After the New World was discovered, it didn't take long for Spain, and relatively soon after, Portugal, to begin permanent colonisation there. It took over 100 years after the New World's discovery for other European powers, but particular to this question, Britain, to successfully attempt likewise, by which time many resource-rich regions were already claimed by Spain and Portugal. I'm aware they did perform expeditions to the New world, but didn't set up colonies there. Why was this? The vast quantities of goods Spain and Portugal were collecting must've been alluring. Was Britain uninterested in forming colonies in the New World/content with gaining power closer to home such as in Ireland, or were they simply unable to found new colonies?

Preliminary research wise, I couldn't find much on the actual reasons behind a lack of colonies for countries other than Spain and Portugal. I did find stuff on the expeditions of Britain in attempts to find the Northwest Passage and reach Asia, but nothing on why no colonies were otherwise formed in America. It seems to me that there would have been at least some economic incentive to colonise, but they didn't for a long time.

  • 13
    Might be useful to look at Rakove's analysis of the different colonization strategies. Spain and Portugal were extractive; France & England were settling. Different strategies (easier to find him when I spell the name correctly.....)
    – MCW
    Jul 28, 2022 at 16:00
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    France was largely extractive as well. Mostly their interest in continental North America was the fur trade, and let's not even get started on Haiti.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 28, 2022 at 16:26
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    I suspect the answer for Britain may be different from the one for France. In which case, this will have to be broken up into two questions.
    – Spencer
    Jul 28, 2022 at 16:29
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    My main issue with this question is that people today use the word "colonization" to talk about several completely different things, and this question is taking full advantage of that modern ambiguity to make it look like there's something odd going on. Use terminology that differentiates conquest and rule of existing native cultures from building/transplanting settlements of your own culture with 0 regard for any existing native ones, and I'm not sure there'd still be any question here.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 28, 2022 at 16:34
  • 8
    This answer might help, tl;dr they were busy at home history.stackexchange.com/questions/23650/…
    – SPavel
    Jul 28, 2022 at 17:17

5 Answers 5


Here is a list with the major factors. This list focuses on the period Oct 1492 to April 1607 and is extracted from this Timeline of Colonial America. The timeline already contains links to sources and articles for each of the events.

diagram showing periods and events relevant to the colonial America from 1670 to 1730

Major Factors

  1. North America was (quite) populated. Epidemics reached north quite late (Seneca Measles, the first big epidemic, hit 1590). The land was not "terra nullius", it was filled with people and even somewhat cultivated (expansion of agriculture was an ongoing process coming from the more developed south).
  2. North American populations were "late neolithic", with advanced weaponry like the Eskimo bows. Inuit used these bows to wipe entire populations through the north of the continent, and by 1400 these bows were not restricted to the Arctic but had reached the Plains and Northwestern Indians, but not further south. This is VERY different from mode 5 palaeolithic hunters in Australia.
  3. France and Spain were already trying hard to colonize the northern coast, with violent episodes like the Matanzas Inlet Massacre.
  4. Up to 1550 finding a route to Asia was still the priority for explorers. So was the priority for giving funding to expeditions by the English monarchy.
  5. The English were investing heavily in the colonization of Ireland already, and this was true up to 1700 (see Cromwell). This also explains why the first American colonies were not a priority for England in particular.
  6. England had no naval superiority until autumn 1580 (Spanish Armada), and even after that, England only had slight advantage up to 1610. During that period, privateering was the focus. This tells you well about the state of affairs and English capabilities.
  7. International treaties: Tordesillas, Alcaçovas... a series of treatises with the pope's approval to ensure dominance of Portugal and Spain in the New World. Spain back then controlled most of Italy, so the pope had not much of a choice.
  8. Internal English factors such as population growth: in England growth happened after 1600, first Enclosure Act is 1604. So, there was simply no internal demographic push.

Minor Factors

  1. Indian tribes had guns starting 1540, thanks to first fur trading explorers.

  2. Commercial Agriculture like cotton, rice, tobacco was developed later in North American than in Central America and Caribbean. So, there were less economic incentives.

  3. Colonization law framework: the Spanish and Portuguese had laws about the acquisition of new territories. People knew what to expect. These were used in the Reconquista and later in America. England did not have laws like these, but I'm not an expert on the topic. The Headright system start date is very late (1618).

I'm sure there are some more minor factors that would be nice to include.

