Lessons from the Old Frontier


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Written by Jonathan

24 min read


To anyone who follows me on twitter, this article will come as no shock. One of the topics that I often discuss there is the need to continue the exploration and colonisation efforts of the last 400 years, but instead of looking to the horizon, we should look upwards. We have lost this spirit as the corners of the terrestrial map have been filled in and efforts to explore, or perhaps even settle, worlds other than our own are often dismissed in favour of the concerns of politicians and bureaucrats. Our priorities now differ from those of our ancestors, we now seem to believe pouring resources down the drain of the welfare state is more important than expanding our horizons as a species.

It appears that, for now, humanity is trapped on this rock, much like how the inhabitants of late-medieval England (and more generally Europe) appeared to be stuck in a still feudal continent, rife with religious persecution, war and plague. Here, the reasons and methods that the people of these isles used to explore and settle strange new lands will be explained, and notable examples of what seemed to work and what didn’t will be given.

Does this have any relevance now? It is hard to believe that the individuals making the most noise about colonisation of other planets nowadays haven’t considered the only concrete examples that we have of their ideas in practise, especially examples that were so fantastically successful. Has Elon Musk considered what motivated countless individuals to establish settlements all up the east coast of North America, as he seems to want to do on Mars? Has Jeff Bezos considered the effect of travelling great distances out of sight of land in a small vessel, for maybe months at a time? It seems unlikely that they have not once thought about it.

Richard Hakluyt

After the discovery of the New World in the late 15th century, the exploration of America and the Caribbean fell to the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms. Over the next few centuries both would forge mighty empires off the back of this, leading to their languages becoming ubiquitous across the continent to this day, with Spanish still being the second most spoken language of the United States of America even now.

What was England doing at this time? There were great English explorers out there, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh being notable examples, but there seemed to be no will, political or otherwise, to join the Iberian powers in their adventures off to the West. This was to change at the end of the Tudor dynasty and the start of that of the Stuarts. An English writer and apparent friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt, states in his 1582 publication, *Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America*, the following frustrations:

“I marvel not a little, that since the first discovery of America, which is now full fourscore and ten years, after so great conquests and plantings of the Spaniards and Portingales there, that we of England could never have the grace to set fast footing in some fertile and temperate places as are left as unpossessed of them”

Here the somewhat archaic Tudor spelling has been translated into modern spelling to allow easier reading of his writing, but his words remain the same.

Two years later Hakluyt wrote a petition to the last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, entitled *Discourses Concerning Western Planting* [1], with Chapter 20 containing “A brief collection of certain reasons to induce her Majesty and the state to take in hand the western voyage and the plantings there”. These have been paraphrased below, and I would recommend reading the original text.

  1. We may produce in the new lands any resources we currently have to import from Europe, becoming self-sufficient in the long term.
  2. The passage is not too long or too short, it can be made twice a year.
  3. The passage does not go near any other great nations’ trade routes, so we won’t get in each other's way.
  4. The passage can be made at all times in the year, as opposed to trade with the Mediterranean or Baltic.
  5. The Spanish are using their American lands to increase their wool production and undercut our main source of wealth.
  6. We may stop the Spanish from taking the whole continent.
  7. The shipbuilding industry that we would have to develop for merchants to regularly make the voyage would give us the ability to make high quality ships for our navy as well.
  8. This great navy would not need to use the ports of other nations, we would give ourselves naval bases to strike wherever we need to.
  9. Our trade with the new world would starve Europe of our wealth, and since our merchants would only need to travel between our ports, any investment in them would be safer.
  10. We would avoid foreign goods coming into England from Europe being taxed by each nation they pass through before arriving.
  11. Initial trade with natives will be cheap for us.
  12. Our Merchants can stay in our colonies as long as they need to, and repair their ships cheaply compared to European ports. With cheaper running costs for merchants coming from the colonies, prices are driven down at home.
  13. With the new industries and trade that would open up, our unemployment would go down.
  14. We may produce commodities that normally we could only find in France or Spain, and therefore undercut their trade.
  15. We may obtain cheaply goods that the French and Dutch are selling to us expensively at the moment
  16. We may spread the Church of England and create a haven from religious persecution
  17. Frontier wars would enable us to train our inexperienced troops
  18. We may free peoples that the Spanish have enslaved, trade with them, teach them to mine gold and silver and train them to help us in future wars
  19. Short distance trade leads to mariners being often idle and turning to piracy to make ends meet. Long distance trade should decrease piracy.
  20. We can deport criminals that may have turned to crime through no real fault of their own, it is better than hanging them.
  21. Soldiers may be employed there in peacetime.
  22. People that do not want to live in England, or have a wanderlust, have the opportunity to go there and be happy.
  23. If our labour market becomes saturated and people are unable to find jobs, they can go to the new world where there will be plenty.

