As in the case of Spain, national glory, profit, and religious mission merged in early English thinking about the New World. The Reformation heightened the English government’s sense of Catholic Spain as its mortal enemy (a belief reinforced in 1588 when a Spanish naval armada unsuccessfully attempted to invade the British Isles). Just as Spain justified its empire in part by claiming to convert Indians to Catholicism, England expressed its imperial ambitions in terms of an obligation to liberate the New World from the tyranny of the Pope. By the late sixteenth century, anti-Catholicism had become deeply ingrained in English popular culture. Reports of the atrocities of Spanish rule were widely circulated. English translations of Bartolome de Las Casas’s writings appeared during Elizabeth’s reign. One, using a common Protestant term for the Catholic Church, bore the title, “Popery Truly Displayed.”

Although atrocities were hardly confined to any one nation—as England’s own conduct in Ireland demonstrated—the idea that the empire of Catholic Spain was uniquely murderous and tyrannical enabled the English to describe their own imperial ambitions in the language of freedom. In A Discourse Concerning Western Planting, written in 15 84 at the request of Sir Walter Raleigh, the Protestant minister and scholar Richard Hakluyt listed twenty-three reasons why Queen Elizabeth I should support the establishment of colonies. Among them was the idea that English settlements would strike a blow against Spain’s empire and therefore form part of a divine mission to rescue the New World and its inhabitants from the influence of Catholicism and tyranny. “Tied as slaves” under Spanish rule, he wrote, the Indians of the New World were “crying out to us ... to come and help.” They would welcome English settlers and “revolt clean from the Spaniard,” crying “with one voice, Liberta, Liberta, as desirous of liberty and freedom.” England would repeat much of Spain’s behavior in the New World. But the English always believed that they were unique. In their case, empire and freedom would go hand in hand.

An engraving by Theodor de Bry depicts colonists hunting and fishing in Virginia. Promotional images such as this emphasized the abundance of the New World and suggested that colonists could live familiar lives there.

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