VIRGINIA: THE LONDON COMPANY

The Company. In 1606 King James I issue a charter to a group of investors to establish the Virginia Company. The company was formed into two groups, the London and Plymouth companies, and each was given rights to colonize the North American coast from south to north, with some overlap. The purpose of the companies was to help make England stronger and reap rewards for those who dared to “adventure” their capital—or their persons—in America.

The company soon discovered that the gold in America was the land, but that money and labor were needed to exploit it. Therefore the company used various recruiting schemes in an attempt to lure more people to invest in and/or go to Virginia, but its only real asset was the land and what could be produced on it. As has been noted already, the problem in Europe was finding enough land for the people: in America, the reverse was true—there was plenty of land but too few people to develop it profitably. The fact that labor was more valuable than land constantly undermined traditional European ideas of class and position in America; in fact, one can detect early seeds of rebellion and faint democratic stirrings even in the early colonies.

Many plans were used to try to increase the labor supply, including the use of Indians as slaves. The critical shortage of labor also contributed to the growth of slavery. While the Indians were excellent farmers, they did not take to slavery, and because they could easily escape, that experiment failed. Even as farmers, Indians were not as wedded to the idea of land ownership as Europeans; in fact, most Indians did not understand the concept of individual ownership of land. Furthermore, idleness was a virtue among male Indians. They often laughed at white men farming, or doing “women’s work.”

(We should mention here that Africans did not take to slavery any more than Indians, but were much less able to escape, because they were in alien country and had no place to which they could safely flee.)

The Virginia settlers were patriots, Christians, men seeking personal profit and betterment of their economic circumstances. They were urged to come “for the good of your country and your own, to serve and fear God . . .” Emigration to America became a selection process. The temperament and personality of the settler was that of someone searching for the unknown, escaping from the intolerable.

The goals of the companies and to some extent of the settlers were to secure a place, find gold, civilize the natives, and find a passage to India. Indians were seen both as laborers and as potential consumers of European goods: It was a form of economic imperialism, later called the “last stage of capitalism.” As it turned out, opportunities of all kinds were indeed plentiful, including opportunities for political power not available in England.

Note: A class system did evolve in Virginia, which was the most aristocratic of the colonies; Virginians believed in rule by elite, though that elite might be based on achievement and wealth rather than by name or birthright. Virginia started as a “white male democracy,” in a limited sense, but that system also evolved. The Virginia House of Burgesses, established in 1619, is the forerunner of today’s Virginia Assembly.

The Jamestown Disaster

In May, 1607, three ships belonging to the London company, the Susan B. Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, arrived in the Chesapeake area under the command of Captain Christopher Newport. The ship put over 100 colonists ashore, and England had what would become its first permanent settlement in North America. (In August, 1607, at the Plymouth Company established a colony on the Kennebec River in what later became the state of Maine, but it failed within a year.) Things began badly. The location—in a swamp—had been a mistake, but even worse was the failure of the colonists to work together for the shipcommon good. Captain John Smith saved the colonists by imposing order, but conditions became so bad by 1610 that the colony was almost abandoned. As late as 1616 the colony seemed to be incapable of returning a profit to the investors. Eventually it went bankrupt and its charter was revoked.

It is not clear why the Virginia settlers were so reluctant to work, but it may have had to do with attitudes from home. Because there was not enough work to go around, the chronic condition of English workers was one of underemployment. Even when work was available, it was cyclical or irregular. Furthermore, probably as a result of those conditions, English workers lacked what we would call a work ethic. People were used to being idle and were frequently short of basic necessities. The working poor lived marginal lives at best. They knew that there must be greener pastures somewhere, and many came to believe that “Utopia” could literally be found across the Atlantic. And so they came, by the hundreds, thousands, and eventually by the millions.

For an account of the difficulties in Jamestown, read the excerpt from Captain John Smith’s “Generall Historie of Virginia,” which was printed in 1624. He describes his own adventures but also offers a grim account of the “starving time.”

Summary: The Jamestown experience was ten disastrous years—every possible mistake was made and then some. Murphy’s law was in effect—everything that could go wrong did go wrong, or so it seemed.

Jamestown Chronology

1606

Charter issued.  (See Virginia Company Charter.)

1607

The first ships arrive. (See John Smith’s history.)

1610

Company stock is open to public investors—membership cost 12 pounds.10.  By May 9 vessels with six hundred passengers are underway.  Wealthy London merchants invest in hopes of making profits, but no one ever makes a farthing.

1609–10

Expedition is shipwrecked underway, leaders lost.  Survivors bicker among themselves; in this winter of horror, four-fifths of the colonists die.

