What was the Role of British Explorers?

Background Information

Exploration had been going on throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries, largely led and dominated by Spain and Portugal. Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas for Spain, and Spain was quick to start trading in American gold, tobacco, and cocoa. This left other European nations, including Britain, hungry for a share.

What was the Role of British Explorers?, figure 1

Trade was lifeblood for the British economy, and Britain used her exploration to eventually become the dominant trade power in Europe. During Elizabeth’s time, this was just beginning, and Elizabethan merchants had to compete with other countries in fierce competition.

Key Terms

Patent: A licence that gives the person the sole right to do make or sell something.

Colony: An area ruled over by another country.

Colonisation: To set up a new settlement in a new piece of land, or conquering land that is not yours (normally on a different continent).

Monopoly: Control over trade in a particular area or type of goods, which allows that person to dictate prices.

England’s Role in Exploration - the Explorers

John Hawkins: Trade with the New World

In the 1560’s, John Hawkins made three voyages to the Caribbean, trading slaves that he had captured in West Africa with the Spanish Colonies. He made a lot of money and returned to England with gold, silver and animal skins. However on his last voyage, Hawkins clashed with the Spanish and lost a lot of men and ships. As a result he turned to designing new ships for the navy using his experience of the Spanish attack and became chief architect of the English Navy. His ships were better designed and faster. On his last voyage, Hawkins took his young cousin, Sir Francis Drake on his slave trade.

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Many argue that Hawkins was the most significant of those who helped Elizabethan England become a naval power. Whilst he may not have discovered as much, his work on naval designs in the British Naval was unparalleled.

Sir Francis Drake: Around the World

Sir Francis Drake__ __became one of the most famous English explorers and a Privateer. He was seen as not just glory seeking, but wanting to claim new territory for England and was patriotic. Drake hated Spain mainly because he was a Puritan (Strict Protestant) and did not like Catholic Spain. He also wanted to seek revenge for the Spanish attack on Hawkins’ fleet. (Hawkins was his cousin)

In 1572 Drake captured £40,000 worth of Spanish silver when he attacked Spanish treasure ships travelling from Mexico to Peru as well as capturing the Spanish port of Nombre de Dios in Panama.

After this event, the Spanish referred to him as El Draque which means ‘The Dragon’ in Spanish. On his return to England he was rich and famous but greater things were still to come for him. Drake started planning his next voyage. It was financed by a powerful group of people at Court, including Elizabeth I and Cecil. However they had to tread very carefully by supporting Drake as it could risk war with Spain.

Drake’s Circumnavigation

Drake set sail again in 1557 __and by the time he had returned three years later he had __circumnavigated__ __the globe. This meant that he had travelled all around the world and tracked his route. He was the first English person to do this. Drake returned with about £400,000 (£200 million in today’s money) and he made himself about £10,000. The rest was paid to investors and the Queen was paid half of the money. This was more than her yearly income!

Elizabeth swore Drake and other voyagers to total secrecy on pain of death, as she worried about causing tension with Spain.

Elizabeth rewarded Drake with a jewel with her portrait on. He was knighted on the deck of his ship, the Golden Hind.

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Sir Francis Drake (note the ruff) is one of the most famous of England’s seafarers. His circumnavigation increased Britain’s reputation at sea, and his reputation against Spain gave Britain courage and motivation during the Spanish Armada.

Sir Walter Raleigh: Attempts at Colonisation

Sir Walter Raleigh__ __had also led several voyages to the Americas. He received a royal patent from Elizabeth to establish a colony in North America like the Spanish and Portuguese had done with South and Central America. This meant Elizabeth was giving Raleigh permission to land in America and set up a society there, ruled by England.

Walter Raleigh sailed to North America and set up ‘North Virginia’ which he called after Elizabeth who was known as the ‘Virgin Queen’. The area had a huge supply of goods such as wine, sugar and oil. It was thought that England would not have to rely on Europe as much. There were ideas that England was ‘over crowded’ and people emigrating to this new colony would solve the population and unemployment crisis. Raleigh was known for bringing tobacco and potatoes to England.

