No nation ever dominated global trade and geopolitics more than Great Britain from the mid 18th century until World War I. But the English, who united with the Scots to form Britain in 1707, arrived late to the scene of colonization. The Age of Discovery—when Western Europeans explored Africa, Asia, and the Americas—began in the early 15th century. The English, however, didn’t establish any permanent colonies until the early 17th century.
The English lawyer John Rastell lamented this development, in the 1510s, in a play he wrote about a failed expedition he took part in toward America. “Oh, what a thing,” he wrote, if “they that be Englishmen” had been the first to “take possession” and “make the first building and habitation” in the New World.
So, what delayed the people who soon created the greatest empire the world has ever known?
Why did they sit back on their island and watch Spain conquer the most advanced peoples in the Americas and take South America’s riches for itself?
Why did they allow the Portuguese to gain the initial footholds in Africa and Asia and only much later wrest some of these regions from them?
To answer these questions, let’s first look at where the English were in their civilizational development when this exploration and colonization began.