Three generations of English merchant adventurers-not the Pilgrims, as we have so long believed-were the earliest founders of America. Profit-not piety-was their primary motive.
Some seventy years before the Mayflower sailed, a small group of English merchants formed “The Mysterie, Company, and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown,” the world’s first joint-stock company. Back then, in the mid-sixteenth century, England was a small and relatively insignificant kingdom on the periphery of Europe, and it had begun to face a daunting array of social, commercial, and political problems. Struggling with a single export-woolen cloth-the merchants were forced to seek new markets and trading partners, especially as political discord followed the straitened circumstances in which so many English people found themselves.
At first they headed east, and dreamed of Cathay-China, with its silks and exotic luxuries. Eventually, they turned west, and so began a new chapter in world history. The work of reaching the New World required the very latest in navigational science as well as an extraordinary appetite for risk. As this absorbing account shows, innovation and risk-taking were at the heart of the settlement of America, as was the profit motive. Trade and business drove English interest in America, and determined what happened once their ships reached the New World.
The result of extensive archival work and a bold interpretation of the historical record, New World, Inc. draws a portrait of life in London, on the Atlantic, and across the New World that offers a fresh analysis of the founding of American history. In the tradition of the best works of history that make us reconsider the past and better understand the present, Butman and Targett examine the enterprising spirit that inspired European settlement of America and established a national culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that continues to this day.
On May 6, 1621, the Mayflower returned to England from the fledgling American colony of New Plymouth. In the eight months since the little ship left the English coast behind, the seventy investors that had bankrolled the voyage--mostly London merchants--had not received a scrap of news about the fate of their venture. Now, as the ship's master, Christopher Jones, eased the Mayflower into its dockage at Rotherhithe, an ancient landing place two miles down the Thames from London that had become a huddle of boatyards, sailors' cottages, and merchants' warehouses, the financial backers eagerly awaited news about the one thing they cared about most: what saleable cargo the ship had brought back from the New World. Perhaps it carried oak timbers for shipbuilding and barrel-making. Perhaps it contained cedar, which was much prized for the construction of exquisite dining-room furniture. Perhaps there might be great bundles of sassafras, the wildly popular plant that could be decocted into remedies for syphilis, malaria, incontinence, and the common cold. Best of all, and certainly the most lucrative, there might be beaver pelt for fashioning the hats that had become all the rage with aristocrats and rich merchants. Such commodities could quickly find a ready market, not only in England but in mainland Europe, and perhaps even in Asia, where they could be traded for the fabulous goods that the English craved: Chinese silks and velvet and linen, precious stones and metals, spices, medicines, fine wines and exotic foodstuffs, and Turkish carpets.
But no. The Mayflower carried no goods or commodities, nothing saleable, nothing of value at all. Instead, the hold groaned with rocks, loaded as ballast to replace the weight of the 102 settlers left behind on the far-distant shoreline.
Disappointed and unwilling to throw good money after bad, most of the investors eventually sold out of the Mayflower venture and washed their hands of the New Plymouth settlers, the people later referred to themselves as "pilgrims." Four centuries later, however, the tables have turned. The commercial organizers of the Mayflower voyage have long since been forgotten, while the Plymouth settlers have been enshrined as the true originators, the makers of America. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary, that great storehouse of the English language, defines the Pilgrim Fathers as "the founders of the United States."
But the story of the making of America actually begins in England in the mid-1500s--seventy years before the Mayflower set out to brave the westerly gales and cross the Atlantic. At that time, England was a small kingdom at the margin of Europe, a relatively insignificant participant in world affairs. The island realm faced a daunting array of social, commercial, and political problems: rising unemployment, failing harvests, a widening gulf between rich and poor, and a crisis of leadership. A prepubescent boy, Edward VI, nominally led the country following the death of his father, the tyrant-king Henry VIII. But a cabal of ambitious noblemen held the real power. A whiff of rebellion, perhaps even revolution, hung in the air. And to provide a physical manifestation of the country's precarious health, a virulent disease known as the sweating sickness returned for the first time in a quarter of a century, destroying lives and devastating communities. You could be dancing in the morning, the saying went, and be dead by noon. In just a few days, nearly a thousand people perished in London.
Throughout the land, conditions had grown so dire that a terrifying question loomed over the kingdom's cosmopolitan capital city as well as its countless rural villages: Can England survive?
