NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Every Thanksgiving, we descendants of William Bradford – the Mayflower voyager who became governor of the Plymouth Colony and broke bread with the locals during that first hard year on American soil – recall the story of how he and his fellow pilgrims fled their native land so they could freely practice their religious beliefs. Never in my half-century at the turkey table has the discussion acknowledged the possibility that Bradford and his cohorts were really just economic migrants.
That’s part of the premise of “New World, Inc.: The Making of America by England’s Merchant Adventurers.” The book is not about Bradford, from whom I’m an 11th-generation descendant, but rather the capitalists, explorers and promoters who came before him. Their primary aims were far from godly: they were out to make their fortunes. Though it’s no secret that the colonization of America by the British – as well as the French, Dutch and Spanish – was primarily an economic affair, John Butman and Simon Targett have published a useful prequel of sorts to the creation myth of the pilgrims.
Moreover, as the authors write, in the century before Bradford and his neighbors from Scrooby in England landed at Plymouth Rock, British merchants and speculators practiced many of the dynamics of risk-sharing and governance that helped lead to the birth of the modern corporation. The way settlements in Plymouth and Virginia got off the ground is not that different from the way startups blossom today – though technology has compressed that evolution from a century to a matter of years.
England arrived late to the global conquest that made the Spanish and Portuguese crowns rich in the 16th century, partly due to the prosperity of its wool trade in continental Europe. But as Venetians and others opened up trade routes to China, in the middle of that century the lure of the Silk Road took hold among English merchants in search of new markets. Indeed, the desire to find a Northwest Passage to China continued to fuel the ambitions of English adventurers and their backers in London well after the colonies took hold.
“The Mysterie, Company and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown” was founded in 1552. It was one of the first institutional attempts to go beyond the traditional trading routes to the Low Countries and the Mediterranean, in consultation with Sebastian Cabot, son of the Venetian explorer Giovanni Cabota, anglicized as John Cabot. The Mysterie was established as a joint-stock company, one of the first in the world.
The structure took the idea of a company (derived from the Latin “cum panis”, meaning breaking bread together) a step further: It provided a governance structure and had perpetual corporate status, so that a large number of individual investors – not just family members and not all of them directly involved in company operations – could pool their assets and share the risk over extended periods of time, according to Butman and Targett.
The Mysterie did not find its way to China by way of the Northwest Passage, but did forge a route north and east from England to Russia under Richard Chancellor. The expedition secured trading rights with Ivan the Terrible and led to the creation of the Muscovy Company, with the blessing of Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII, whose marriage to the Catholic Philip II of Spain threatened to upend the established order of London’s protestant merchant-adventurers.
Mary’s death and the coronation of Elizabeth ushered in a period of conflict with Spain that determined the course of English expansion until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Until then, Spain’s exploits in Latin America and domination of the gold and silver trade circumscribed England into less ambitious and mostly unsuccessful campaigns in Ireland and what is now north-eastern Canada. Only later did it become clear, with Sir Francis Drake’s plundering of Spanish vessels laden with treasure, that Elizabethan England would need to challenge Spanish hegemony in the new world.
The queen’s favorite courtier, Sir Walter Raleigh, helped test Spain’s dominion, which in addition to its economic prospects offered “the solution to many of the England’s commercial, social and political problems,” the authors write. In 1584 the first piece of legislation was read in the House of Commons to confirm Raleigh’s patent to colonize America.
After the Spanish defeat, England was emboldened and excited by the prospect of expansion. Richard Hakluyt’s “Principal Navigations,” published in 1589, became a spiritual guide of sorts, having been written in part out of the author’s frustration with European derision for England’s “continual neglect” of conquest. Hakluyt not only proselytized spreading abroad, but personally invested in attempts to establish a commercial venture in Virginia, including the doomed Roanoke Colony.
The story of the first two decades of the 17th century leading up to the Mayflower’s arrival in Provincetown harbor in 1620 have been well told, including by the likes of Walt Disney, which made a fortune animating the story of Pocahontas helping the English settlement in Jamestown. Butman and Targett focus on the commercial prospects that lured financiers to back colonists on the eastern seaboard, where they gainfully exported tobacco, sassafras, oak and beaver skins. Though valuable, these discoveries did little to diminish the desire of London merchants to find a passage to China.
By the time Bradford and his fellow congregants set sail from Leiden in the Netherlands, where they had settled a decade before, the Council for New England had formed to further the crown’s expansion in the northern reaches of the continent. Thomas Weston, who financed the Mayflower, extracted harsh terms from the settlers, in part by guaranteeing to smooth over any issues with King James over their religious practices. It took until 1648 to pay off their debts.
In the end, as Bradford wrote in his seminal “Of Plymouth Plantation”, jobs were the primary motivation for his group’s decision to embark for New England. Though it may not be what everyone at my Thanksgiving table wants to hear, “New World, Inc.” makes a good case for changing the conversation from religious to economic migration come November.
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