Obviously these are not all equally relevant today, especially the points regarding competition with the Spanish, French and Dutch. However these details would perhaps become more relevant if several nations were to be seriously engaging in exploration or colonisation simultaneously, as an example consider the space race between the United States and Soviet Union. This would only become exacerbated if resource exploitation was taking place, with economic forces of competition, supply and demand coming into full force.

An interesting idea is how in Point 2 a travel time of three months is considered “not too long or too short”, especially considering this is travelling on a 16th century ocean going vessel which would have been far from comfortable, or even safe. This is further reinforced by Point 7, implying that the English shipbuilding industry was not in a fit state to produce many vessels capable of making that journey. Yet, despite the lack of necessary technology or infrastructure, here is Hakluyt laying out to his Queen grand plans for a global, navy-backed, trading empire based on the English colonisation of the New World, a far off place not reachable by many vessels that they could build, with a long and dangerous journey to be made even before a colony is established. This was entirely unknown territory, a mysterious world that could contain anything. It might as well have been an alien planet, at least as far as the medieval man was concerned.

It is worth noting that a trip to Mars with current technology would take somewhere in the region of six months [2]. It seems highly unlikely that the comfort and safety of a crew in 2030 would be of less concern than that of a merchant ship in 1630, or that navigation would be anywhere near as difficult given our technological prowess and the realities of orbital mechanics. Similarly to Hakluyt’s time, we do not yet have the industry capable of building vessels that could make this journey but, like the men of that time, all that is preventing this fact from changing is our will to develop it.

The United States, Russia, China and the United Kingdom have all recently made noises about the importance of space power [3], are we really naive enough to believe that Hakluyt’s Points 7 and 8 do not apply in the 21st century? Would our nations be more secure with off-world communities, not to mention the industrial advancement that would have to take place in order to make them? Is it wise to wait for other nations to get there first?

Entire articles could be written about the points that Hakluyt puts forward here, so I will not dwell on further. They give a valuable insight into the attitudes of Tudor England and the reasons why this nation decided to strike out across the Atlantic. One final interesting point is number 18, where horror at native enslavement, and a desire to end it, is already manifest in the nation as early as 1584.

The Colonial Charter

Evidently, given the subsequent development of the United Kingdom as a global hegemon off the back of her colonial positions, Hakluyt was correct enough for Englishmen to try their hands at colonisation. So what model was used to initiate colonies in these new lands?

In a modern context, consider what would happen if Elon Musk was successful at starting a city on Mars, as per the stated aims of SpaceX [4]. Would that city be part of the terrestrial United States’ territory? Given that it is an entirely private enterprise, would its residents still be considered citizens of the United States? These and other questions of sovereignty and identity must be seriously considered before attempting an enterprise such as this.

This issue was solved historically through the use of a colonial charter. Such charters would be issued by the crown (in the English context) to a private company, giving the king’s blessing for them to govern in his stead and his official recognition of its existence. Charters could be revoked in the case of bankruptcy, or by other terms as stated in its text. At that point the colonists would become direct subjects of the king, inhabiting what was known as a crown colony, as opposed to a private enterprise. This washed the king’s hands of any financial risk associated with establishing the colony, as it was taken on by the shareholders of the colonial company, meaning that in the case of failure there was no public money at risk. However, if any colonies were successful they could eventually return to being his direct subjects though a revocation of the charter down the line, providing the ability for him to take advantage of the points raised by Hakluyt.

The reward for the colonists was a new life free of the religious persecution of Europe and access to the resources of the New World. For the shareholders, there was potential for significant return on their investment if the colony was successful and was able to sell resources back to England. Another advantage was the prospect of military protection if they proved a valuable national asset, abandoning their loyalty to the crown entirely and becoming totally sovereign would leave them at the mercy of both other colonial powers and native tribal confederations.