  • 1
    Good answer, but you forgot a major point. At the time ships didn't have a lot of space to store fresh water and other supplies, having ports along the route to resupply was vital. Newfoundland might be good, but the northern routes in winter were dangerous. The Azores and the Canary islands provided useful stopovers.
    – FluidCode
    Jul 31, 2022 at 9:32
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    Referencing external material is acceptable, but this leads to a commercial enterprise where I do not get the ref's you insinuate here. 24.5$/year and the ad vaguekly says/promises it'd be 90% Wikipedia-based & 75% Britannica 'based'. Nothing to follow up? So, in terms of 'refs for an answer' here, I'd say I see no actual ref at all. Jul 31, 2022 at 10:00
  • As a footnote. Do you have any sources on the bow and its influence on the demographics of pre columbian America?
    – aaron
    Jul 31, 2022 at 11:29
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    "why it took England longer than Spain when the North was densely populated—but 'Spain's' (South) America was even denser populated/"more developed" The more populated south and central America had state and state-like "advanced" societies, so if colonizers topple the elite, they then can get to control the power structures already in place. This was not possible in North America, because there were no such state-like power structures.
    – James
    Jul 31, 2022 at 13:05
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    This timeline is really great (the other timelines there are super fun as well). I wish its resolution were a bit better and that it was free for download :) If anyone's aware of something of similar quality (content-wise), please share.
    – HeyJude
    Jul 31, 2022 at 13:14

It took over 100 years after the New World's discovery for other European powers, but particular to this question, Britain, to attempt likewise, by which time many resource-rich regions were already claimed by Spain and Portugal.

Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492, and returned to Europe in March, 1493.

Sir Francis Drake claimed New Albion for England in 1579.

On 5 June 1579, the ship briefly made first landfall at what is now South Cove, Cape Arago, just south of Coos Bay, Oregon, and then sailed south while searching for a suitable harbour to repair his ailing ship. On 17 June, Drake and his crew found a protected cove when they landed on the Pacific coast of what is now Northern California. While ashore, he claimed the area for Queen Elizabeth I as Nova Albion or New Albion.


Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1583.

The first colony on Roanoke in North Carolina lasted from 1585-1586. The second Roanoke colony was founded in 1587 but had disappeared by 1590.

So English claims and actual attempts at colonization in the Americas actually began less than a century after 1492/93.

I note that Spain and Portugal claimed all of the Americans between them, and were quite powerful countries during that time. So establishing permanent English, French, Dutch, etc. settlements in the Americas would be creating settlements with locations which would eventually become known to the rightful rulers of those lands and then be in danger of being attacked and destroyed as punishment for such illegal trespassing.

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    I think that last paragraph may be worth investigating (I haven't done so at this point). Given the papal bull of 1493, anyone else trying to take over land in the New World was arguably defying the Pope. England was still Catholic until 1532, and there were hopes of reconciliation upon the death of Henry, which didn't happen until 1547.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 28, 2022 at 17:49
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    This is fairly unpersuasive. Is there any evidence that the English feared Hispanic retribution if they colonized the northern Atlantic coast of NA? It seems more likely that they simply didn't have far-flung conquest and expansion in their sights during most of the 1500s. (It was easier to sent p/i/r/a/t/e/ s/h/i/p/s/ privateers to pick off gold the Spanish had conveniently already gathered.)
    – Mark Olson
    Jul 28, 2022 at 18:05
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    @T.E.D. I'm reasonably familiar with the Tudor period and I don't think the Pope had much to do with it -- before H8's split, the Pope was glad to have him as a staunch anti-Lutheran. And after his reform of the nation's wealth, H8 didn't care. I also don't recall any mention that the Spanish cared one way or the other about NA north of Florida. I think the answer may be that England just was poorer and running behind in its development.
    – Mark Olson
    Jul 28, 2022 at 19:31
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    Also the affairs within England plays a role. As your summery shows, only after most of the internal problems had settled down (around 1570), did Queen Elizabeth I start a more aggressive policy towards Spain. Jul 28, 2022 at 21:04
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    That's an odd use of the phrase "rightful rulers". Jul 29, 2022 at 2:45

When Spain accidentally found the new world, they did not have just an extensive experience in conquest, strategy and dealing with other cultures they adopted a very radical different approach compared to French and England:

  • Spain and Portugal has en extensive experience in fighting, reconquering, evangelizing and dealing with a foreign culture: it took many centuries to push back all of the Moors/Arabs from the Iberian peninsula during the reconquista. Now it is hard to imagine, but back then Spain and Portugal were both the world's strongest superpowers back then. until England and France surpassed them some centuries later.

  • After the conquest of a territory, all natives would be evangelized and converted to Christianity, making them subjects to the monarchy and treated as equals at the oversees provinces (see Ley de Indias in Wikipedia)

  • Coming from a background the multiracial of Roman Empire and having been invaded several times by Germanic tribes, Arabs etc, they had no issue mixing themselves with other races (see Mestizage in Wikipedia, be aware that the article in English for Miscegenation doesn't honor enough the largest racial mixture ever produced, during the Spanish Empire). As difference the French and English suffered from common Central European ethnocentrism (nowadays would be known as racism), and fought and exterminated natives when they could. A an example of such brutally difference, centuries later Thomas Jefferson sold his own son with a native as slave without any recognition.

This last point became extremely important as conquistadors often married nobility of the natives, normalizing social equality between both groups of people (social differences depended on being a servant or having a royal title rather than race), and American royal societies were invited to take part in Spain's Court and have some power oversees.

