooperation between the two peoples, and it was followed by a great deal more. The plantation of Ulster by English and Scots after the flight of the Irish earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell in 1607 is one illustration, and Nova Scotia is another; but Virginia, the first colony of the empire, was a purely English enterprise, and it cradled the first-born child of the Mother of Parliaments. To Virginia men went for profit; principle drove them to New England. The Pilgrim Fathers, who sailed in theMayflower in 1620, had separated from the church and meant to separate from the state, and to set up a polity the antithesis of that of Laud and the Stuarts. But there was something in common between them; the Puritans, too, wanted uniformity, and believed in their right to compel all to think, or at least to worship, alike. Schism, however, appeals with ill grace and little success to authority; and dissentients from the dissenters formed Independent offshoots from New England. But all these Puritan communities in the north were different in character from Virginia in the south; they consisted of democratic townships, Virginia of plantations worked by slaves. Slave labour was also the economic basis of the colonies established on various West Indian islands during the first half of the seventeenth century; and this distinction between colonies used for exploitation and colonies used for settlement has led to important constitutional variations in the empire. Only those colonies in which large white communities are settled have received self-government; those in which a few whites exploit a large coloured population remain subject to the control of the home government. The same economic and social differences were responsible for the great American civil war between North and South in the nineteenth century.

There are three periods in British colonial expansion. The first, or introductory period, was marked by England's rivalry with Spain and Portugal; the second by its rivalry with the Dutch; and the third by its rivalry with France; and in each the rivalry led to wars in which Britain was victorious. The Elizabethan war with Spain was followed by the Dutch wars of the Commonwealth and Charles II's reign, and then by the French wars, which lasted, with longer or shorter intervals, from 1688 to 1815. The wars with the Dutch showed how completely, in the latter half of the seventeenth century, commercial interests outweighed those of religion and politics. Even when English and Dutch were both living under Protestant republics, they fought one another rather than the Catholic monarchies of France and Spain. Their antagonism arose over rival claims to sovereignty in the Narrow Seas, which the herring fisheries had made as valuable as gold mines, and out of competition for the world's carrying trade and for commerce in the East Indies. The last-named source of irritation had led to a "massacre" of Englishmen at Amboyna in 1623, after which the English abandoned the East Indian islands to the Dutch East India Company, concentrating their attention upon India, where the acquisition of settlements at Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay laid the foundations of the three great Presidencies of the British Empire in India.