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Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1962)

The basis of the British Empire was founded in the age of mercantilism, an economic theory that stressed maximizing the trade outside the empire, and trying to weaken rival empires. The 18th century British Empire was based upon the preceding English overseas possessions, which began to take shape in the late 16th and early 17th century, with the English settlement of islands of the West Indies such as Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, the Leeward IslandsBarbadosJamaica, and Bermuda, and of Virginia, one of the Thirteen Colonies which in 1776 became the United States, as well as of the Maritime provinces of what is now Canada. The sugar plantation islands of the Caribbean, where slavery became the basis of the economy, comprised England’s most lucrative colonies. The American colonies also used slave labour in the farming of tobacco, indigo, and rice in the south. England, and later Great Britain’s, American empire was slowly expanded by war and colonization. Victory over the French during the Seven Years’ War gave Great Britain control over what is now eastern Canada.

Mercantilism was the basic policy imposed by Britain on its colonies.[32] Mercantilism meant that the government and the merchants became partners with the goal of increasing political power and private wealth, to the exclusion of other empires. The government protected its merchants—and kept others out—by trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies to domestic industries in order to maximize exports from and minimize imports to the realm. The Navigation Acts of the late 17th century provided the legal foundation for Mercantilist policy. They required all trade to be carried in English ships, manned by English crews (this later encompassed all Britons after the Acts of Union 1707 united Scotland with England).[33] Colonists were required to send their produce and raw materials first of all to Britain, where the surplus was then sold-on by British merchants to other colonies in the British empire or bullion-earning external markets. The colonies were forbidden to trade directly with other nations or rival empires. The goal was to maintain the North American and Caribbean colonies as dependent agricultural economies geared towards producing raw materials for export to Britain. The growth of native industry was discouraged, in order to keep the colonies dependent on Britain for their finished goods