Notable Companies

This is how it was supposed to function in theory, but how well did this work in practise? Obviously, the very existence of the United States and Canada in 2021 should lead us to conclude “extremely well, all things considered”, but let us examine some notable examples and their early days (note that these are extremely brief overviews, and further reading is recommended).

The London Company

The London Company, or to give it its full title: The Virginia Company of London, was founded in 1606, with its first charter being granted that year. At this point “Virginia” simply referred to the eastern coast of North America, as opposed to the tract of land that later contained the colony and became the modern US state. In 1609, after attracting more investors from outside London, this was split by a second charter into two subdivisions, with the charter stating:

“...that they should divide themselves into two colonies, the one consisting of diverse Knights, gentlemen, merchants and others of our city of London, called the First Colony; and the other of sundry Knights, gentlemen and others of the cities of Bristol, Exeter, the town of Plymouth, and other places, called the Second Colony.” [5]

After this point, the original company of London investors was to be referred to as the Virginia Company, with permission to settle lands between latitudes 34° and 41° North on the Eastern coast of America. The additional investors from the South West of England were to reorganise into a separate venture known as the Plymouth Company, with the lands of 38° and 45° North. Obviously, there was a significant overlap between the designated territory of each company, so a clause was added that neither company should start a settlement within 100 miles of the other.

Fig 1, Map of the East Coast of America. From this, the land assigned to each company can be appreciated. Note there is no restriction on how far east they could travel.

It is worth noting that by 1609, the eventually successful colony of Jamestown had already been established by the London investors, as well as the short lived Popham Colony by the West Country investors. The “reorganisation” was simply a formalisation of what was already occurring within the company.

The Virginia Company

The Virginia Company advertised extensively in England, although mainly around London, selling shares to both individuals or groups, men or women, rich or poor, anyone who would buy. Shares cost 12 pounds and 10 shillings initially, or just under £1700 in 2017, equivalent to between 6 months and a year’s wages for a skilled tradesman at the time [6]

Just under 1700 people bought shares, raising a significant amount of money for the company. This was used to purchase three ships and supplies for the colonists. In return for transport and support in setting up their new home, the colonists agreed to work as employees of the company for seven years upon arrival. Indentured servitude is not something that is thought highly of in today’s enlightened times, however it is important to remember that these people would be engaged in a brutal battle for survival against the environment that would find themselves in. Working together to build the new settlement would be necessary for everyone involved, regardless of whether it was as payment for the passage or not.

Jamestown was founded and named in honour of King James in 1607. After some initial struggles involving the starvation of some 85% of the population, the settlement established itself as an exporter of tobacco back to England. This was not enough to save the private nature of the colony however, and in 1624 it’s charter was revoked after a particularly brutal massacre at the hands of the natives, creating the Royal Colony of Virginia.

The Plymouth Company

As previously mentioned, the Plymouth Company was founded at a similar time to the Virginia Company as another division of the London Company, given rights to settle lands in the north of the eastern coast of America, in what became New England. Within a few months of Jamestown’s founding, they attempted to set up a rival colony in modern day Maine. Despite being abandoned after just over a year, due to the death of a wealthy patron in England, this colony has the claim of constructing from scratch the first ship on the continent capable of traveling back to England.

The company was revived after a group of English puritans, residing in the Netherlands to escape religious persecution, obtained from them a permit to settle land in their designated corridor, at the mouth of the Hudson river. They funded this through a deal with an ancient group of businessmen called the Merchant Adventurers, who dated back to the early 15th century under King Henry IV. The pilgrims would work for them to turn the colony into a for-profit enterprise, in exchange for their help.

The colony, named after the Devonshire port of Plymouth, suffered initial hardships, with many of the colonists living aboard the anchored Mayflower while houses were built. Nearly half of them died in the first winter, with the rest surviving only due to good relations with the natives, leading to the modern American festival of Thanksgiving.

The colony was a success, with the population in early 1921, just 50 individuals, swelling to around 7000 by the time it was merged with the Massachusetts Bay colony 70 years later. This was despite relations with the natives souring and several conflicts occurring.

Massachusetts Bay Company

After the initial success of the London Company’s various divisions, the Massachusetts Bay Company was formed in 1628 as a joint stock venture to trade in fish and furs of the area that was now known as New England. The company’s investors had previously attempted, unsuccessfully, to help the Plymouth Company to establish a profitable fishing village on Cape Ann nearby.

