Historical Dictionary of the British Empire

By James S. Olson; Robert S. Shadle | Go to book overview

PREFACE

Historians will soon be evaluating the significance of the twentieth century, and the collapse of the European empires and the Soviet Union will no doubt be viewed as pivotal events for the people of the world. The colonial empires of Great Britain, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain imposed a certain political and economic order on the earth, as did the subsequent Cold War power exercised by the United States and Soviet Union. The demise of these empires and the end of the Cold War have left the world with new challenges. Scores of ancient ethnic hostilities, long suppressed by external political powers, are asserting themselves with a vengeance in Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and the former Soviet Union. The world seems a more violent place today than ever before, and the solutions to the violence are complicated and elusive. Without question, the empires and superpowers engaged in racism and ethnocentrism, and they flagrantly exploited the peoples of their dependencies. However, we may yet remember the era of imperialism and the Cold War with at least a small measure of nostalgia, if for nothing else than the order they imposed on a chaotic world.

Of all the European empires that developed in the wake of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World, the British empire became the most extensive and the most long-lasting. In the 1490s, John Cabot* explored the northern North American coastline for Britain, and a century later several prominent English promoters--Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Raleigh, and Richard Hakluyt-- made abortive colonization attempts in North America and called for more extensive English colonization activity there. By that time, the English had already established plantations in Ireland, especially in and around Dublin in what was known as the Pale. By the early 1600s, joint stock companies from England had financed the first permanent settlements in Bermuda* and Jamestown.

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