That fact alone made Spaniards and much more effective in building a multiracial empire with the help of the own natives who often wanted to defeat other tribes that oppressed them for centuries. For more information read about the conquest of Mexico and how many tribes joined barely 150 Spaniards marching against Tenochtitlan (1 million inhabitants) and how Hernan Cortes sons became the first Mexican and a full right citizen.

If I had to summarize: Spain built a generative Empire, whereas England only tried to build predatory empires, and needed quite a long time to advance socially, military and technologically to achieve that since built its colonies in America, first with Catholic slaves (mostly Irish) and then with African slaves to replace natives, whereas Spain built upon the existing societies.

These points are often missed in Anglo-Saxon countries, since the study of historical empires which is somehow felt as if it was the same "current country", this for sure is felt as part of politics or social identity of societies, and often military and strategical decisions of the past conflict with the present society. There is more information of that phenomenon on the Black legend article at Wikipedia which became a common tale during English Second empire, and after the repeated failures of France in America.

Related topics of interest, can be found in the Wikipedia articles:

---- Edit for all the comments accusing me of lying or whatever -----

P.D. Some people on the comments accuse me to lie or something, please, first do not project self identity to historical facts from almost half millennia ago and check the sources by yourselves. Giving civil status to the natives was just a natural consequence of the long reconquista process were it happened already massively and thanks the Catholic mindset, thanks to the Catholic Queen Isabel and later thanks to the Pope who insisted on the fact that natives had soul. Therefore all them should be treated as innocent souls since they never heard the evangelic texts before, so a high paternalist attitude was pushed politically.

Also regarding racial-enslaving laws, that was not the case, check the first black person arriving to America (Juan Garrido) as free man and conquistador, the first black university professor in Europe (in Granada, Spain , XVI century) or the first interracial weddings, Catholic in the Spanish Florida. And still no utopia should be made, like all empires it condemned and restores slavery many times, and it took centuries to migrate from the mindset of ancient times to a more equal rights modern perspective, but that doesn't change the multi racial generative empire, like Romans, Ottomans or Russians. but not English, French or Dutch.

Just check the actual sources, everything Spain did was accurate, the letters from Cortes to the kings are preserved, also journals and reports were exhaustively kept preserving the Roman/Catholic tradition of documenting everything like we still do in the western world (and some other cultures).

With that I will stop editing to reply the comments, these were the reasons why some empires succeeded were others could not until some new advance in technology and military strategies were made. Nothing to do with competition of nowadays nations.

  • 2
    ?American royal society? (Thank you for the reply)
    – MCW
    Jul 29, 2022 at 13:00
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    Check the wikipedia article for "Mexican nobility". The societies in America had already highly hierarchical society, not just Mexicas, also Inca Empire, etc These are largely documented, their descendants are in Spain (like Moctezuma descendants live current Spain, and many more). Jul 29, 2022 at 13:08
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    Sorry, I am downvoting this answer. This is the typical apologia for the Spanish Empire that I see all the time on other sites (Quora en español and so forth), meaning that it is light on historical accuracy and heavy on rhetoric. Just to give an example that is fairly immaterial, it misrepresents the number of people that Cortés brought with him by a factor of four (he seems to have had over 600).
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 30, 2022 at 7:40
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    Much more importantly, it makes the claim that the natives of territories conquered by the Spanish Empire were "treated as equals." "More rights other empires, under ideal circumstances" might have been true, but definitely not equal. This manages to completely ignore the fact that laws such as the Leyes de Burgos required that Indigenous inhabitants of Spanish territories be Christianized and that they work for the benefit of the Crown, often in encomiendas under the authority of Spanish colonists.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 30, 2022 at 7:55
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    A reasonable argument could probably be made that Britain and France were more brutal or more racist as colonial empires than Spain was, and the relative lack of intermarriage in British colonies versus Spanish ones is a historically interesting fact. But what's being argued here is that Spain was a "non-predatory" empire that treated Indigenous people in areas it colonized as equals and did not engage in innumerable harmful practices toward them, and that is simply not a historically defensible perspective.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 30, 2022 at 8:11

England’s rulers were embroiled in internal politics whereas in 1492 Spain had just triumphantly and justifiably defeated the last of the Saracen entities in Iberia. They were on a roll.

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    Hi and welcome to Hist SE. Your answer would be greatly improved if you provided sources top back up your assertion. Thank you. Jul 29, 2022 at 5:48
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    This answer should be expanded a lot. What were those internal political struggles in England during that time and why did they prohibit expansion to the Americas?
    – Philipp
    Jul 29, 2022 at 8:54

During the revolutionary War 1775 – 1783, a strong presence of Britain was established in Quebec " to protect us from the rebel American fighing for independence." My people do not care but most of us and most of our land belong to the crown.

  • 6
    This is not an answer to the question as it pertains to a later period. Jul 31, 2022 at 0:23

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