A search for profits and new markets spurred England’s exploration of North America.
Business journalists and historians Butman (Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas, 2013, etc.) 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. For the English, settlements offered both a market for manufactured goods—especially woolen cloth, on which the economy was largely based—and a source of coveted raw materials, notably fur, wood, and precious metals. America’s origin was not “a fable of moral rectitude and national goodness” but rather the culmination of decades of business deals. Jobs, the authors reveal, were the Pilgrims’ “key concern.” Drawing on considerable primary sources, the authors chronicle the investment groups—beginning with the Company of Merchant Adventurers, in 1552—who gathered shareholders to fund expeditions to foster trade. The Merchant Adventurers at first focused on trade with Russia and finding a northern route to China. That focus shifted after explorers Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake returned to England in the late 1570s with reports of vast western lands and a possible route to China through the Northwest Passage. In a nation mired in debt and economic problems, the lure of land grants appealed to investors large and small: merchants, artisans, shopkeepers, and soldiers. Nevertheless, with most investors contributing from 5 to 50 pounds, it proved difficult to fund a fleet of several ships and hundreds of men. Storms, disease, navigation errors, and rivalries undermined many voyages. Still, reports of successes “gave England a new way to think about itself—no longer as a sluggish and neglectful nation but as a bold seafaring people.” The authors give ample evidence that “the driving commercial impulse, the spirit of enterprise” underlay the creation of America. As John Smith wrote in 1616, no “other motive than wealth will ever erect there a Commonweale.”
A lively and illuminating revisionist history.