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Who benefited from the establishment of British colonies in the Americas?
Many groups of people benefited from the establishment of British colonies in the Americas.
The British Crown benefited because it obtained a new source of income, especially since it applied a mercantilist policy with the colonies, which allowed the metropolis to run trade surpluses with the colonies.
The founders of the colonies, and the subsequent elites of these benefited because they could obtain great wealth from what was essentially unexploited territory.
Finally, colonists/settlers themselves also benefited, by having a safe haven where to go if things in Britain where too hard for them. This is especially true since many of the British settlers in the Americas were either persecuted religious people, or poor peasants who had nothing to lose.
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The Bright Side of British Colonialism
In most circles, colonialism is considered to be a sad episode in history—where dominant economic powers
with sophisticated military might subjugated less developed, more vulnerable societies, turned them into colonies, imposed foreign languages and
organizations upon them, and exploited local natural resources and labor. Indeed, Karl Marx argued that mature capitalist economies required such colonies in order to
forestall their inevitable stagnation and decline. And there was a heavy price paid by the colonies themselves,
with long-term negative consequences that are often pointed to as the reason why many of those societies remain poor today.
But this dark story has now been revised. A recent series of papers co-authored by Hoover Property Rights Task Force members Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson found that there were advantages from colonization as well, especially for those colonies within the British Empire. English institutions, such as the common law, property rights security, contract enforcement, and banking and trading practices provided a positive basis for economic growth in the colonies that has persisted.
Motivations for Colonization
Europe’s period of exploration and colonization was fueled largely by necessity. Europeans had become accustomed to the goods from Asia, such as the silk, spices, and pottery that had for centuries traveled the Silk Road. By the middle of the 16th century, however, this trade was under threat. The rise in power of the Ottoman Turks and the decline of the Mongol Empire disrupted traditional trade routes. At the same time, there were a number of improvements in shipbuilding and navigation, making it possible to travel farther and for longer periods of time. European countries recognized the potential profits of securing better trade with Asia and sought new routes by sea.
Commissioned by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was among the first who sought a faster, more direct route to Asia by sailing west rather than east. In 1492, Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean. Although Columbus mistakenly believed he had landed on an island in East Asia, later explorers added to the knowledge of the land,
and—thanks in part to the voyages of fellow Italian Amerigo Vespucci—determined that Columbus had reached a “New World.” Each of the major European powers—Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England—sent explorers to the New World. Colonization, or the desire to establish permanent settlements, soon followed.
Some of these European countries fought one another for control over trade and the riches of the New World. While they all shared a desire for wealth and power, their motivations for colonization differed somewhat, and thus the pattern and success of their colonies varied significantly.
The North American colonies and the British Empire
By the mid-eighteenth century, the British North American colonies were well-established settlements, closely tied into Atlantic and Caribbean trading networks. Although religious beliefs provided the motivation for many settlers,
others also saw the colonies as an opportunity to own their own land, work for themselves or find their fortune. From fish and furs to tobacco and timber,
it seemed that great wealth could be made from securing exclusive mercantile access to these lands, which also traded closely with the sugar isles of the Caribbean.
Competition over these resources intensified the conflict between Britain, France and Spain (the major European powers in the Americas), and the British colonies had to be defended from French and Native American attacks.
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