Debating Power & Empire

England’s New World empire emerged within a political, legal, and cultural context shaped not only by the peoples they encountered in the Atlantic world but also by deep contests over power within England and between England and other European countries with New World claims. As James I and his son Charles I sought to expand England’s imperial reach into the Americas, they entered a contest with Spain over those claims. That contest, in turn, intensified disputes with Parliament over the extent of the King’s power. 

In the New World, Charles I granted colonies to his friends and allies with immense legal privileges of governance based on his supposed rights as a Christian prince. While English labor norms were profoundly hierarchical, they were not slavery: the poor could be forced to labor for a year or more at a time, and masters had legal privileges over their servants. Since outright slavery did not exist in England, sharp questions emerged in the New World as the crown sought to follow Spain’s model: what was the status of so-called “Christian,” “Negroe,” and “Indian” “servants? Should all be treated alike? Or should England follow the model of the Spanish and Portuguese?

By the late sixteenth century, the Spanish and Portuguese were coercing Indians into tributary status via the encomienda system and, in many cases, enslaving them. They were also deliberately enslaving Africans. To what extent were the English coercing Africans or Native American Indians into full, lifelong slavery from the beginning in different English colonies? How much power should local freeholders have, vis-à-vis the Proprietors or the Crown?

These debates occurred not only within colonial spaces but were endemic to England. Not only was the crown directly involved in colonization from the beginning, but colonial struggles over power often influenced events within England and vice-versa. Power, in short, was debated and argued over on every level. 



portrait of Queen Elizabeth in royal attire

Elizabethean Statute of Artificers Marginalia (1603)

James I – The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598)

Original Charter (Constitution) of Carolina (1629)

Charter (Constitution) of Maryland (1632)

Sir Robert Filmer – Patriarcha (1640s, published 1680)

An Act Abolishing the Kingly Office (1649)

The Trial of Charles I

John Milton – Eikonoklastes (1649)

Richard Ligon – True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657)