Friday, September 26, 2008

Beyond Its Beginning; Our Legacies and Heritage from Jamestown - Part 3

Jamestown’s Historical Context

Jamestown is better understood in the context of what was happening in England and the entire Atlantic community during its planning, establishment and existence, and what we are learning about the environment in the then New World and its native communities and societies.

English history at the close of the 16th and in the 17th centuries was complex. It was the Era of Religious Discord and economic times were difficult. The English economy was depressed by major agricultural changes, as the new wool-growing practices of “enclosures” by the great landowners drove thousands of small farmers and their families and laborers from rural land tenancy into urban poverty and starvation, plus increased crime and a surplus and overcrowded population, which doubled (from 2.3 to 4.8 million) between 1520 and 1630.

England was also suffering from the lingering effects of the extended series of wars for religious supremacy with Spain, which ended only after “the pacifically inclined James VI of Scotland” succeeded Elizabeth I as James I of England in 1603. The nation had been nearly bankrupted and Spain was.

The desperate societal conditions drove more than a few to risk health and life to seek any hopeful prospect of fleeing the economic deprivations and dislocations, oppressive class stratification, urban distress, religious turmoil and tedious years of war. Determined promoters and advocates for English colonization and global trade, especially cleric and scholar Richard Hakluyt, inspired the mercantile or entrepreneurial class to search for new economic opportunities outside of England, which included 16th century trading ventures sent to Muscovy (Russia), the Levant (eastern Mediterranean) and newly named Virginia in the New World (Roanoke), and, at the opening of the 17th, another to East India (India, Malaya and the East Indies).

The entrepreneurs who organized and financed those venture companies saw profit opportunities in solving the country’s economic problems but received little or no support from either Elizabeth’s or James’s virtually insolvent crown treasuries. The latter also distanced himself from the Virginia venture because he did not want to risk jeopardizing his recently concluded a peace agreement with Spain by openly sponsoring a settlement in what the Spanish claimed as their territory by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.

Within three years of his coronation, though, he decided to generate new income for his depleted coffers by chartering a new private trading monopoly in the New World, the Virginia Company, to exploit the opportunities that its proponents were seeking. The new venture was also given a religious objective: to plant the Protestant Anglican religion in the New World and proselytize the indigenous people for Christianity. Hakluyt and other investors saw this as a strategy to help thwart Spanish and French expansion of Roman Catholicism in North America and included it in the Virginia Company’s patent.

Its organizers had learned from Hakluyt, plus reports from over a century of explorers’ and English fishermen’s experiences, English Caribbean ventures and the attempted Roanoke colonization in the late 1580s, that the mid-Atlantic New World promised astonishing new resources. However, one important eyewitness told them that precious jewels and gold probably did not abound there from what the indigenous people displayed, unlike what the Spanish had found in Mexico and South America.

Nevertheless, they needed to entice and recruit investors, soldiers and explorers to see what could be found to exploit the resources, generate new commerce and profits and open a new sea route to the trading riches of the East Indies and Asia. Despite the lack of empirical evidence, stories of the promise of Virginia gold were widely circulated, enough so as to have become legend, which was extended to the goals that were set for the Company’s privately backed expedition.

The Virginia Company raised the investment capital to undertake its trading mission from “adventurers,” ranging from trade and artisan guilds and other London organizations to individuals – including a diversity that included gentry and wealthy merchants plus carpenters and other ordinary citizens – and ran a public lottery. This private capital was Jamestown’s sole funding for its first seventeen years’ existence. It took about ten years to transform it from a trading outpost into a colony, when it finally began to develop its economic viability from a burgeoning demand for a new Virginia blend of tobacco.

This transformation came at a horrifying cost in colonists’ lives that is all too well known and remembered. However, according to historian Edmund S. Morgan, “Because of the chances for such profits, Jamestown in the last years of the Virginia Company, while a charnel house, was also the first American boom town.”

This is the third of nine parts
Copyright 2008

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