As if in answer to that existential question, a constellation of remarkable people, often linked by family ties, emerged over the course of three generations to seek solutions to England's ills. There were courtiers, intellectuals, scientists, writers, artists, and buccaneers. Above all, there were some of England's most prosperous merchants. Although these entrepreneurs rarely ventured overseas themselves, they masterminded a relentless stream of commercial enterprises dedicated to discovery, exploration, development, and settlement. Variously bold, obsessed, hungry for gold and glory, and driven by compelling ideas about social improvement and commercial advantage, they organized, promoted, and supported hundreds of ventures, one after another, until multiple threads of failure began to stitch into a fabric of success.
In the process, they developed many of the elements that shaped America as it grew into the country we know today. They originated new corporate and political institutions workable in the New World, embraced new approaches to leadership and social organization, and applied the latest technologies and the latest thinking. They learned how to raise funding, share risk, and allocate capital in ventures with unpredictable outcomes. And most strikingly, they learned how to overcome seemingly insuperable challenges, accept and learn from failure, and cherish the quality that Americans have come to regard as quintessentially their own: perseverance. In New World, Inc., we tell their story--the prequel to the Pilgrims. And, insofar as their actions helped to usher in the modern world, it is our story, too.
"As John Butman and Simon Targett remind us in their deeply researched and well-written New World, Inc., the Pilgrim venture was the outcome of English attempts over seven decades to reach the fabled East and Cathay (China)... ...Butman and Targett unapologetically describe the mercantile foundations of the Atlantic colonies."—Financial Times
"John Butman and Simon Targett explain the origins of America's colonies by examining London's businesses--especially those that attracted investors eager to explore opportunities abroad...[They] parse the kind of financial details that get lost in many similar histories."—Peter C. Mancall, Wall Street Journal
"This engrossing history of adventure and innovation, disclosing the true motive for America's founding, will appeal to all readers."—Library Journal, Starred Review
"Brisk and fascinating"—Foreign Affairs
"This is a beautifully presented and constructed book, with an arresting collection of colour pictures. It is fluently and elegantly written, and the reader is drawn from page to page, onwards through this fascinating story. In many ways it reads at times like a novel, but this is a serious piece of historical writing. Human interest and drama sit at the heart of this story, but it is also one of science, innovation, navigational daring, bravery, chance, and resilience. It is a story as exciting as it is revealing."—Mark Fox, Reaction
"New World, Inc. makes a good case for changing the conversation from religious to economic migration come November"—Rob Cox, Reuters Breakingviews
"A highly readable book that will open most readers' eyes to a fascinating and little known page of history."—Thomas Urquhart, The Press Herald
"Butman and Targett argue persuasively that the myth of America's founding narrative, centered on the Pilgrims' quest for religious freedom, ignores the reality of England's relationship to the New World in the 16th century... A lively and illuminating revisionist history."—Kirkus
""Butman and Targett are fluent storytellers with an eye for detail"—Publishers' Weekly
"This meticulously researched, well-written, and beautifully designed book tells the fascinating and largely untold story of the earliest days of globalization, of innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking, and of the creation of some of the earliest venture-financed companies in the world."—Glenn Leibowitz, Write with Impact
"The fascinating story of the merchant adventurers, the 16th century equivalent of today's venture capitalists, who risked their capital for the prospects of enormous profits and were behind explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, who discovered and first settled the New World. Brilliantly researched and vividly told, New World Inc will give you a totally new perspective on the history of the founding of this country."—Liaquat Ahamed, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Lords of Finance
"Part business history, part swashbuckling adventurer's tale, New World Inc. shows us that America was founded, not as an idealistic city upon a hill, but as the result of intense competition between well-funded companies looking to capitalize on the Next Big Thing. Long before the Pilgrims set foot on our shores, entrepreneurs like Frobisher, Drake and Raleigh were scouting for investment opportunities every bit as ambitious as today's internet technologies, with the landed aristocracy playing the role of venture capitalists, and the English monarchs Elizabeth I and James I as the Chairs of the Board for these vast colonial enterprises. A fascinating read."—Larrie D. Ferreiro, author of Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It
"In New World Inc., John Butman and Simon Targett deliver an intelligent, thorough, and detailed examination of the financial stories powering the earliest voyages to America. Skillfully told, this compelling book elevates the overlooked economic motivations behind the first American settlements to their proper place in history."—Bhu Srinivasan, author of Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism
"Although every school child knows the story of America's discovery by Columbus, how the English came to North America has been surprisingly forgotten. The discovery of "New" England (and North America) by a group of daring seafarers backed by English merchants and ultimately Queen Elizabeth I herself was accidental - even unwanted. New World Inc paints a fascinating portrait of personal daring and bold risk taking, of deceit and court intrigue, of murder, greed, loss of life, cunning, disappointment and unexpected success. It is a captivating read."—Antoine Van Agtmael, author of The Smartest Places on Earth