1610

Lord Delaware arrives with reinforcements. The Company Council in London realizes that Virginia is a long-term investment that will pay off in national prosperity if successful.  Thus raising additional funds is seen as a patriotic chore. By 1611 the purpose is understood to be the use and exploitation of land, but that requires people.

1612

A new charter adds Bermuda to the London Company as an added incentive.  Company control is granted to the owners and members, and the Council serves as their liaison with the Crown.  A new legal code is passed that guarantees rule according to the principles of English law.

1614

Settlers are now becoming “seasoned”—accustomed to the climate and more resistant to disease.  The colony is somewhat more stable, after having nearly been abandoned a few years earlier.

1616

The colony had originally been organized with community ownership of all assets.  The settlers shared food, tools, products, jobs, and theoretically even the profits.  In 1616, however, that experiment is terminated and all the assets are divided up among the members. The conclusion is that the first experiment in pure communism in America was a failure.

By now the trial and error period is over, and Jamestown begins to function as a cooperative enterprise.  The leaders of the colony turn out not to be the well-born, but those who can function and survive in the wilderness.

1617

Tobacco takes hold. Growing requires little skill, so landowners can do well if they can find people to work the crops. By 1688 Virginia is producing 18 million pounds of tobacco annually. About this time the headright is established, which gives one fifty acres to those willing to settle the land as well as fifty acres for each person they can bring over at their own expense.

1619

The first representative assembly in North America is created.  Its purpose is to advise Governor Yeardley—the Company is struggling, so perhaps those on the scene can help with the management.  The best way to get the cooperation of the settlers is by allowing them to participate in government in a limited way.

1619

A “Dutch man of war” drops anchor in Jamestown and trades twenty African slaves for food. (Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower:  A History of Black America)Slave owners begin to establish the power structure and lifestyle of the southern colonies.

1622-23

An attack of the plague and raids by Indians nearly wipe out the colony—only twelve hundred are left alive by the end of 1623.  The company is bankrupt and all support is gone.

1624

The London Company charter is revoked.  The survivors inherit the land in the colony—within ten years, they own it free and clear.

Lessons of Virginia and Jamestown:

  • The Virginia Company charter determined the structure of the colonial government so long as it conformed to English common law.
  • London established rules of conduct. The Charter was kept in London—Virginians never had as much freedom from control as New England.
  • A steady money supply was needed to keep a colonial investment going. Eventually that need was seen as throwing good money after bad, and the charter was revoked.
  • A steady supply of people to settle and work the land was also necessary, but it was not an easy life, despite promises made to and by investors.
  • In order to get people to continue to invest, it was necessary to promise a return on investment. Company officials kept “sweetening the pot,” but ultimately it was not enough.
  • Capitalism was at the center of the early Virginia experience. The planters learned management and government systems that helped mercantile capitalism develop in America.
  • Bottom line: Colonies are expensive to support and maintain; there is no easy road to riches. The real “gold” in America is the land, but to be profitable, the land has to be developed and worked. The work was never easy.

Noted with Irony:

  1. Without intervention of the Indians, the Jamestown colony would probably not have survived. Those same Indians later tried to exterminate the colony.
  2. After the charter was revoked and the colony became a crown colony, the survivors eventually inherited the land and became the wealthy Virginia planters, among whom were the famous “First Virginia Families,” whose descendants have been around ever since.
  3. Virginia was closer to England than New England—in religion, commerce, politics, economics. But in the early years, New England was healthier and stronger in many ways.

Link to Jamestown Historic Site

Bacon’s Rebellion Of 1676

In 1676 settlers in western Virginia started a revolution against Governor William Berkeley, led by a recent immigrant named Nathaniel Bacon. The settlers in the Piedmont region of western Virginia were going through difficult economic times as newly arrived immigrants competed for good land. Frontier settlers were also still dealing with hostile Indians, and when the government seemed unable to respond to their requests for assistance in suppressing Indian harassment, the western citizens revolted. After fighting the Indians, they marched on Jamestown, led by the young firebrand Bacon. They drove Governor Berkeley over into Maryland and then set fire to the capital.

When Bacon suddenly died, the rebellion collapsed for lack of strong leadership, but repercussions were felt back in England, where even the king was aware of the uprising. When he heard of the punishments handed down by Governor Berkeley, who hanged twenty-three of the rebels, King Charles II complained that Berkeley had hanged more people than the king himself had over the execution of his father, Charles I.

The rebellion is an interesting forerunner of the American Revolution and pointed up the differences between Tidewater and inland Virginians. The episode also faintly foreshadows the rebellion of the western Virginia counties in 1861, who broke away over the secession issue and became the state of West Virginia in 1863.

Colonial Home | Updated December 15, 2016