King James’ son, Charles I, dissolved parliament and began his personal, absolute rule from 1629. This alarmed the Puritan investors leading them to buy out the company from the other investors. Next, they obtained a colonial charter from the distracted King to grant them some land previously belonging to the Plymouth Company, and set sail for New England. This was notable in that now it was the investors and board of governors themselves who were colonising, rather than customers paying for the services of the company. The colony would be self-governing in all important aspects, with only technical legal links back to England.

700 colonists travelled to the colony, known as Salem, in 1630, with 20,000 others following them in the following 10 years. Due to the extremely Puritan and now fiercely independent nature of the Massachusetts colony, splinter colonies of Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire were founded by groups unhappy with their new overlords. There was enough land for all in the New World, as predicted by Hakluyt less than half a century earlier.

The War of the Three Kingdoms (English Civil War) from 1639 led to a severe reduction in people emigrating to New England. A near total abandonment of the colony in the eyes of the English state occurred, as well as the execution of Charles I and a decade of iron rule by Oliver Cromwell. By the restoration of Charles I’s son, Charles II, in 1660, a new generation was running the colony. They had never known England, and they resisted the natives more strongly, inroads by the Church of England, and laws that attempted to restrict them to trading purely with English lands.

In 1664, the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was seized by the colonists and renamed to New York, in honour of Charles II’s brother: James, Duke of York. James was crowned King of England in 1685, and the following year attempted to reorganise the New England colonies into an official dominion under the rule of his appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros. This was deeply unpopular, and Andros was arrested by local authorities after his King was deposed back home. The new joint monarchs, William of Orange (William III) and Mary II, issued a new charter in 1691, merging Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies into the Province of Massachusetts, ending the ban on non-puritans voting for the local legislative assembly and enforcing freedom of worship for non-Catholic Christians.

At this point, the population of New England numbered in the hundreds of thousands [7], at most 10% of the population of England [8]. By the revolution in 1776, the thirteen colonies that had been created by that point had a combined population of some 2.5 million. All thirteen of these colonies, the original states of what would become the United States of America, can trace their roots to the actions of English colonial companies operating under their royal charters.

Lessons learned

So what can we learn from these events that may push us into the future? As previously stated, any attempted journey to Mars would, with 2021 technology, take roughly double the time it would take to voyage from England to America in 1584. So, for the sake of argument let us consider a closer alternative, our closest celestial neighbour: the Moon. This takes a fraction of the time to reach, and the USA has already had its Columbus moment by setting foot there.

Based on what we have explored, a plan for lunar colonisation might be constructed as follows:

1. Identify a profitable resource.

This should be something such that the total cost per unit mass of extracting it and sending it back to Earth is less than obtaining it on Earth. While there are resources on the moon like carbon, iron and ice that would help a colony survive, becoming profitable in the eyes of our chosen terrestrial nation should be a goal. Since 90-95% of the Earth’s rare earth metals are produced by China, this may be a good starting point.

Another option could be Helium-3, which although universally rare, is much more common on the Moon than on Earth and could be instrumental if fusion reactor technology is ever fully functioning. This is already being explored as a viable option by the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, and their Chang’e-1 probe has already surveyed the lunar surface for the element. [9]

2. Obtain Pioneers

Individuals willing to give up their terrestrial lives in order to start new ones must be found. These people should be prepared for extreme hardship and a high chance that they would not survive.

Remember that 85% of the initial colonists of Jamestown starved to death there.

3. Obtain a charter.

Of course, in this day and age we would not be going to a king for permission to expand his realm. No nation has claimed ownership of any area of the moon’s surface at present, and various nations have signed treaties upholding this, including the Moon Agreement of 1979. However, all that would be required to bring this idea crashing down is one space-capable nation to go rogue and claim an area. Extremely bold action would need to be taken by such a nation, but action that would be seen as obvious by our ancestors.

In 2020, President Donald J. Trump of the United States signed the *Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources* [10]. This explicitly rejects the Moon Agreement and states: 

"Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.”

This is a start, but much work would be needed to persuade a nation to grant land rights on the Moon.