However, both Raleigh’s attempts at Colonisation failed. The first settlers faced food shortages and returned home after a year, the second set of colonists disappeared without a trace after he left them to return home for supplies. In 1592, the queen discovered Raleigh’s secret marriage to one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. This discovery threw Elizabeth into a jealous rage and Raleigh and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower. On his release, in an attempt to find favour with the queen, he set off on an unsuccessful expedition to find El Dorado, the fabled ‘Golden Land’, rumoured to be situated somewhere beyond the mouth of the Orinoco river in Guiana (now Venezuela).

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Sir Walter Raleigh (note the even bigger ruff, he was a very fashionable man!) may have failed to start a sustainable English colony; however, his efforts captured Elizabeth’s imagination, and ensured that England would continue to seek to set up and expand an Empire.


The Spanish monopoly on New World goods made the English angry. Lots of English pirates started robbing Spanish treasure ships and ports. Not all of these acts were actually illegal. Privateers__’ __were licensed by Elizabeth’s government to commit pirate acts against England’s enemies. The Privateers’ ships were privately owned and were financed by the merchants and even the Queen herself. Guns were essential. The Privateers’ would sail past the enemy and fire broadside, then do the same on the other side of the Galleon. English ships were smaller and faster than the huge but slow Spanish Galleons which were unable to change their course in time in order to escape attacks for the English.

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In the Caribbean, the Spanish controlled Cuba and Haiti (green and yellow on the map), but England controlled Jamaica (red). Despite its small size, this became a crucial naval base from which Elizabeth’s Privateers ran a series of raids and successful missions against the Spanish, slowly asserting Elizabethan dominance in the Caribbean too.

The English Join In!

Apart from Henry VII’s funding of Cabot’s voyage, there had been little exploration by English sailors up until Elizabeth’s reign. However, England was becoming a significant naval__ __power. Henry VII had felt England was vulnerable as an Island and had started to build up the English Navy for military purposes. England had 53 warships when Henry VII died and his son Henry VIII took over. Once Elizabeth was Queen, Catholic Spain was very hostile to English interests. They did not allow other countries to trade with their colonies in the New World without a licence and licences were hardly granted to English sailors.

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Elizabeth took great pride in her navy, particularly when it went on to defeat the Spanish Armada. This is shown particularly in the Armada Portrait, commissioned to celebrate the victory against Spain. It is also significant to note that Elizabeth’s fingers rest upon a globe showing the Americas - for Elizabeth, naval power and colonial power and Empire ran hand in hand.

Trading Companies

English explorers did not always seek to damage the interests of the Spanish. They also wanted to promote England. England was jealous of the Spanish and Portuguese achievements and England wanted to be part of the New World Exploration. England needed to set up new trade links as there was a trade crisis in Elizabeth’s reign.

Trading Companies set up:

  1. The Muscovy Company - Traded furs and timber with Russia
  2. The Eastland Company- Traded timber, tar, canvas and rope with Scandinavia and Baltic.
  3. __The Levant Company __- Trading with the Mediterranean with items such as currants and dye.
  4. The East India Company - Traded with the Far East with silks, spices, cotton and tea.

How Did Exploration Benefit Britain?

  1. Created hostility between England and Spain which contributed to the Battle of the Spanish Armada.
  2. Made the explorers into heroes.
  3. Helped to build Elizabeth’s personal image
  4. Set the foundations for Britain to be a global superpower.
  5. Economically Britain became hugely wealthy.
  6. Established trade links throughout the world.
  7. Led to the development of a powerful Navy.
  8. Led to the creation of new colonies and settlements which then grew into the British Empire.

Define the following terms:

Your answer should include: licence / sole / right / make / sell
Your answer should include: area / ruled / another / country
Your answer should include: set up / new / settlement / conquering
Your answer should include: control / trade / dictate / price
Sir Walter Raleigh
Your answer should include: voyages / America / patent / Elizabeth / colony
Sir Francis Drake
Your answer should include: explorer / privateer / Spain / Puritan / circumnavigate
Joh Hawkins
Your answer should include: Caribbean / design / chief / architect