In 1650, England's overseas possessions consisted of a strip on the Atlantic seaboard of North America, secured by the effective occupation of the three colonies of Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia; islands in the West Indies, of which Barbados, Antigua, and St. Kitts were the most important; and scattered factories or trading posts in the Far East at such places as Surat, in India. These were dwarfed by the overseas holdings of Spain, France, and Holland. At the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, although the British had lost possession of their 13 colonies, their overseas empire had increased to include Canada and Jamaica in America; Gibraltar, Minorca, and Malta in the Mediterranean; Cape Colony in Africa; and all of India, Australia, and New Zealand. These were British prizes in the struggle for the control of Asia and America, a struggle in which the main contestants were the English and French, with the Dutch and Spanish as junior partners.
The contest opened early in the Caribbean. During the French-Spanish wars over the control of Italy, from about 1520 on, the French attacked the Spanish again and again, sacking the West Indies from one end to the other. After 1570, French seamen were mainly Huguenots, and the fighting became more fierce. After about 1610, the struggle took on a different aspect, for the English, Dutch, and French were all engaged in an island-snatching contest, in which they took from Spain or from each other territories that were not firmly held. If the peace that Cromwell made with the Dutch in 1654 appears soft, there were reasons. Cromwell was preparing to send an expedition into the Spanish West Indies, where the English later took and held Jamaica. As a Puritan, he felt it his duty to strike at England's ancient enemy, Spain; if he had used foresight, he would have realized that leadership in Europe had passed to France.