The word 'Empire’ which was derived from the Latin word 'imperium', when first used in the English language, meant independence. It was under the rule of King Henry VIII that England was called an Empire which affirmed its 'spiritual and temporal independence'. (1) Imperialism, on the other hand, means 'the rule of the Empire'. But this is a simplistic understanding of the term, devoid of its complex layers of meaning given to it by historical events. The term 'colonialism' works to provide a better picture of the weight 'imperialism' holds in our times. Ania Loomba develops the OED definition of the word colonialism from an innocuous 'settlement' to the more insidious - 'the conquest and control of other people's land and goods.'(2) The irony inherent in the use of the two terms- Empire and colonialism/imperialism-alongside each other is clear here. While the former connotes sovereignty of the state, the latter promotes bondage of the 'other'.
Before going any further one needs to look at the events that aided the formation of the British Empire. The growing power of the English over the seas helped their cause of traveling and seeking lands to loot and plunder. These were the nascent stages of colonialism under Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth. Further, Sir Charles Lucas notes that the realisation of the country's 'nationhood' necessarily preceded the desire to look overseas for more opportunities.(3) The historian cites the beginning of such a realisation in the severance of English ties with the Church of Rome. This event made the English king the head of the Church as well as the state and gave the people the independence to take up individual spiritual pursuits. The process of becoming a nation was completed with the accession of King James I on the throne in the 17th century. This was so because he brought Scotland and England under one crown.
One notices that tracing the exact roots of British imperialism is a daunting task given the varied developments scattered over almost two centuries. Sir Lucas helps resolve matters when he says-
"The English had their age of discovery, adventure, and privateering, and after the glamour was over, there came a prosaic time in the seventeenth century when settlement began and grew as a sober matter of business."(5)
The above quote not only helps in situating colonial settlement in somewhat exact historical framework, but also gives the motivation behind these settlements. The men who looked to improve their fortunes joined the colonial bandwagon. The success that the British were enjoying in their endeavours were visible in the list of territories under their control. By the 17th century the British had taken over various regions in America along with Spanish colonies such as St.Kitts, Barbados et cetera. In these colonies, constituting the present day West Indies, the British invested in sugar plantations. Since sugar crops required...