In the late 1550s, taking stock of affairs in Europe, an English queen named Elizabeth grew worried about being left behind in a new race underway among her country’s neighbors on the continent: the construction of a far-flung empire.
The Portuguese and Spanish had established an early dominance in this endeavor. The former had shown the way, earning fortunes trading with West Africans for gold beginning late in the 15th century before perfecting a revolutionary formula that conjoined plantation agriculture with race-based chattel slavery to produce tropical commodities on tiny São Tomé. Their model, based on sugar cultivation and commerce of the enslaved Africans who fueled it, would quickly come to dominate economic life in the Atlantic for centuries, supercharging European economies and propelling the rise of the West over the so-called rest.
England’s imperial history up to Queen Elizabeth I’s time had been mostly limited to dominating its neighbor Ireland. But the sovereign whose era we mostly associate with author William Shakespeare yearned for a far-bigger stage and encouraged the gentry as well as pirates like John Hawkins to venture out beyond the English Channel to raid Portuguese and Spanish ships and get in on their booty of gold and human beings extracted from coastal West Africa.
In doing so, that first Elizabeth laid the early groundwork for what would eventually become the British empire. Her successors took her efforts further with the 1631 formation of the colorfully named Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. Here, adventure meant the violent quest for gold and slaves in the tropics. Before long, the company was rebranded in a way that took all the mystery out of the principal geographical target. It was called the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa and was ambitiously granted a monopoly on the lucrative trade of that continent for a period of 1,000 years.
In that same decade, as I have argued in my book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, the most important foundational act of English empire-building took shape on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where the English colonized Barbados, a small island in the eastern Caribbean that is approximately one-third the surface area of present-day Los Angeles.
In Barbados, the English quickly implemented the morally indefensible but economically unbeatable economic model that the Portuguese had recently devised in São Tomé. The near-total replacement by mid-century of white indentured servants with enslaved men and women who were brought in chains from Africa and deliberately worked to death—almost as many as the number of enslaved people brought to the incomparably larger mainland North America—turned sugar cultivation in Barbados into a virtual license to print money.