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Aspects of British political history

he foundations of the British Empire were laid when England and Scotland were separate kingdoms. In 1496, King Henry VII of England, following the successes of Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration, commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic.[7] Cabot sailed in 1497, five years after the European discovery of America, but he made landfall on the coast of Newfoundland, and, mistakenly believing (like Christopher Columbus) that he had reached Asia,[21] there was no attempt to found a colony. Cabot led another voyage to the Americas the following year but nothing was ever heard of his ships again.[22]

No further attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were made until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, during the last decades of the 16th century.[23] In the meantime, the 1533 Statute in Restraint of Appeals had declared “that this realm of England is an Empire”.[24] The subsequent Protestant Reformation turned England and Catholic Spain into implacable enemies.[7] In 1562, the English Crown encouraged the privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake to engage in slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa[25]with the aim of breaking into the Atlantic slave trade. This effort was rebuffed and later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth I gave her blessing to further privateering raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasurefrom the New World.[26] At the same time, influential writers such as Richard Hakluyt and John Dee (who was the first to use the term “British Empire”)[27] were beginning to press for the establishment of England’s own empire. By this time, Spain had become the dominant power in the Americas and was exploring the Pacific Ocean, Portugal had established trading posts and forts from the coasts of Africa and Brazil to China, and France had begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River area, later to become New France.[