A whole new world

JERRY BROT­TON en­joys a book that chal­lenges the Mayflower myth and ar­gues that Amer­ica was built on profit, not piety

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews -

New World, Inc.: How Eng­land’s Mer­chants Founded Amer­ica and Launched the Bri­tish Em­pire by John But­man and Si­mon Tar­gett At­lantic Books, 432 pages, £25

Part of the fab­ric of Amer­ica’s na­tional iden­tity is that its English-speak­ing foun­da­tions can be traced back to the pi­ous Pil­grims that ar­rived on the Mayflower in 1620. As this fas­ci­nat­ing book’s ti­tle sug­gests, the au­thors are keen to re­vise the myth of re­li­gious dis­senters found­ing mod­ern Amer­ica. They have writ­ten what they call “the pre­quel to the Pil­grims”, whose ‘mis­lead­ing’ story has omit­ted three main fea­tures that drove the pre­vi­ous 70 years of Tu­dor and Stu­art in­volve­ment in the Amer­i­cas: com­merce, busi­ness and en­ter­prise. This isn’t sur­pris­ing given the au­thors’ pedi­gree as busi­ness ex­perts, but their case is a per­sua­sive one.

Their story starts in the 1550s, with the cri­sis in Tu­dor Eng­land’s de­clin­ing wool trade. Due to in­fla­tion, and the re­li­gious crises trig­gered by the tur­bu­lent tran­si­tions be­tween Henry VIII’s off­spring – which ul­ti­mately led to the cre­ation of El­iz­a­beth I’s pariah Protes­tant state – states­men and mer­chants re­alised that other mar­kets were re­quired to en­sure eco­nomic sur­vival. In 1552, Eng­land’s first joint stock com­pany (mar­vel­lously ti­tled ‘The Mys­terie’) was formed, in­tent on sail­ing to ‘Cathay’ (China) via the north­east pas­sage. The ex­pe­di­tion failed dis­as­trously, but it in­spired the cre­ation of a new Com­pany of Cathay, and drew the ex­ist­ing Mus­covy Com­pany into am­bi­tious ex­pe­di­tions into North Amer­ica to chal­lenge Span­ish power in the re­gion, and pur­sue gold, sil­ver and more pro­saic trade like fish.

But­man and Tar­gett high­light how se­nior El­iz­a­bethan states­men like Burgh­ley and Wals­ing­ham took dif­fer­ent po­si­tions to Lon­don’s mer­chants and more flam­boy­ant courtiers – such as Wal­ter Ralegh – in pur­su­ing the dream of English set­tle­ments in the New World. They also iden­tify key mo­ments in this dream: Drake’s first English global cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, the pow­er­ful ar­gu­ments for the plan­ta­tion of Vir­ginia by im­pe­rial pro­pa­gan­dist Richard Hak­luyt in the 1580s, and Ralegh’s over­ween­ing am­bi­tion to set­tle the area. Their de­scrip­tions of the set­tle­ments at Roanoke and Jamestown cap­ture the grim­ness mixed with as­pi­ra­tion – and of­ten down­right disin­gen­u­ous­ness – that char­ac­terised con­tem­po­rary ac­counts of those who lived and died there.

The fi­nal chap­ters on the vi­tal Ja­cobean years that saw the cre­ation of the Vir­ginia Com­pany and the Mayflower’s depar­ture are ab­sorb­ing yet brief, and there isn’t enough on the role played by com­pa­nies work­ing in the Is­lamic world that framed many fi­nan­cial ven­tures in the west. Nev­er­the­less, the chap­ter de­con­struct­ing the Pil­grim myth is a pow­er­ful and con­vinc­ing one. The ar­gu­ment that trade rather than re­li­gious moral­ity founded Amer­ica may be of strange com­fort to the White House’s cur­rent in­cum­bent.

Jerry Brot­ton’s books in­clude This Ori­ent Isle: El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land and the Is­lamic World (Pen­guin, 2016)

A c1585 en­grav­ing of the English ar­riv­ing in Vir­ginia

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