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