4. Obtain investors.

Either through selling shares publicly or persuading private investors, our lunar colonial company must raise the funds necessary to send both any pioneers and everything they need to set up their new homes to the surface.

5. Launch.

A launch site must be constructed, or the use of an existing one procured. This should be as close to the equator and at as high altitude as possible, and preferably launching eastwards over water. After all, what use is a ship without a port?

6. Establish the colony.

Like the Plymouth colonists, living in orbit or in a landed craft is a possibility while shelter is constructed. Whether modern construction techniques are as effective against the vacuum and radiation of space as 17th century wattle and daub houses were against the winters of New England remains to be proven, although designs around lunacrete or underground dwellings have been discussed. This is an engineering challenge, as opposed to a physical one.

7. Attempt profitability.

Once the colonists have established what is necessary for survival, they should start work on extracting whatever resources were identified and sending them back to either their host nation, or whoever makes the most economic sense if the host nation will allow it.

If the colony is successful at this, then new resources and colonists could be sent to them as payment. Spacecraft construction is significantly easier on the Moon due to its lower gravity, so further launches can be made like that of the failed Popham colony, who’s residents constructed the first ocean going ship in the New World. Expansion of the colony or the founding of new ones could occur, similar to the splinters from the Massachusetts one.

If they are not successful, then the charter may be revoked like Jamestown’s. The colony would then become sovereign territory of the host nation, and all its laws would apply there. Colonists would either return to earth or remain on the moon, with all their equipment still available but without the obligation to send resources home.

Of course, all these steps are incredibly difficult and entire books could be written on each. There is no guarantee of success, but due to the reasons laid out by Richard Hakluyt and the fact that this has worked before, it is certainly in our interest for someone to try. There certainly are companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Lockheed Martin, etc that have plans along these lines, and that is just in America, the nation founded precisely because Englishmen tried this exact recipe hundreds of years ago. Who knows what the Chinese or Indian government and companies will be capable of in the coming decades.


The 17th and 18th centuries were a time of incredible opportunity. It was not the rich and powerful who set up new lives in far off lands, they were more than comfortable in their England estates. It was those with the least to lose that endured the hardship, and rewards, of colonial life: the poor, the followers of the wrong religion, the backers of the wrong political faction, or simply those risking everything to seek their fortunes in a far flung world. They were not military personnel, indeed England had no standing army until Oliver Cromwell's time, they were not part of a dedicated state department or national team, they were simply private individuals driven by socioeconomic incentives to ask the state's permission to boldly go. The only association that they had with the English state was the colonial charter, an agreement with the Crown only.

These individuals caused a population explosion among the British in the New World. Even after 1707 and the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the smaller and poorer nations of the British Isles: the Welsh, Scottish and Irish, were overrepresented compared to the English across America and what became the worldwide British Empire. The colonial frontier spirit fuelled these people even after 1776, with the concept of Manifest Destiny and the drive ever westwards forging the United States into the current world hegemon.

The realities of frontier life acted as a levelling force, as Sir Edmund Andros and eventually the British Empire learned, influence in the Old World meant little in the New without it being earned there.

It appears Richard Haklyut was absolutely correct to predict a global English empire based on trade, colonial investment and naval power. He was hundreds of years ahead in his vision for England, and later Britain, since this is exactly what was achieved in the 19th century.

It also appears that modern national governments are happy to continue "flag and footprint" missions, although that could change with NASA's Artemis Program and partnership with the private sector. To be content with this is the equivalent of being content with the voyages of Columbus and Charles Darwin being the only interaction Europe had with America. It is the difference between HMS Beagle and Mayflower.

We are used to the world seeming small, with the map coloured in and journeys to the far side of it taking hours instead of months. Planet Earth is now the Old World, and nations appear to have shied away from finding another New World, turning inwards instead of looking outwards. Much of this is said to be to do with historical harsh treatment of natives, and is an attitude that is hundreds of years old, as again shown by Haklyut. It should not need to be said, but this perceived disadvantage of colonisation does not apply when considering offworld colonies (although should the Klingon Empire be discovered lurking among the stars then a follow up article on the British takeover of India may have to be considered).

The history of colonisation should inform future efforts since, as is now clear, it was fantastically successful. It is not something that is widely considered nowadays and, to turn an old saying on its head, *those who do not know history are doomed to NOT repeat it.*












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