New World Inc.|
The Making of America by England's Merchant Adventurers
John Butman and Simon Targett
Little, Brown and Company, 2018, HC, 432 pp, $25.98, Kindle $14.99
In an extremely well researched book, Targett and Butman describe what they call the prequel to the tale of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims. "The Plymouth story" they write "serving as America's default founding myth, derives its power from the fact that it reflects what America wants to be, how it wants to see itself and be seen. But in its popular conception the story is misleading because there is one major feature of American life that has been often left out, ignored overlooked or downplayed. Commerce. Business. Enterprise." This is the basic thesis of this book, and Targett and Butman bring us back seventy years prior to the Mayflower expedition to explain how and why England became interested in the new world. Essentially England was going broke.
In 1552 English merchants and courtiers began to compile investment groups who would gather shareholders to fund expeditions that would foster trade. The first group founded was called the Mysterie, Company and Fellowship of Merchant Adventures. Their first expedition was to find a Northeast Passage to Cathay. They failed in that, however, the ships led by Richard Chancellor do reach Moscow and open trade there, with non-other than Tsar Ivan, later known as "The Terrible".
Throughout the book there are a number of disastrous voyages, and the authors rely heavily on written accounts of the time and direct quotes from the important people involved. It is truly an immersive experience as the reader travels with the determined companies. Slowly the expeditions turn their focus from searching for riches to settling in America. Two significant explorers in the 1570's, Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake returned to England to describe vast lands which the English people could settle and prosper. The promise of land grants to the English, whose country is in debt, appealed to rich and poor investors alike. It opened up for artisans, shopkeepers and soldiers the opportunity for independence in the New World.
Butman and Targett do not ignore the political backdrop of the time. There is constant war between the Spanish and English. Queen Elizabeth often times hesitates to allow the Merchant Companies to travel for worry of losing ships she may need for war. There is also the pull and push between protestant and catholic camps.
Butman and Targett write a detailed timeline from the first adventurers up to the Jamestown settlements and eventually the Mayflower expedition. Throughout the trials the adventurers had, the constant thread is the search for trade and jobs. While America is enamored of the Mayflower story, the authors posit that the pilgrims are not fleeing religious persecution; indeed they were safe from that while they lived in Holland, but that the jobs in Holland were not enough to satisfy their growing families. They also burst the myth that Thanksgiving was a yearly event since the settlers first celebrated in 1621. In fact it was imposed as a holiday by President Lincoln as an effort to unite the country. Full of historical facts such as these Targett and Butman clarify decisively the relationship of England with America in the 16th century. New World Inc. is a very engaging and illuminating read.