Setting the Stage for American History: Liberty versus Power in Europe and England

In 1495, on the death of Gianneto Berardi, who had contracted to fit out twelve ships, Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine who was manager of the Medici bank at Seville, assumed the contract. In succeeding years, Vespucci sailed in Spanish expeditions, and then from 1501 on sailed in Portuguese voyages to explore Cabral’s discovery, Brazil. Vespucci wrote accounts of his voyages; they were immediately printed and received wide circulation. As a result, the mapmakers irrevocably attached Amerigo’s name to the newly discovered continents.

The succession of the Hapsburgs to the Spanish throne in the early 16th century promptly occasioned investments by South German banking houses in Spanish mines and then in American mines. The Fuggers leased mines in Hispaniola and Mexico, while the Welsers leased Venezuela for twenty years. However, the Italians, especially the Genoese merchants of Seville, dominated Spain’s American trade during the 16th century, importing gold and tropical products into Europe and exporting manufactured goods as well as slaves under contracts, or Asientos, to America.


Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521)


In 1498–1500 and 1502–04, Columbus made two further voyages to America, which he still believed to be part of the East Indies. He finally reached the American mainland in 1498. Explorations of the interior of the mainland were begun in 1513, when Ponce de Leon explored Florida, and Vasco de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama to discover the Pacific Ocean, which he believed could be easily crossed to reach the Spice Islands and the Orient.

Portuguese entrance into the spice trade had led to mutual hostility with the Arab and Indian merchants, for these Muslim traders feared the competition afforded by the new sea route. The new route was expected to avoid the heavy expense and taxation that had greatly increased the cost of the route through the Levant. At the same time, the Portuguese feared that they could not compete in the spice trade for lack of capital, gold, or specialized products.


Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519)


In 1509, the Portuguese defeated a fleet of Arab and Indian Muslims, and, under Alfonso de Albuquerque, established trading centers at Goa on the Malabar Coast and at Malacca in Malaya. By 1513, Portuguese trade had extended to the East Indian Spice Islands and to Canton in China. Albuquerque’s attacks on Muslim shipping and markets caused a shortage of spices in Alexandria, while the conquest of Egypt in 1517 by the Ottoman Turks temporarily cut off spice supplies to Venice.

During the second decade of the 16th century, most of the spices for Europe arrived in Portuguese vessels by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and the Venetian merchants were forced to purchase spices in Lisbon to supply their customers. Soon, however, Venice reached a trade agreement with the Turks, the spice trade of the Levant returned to normal, and the Levantine trade in spices and Mediterranean goods remained larger and more important during the 16th century than oceanic commerce. The Venetians bought goods of better quality, while the expenses of long voyages, shipwrecks, and military forces for Portugal, and lack of goods for trading raised prices in the Portuguese trade.

The Spanish finally reached the East Indies in a voyage under the command of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese mariner who had lived in the East Indies. Proposing to follow a westward route around South America, Magellan, with a fleet equipped by capital provided by the Fuggers, sailed from Seville in the summer of 1519. He passed through the Strait of Magellan, separating South America from Tierra del Fuego, the following summer and arrived at the Philippine Islands, where he was killed in a native war in April 1521.

In September 1522 one ship, commanded by Sebastian del Cano, returned to Spain by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and thus became the first to circumnavigate the world. Meanwhile, in 1519 Hernando Cortez crossed from Cuba to Mexico, and by 1521 had conquered the Aztec empire and begun a search for ports for trade with the East Indies. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro led an expedition to Peru, where, after a number of years, the Inca empire was conquered. In 1527, Sebastian Cabot was to lead an expedition over Magellan’s route to the East Indies, but instead explored for gold on the Rio de la Plata in South America. During the early 1540s the Spanish explored the southern part of North America. In 1539 Hernando de Soto landed in Florida from Cuba and traveled along the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi River, which he discovered in 1541. At the same time, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traversed the southwestern part of North America up to Kansas, while expeditions sailed along the Pacific Coast of California to Oregon in 1542–43.

France too undertook active explorations in the New World. In 1524 the Florentine captain Giovanni da Verrazano explored virtually the entire east coast of North America. A decade later Jacques Cartier sailed to Newfoundland (1534). A second voyage found him exploring the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River (1535–36), which he thought would lead to China. A dubious tradition says he named the falls at Montreal, La Chine, a bitter gesture indicative of his failure to reach China. A colony was established temporarily by Cartier near Quebec in 1541–42, but the Spaniards were the only ones to establish important settlements in the New World in the first half of the 16th century.

Colonization and Conquest

The pattern of Spanish colonization was based upon conditions in Spain in the late Middle Ages. In contrast to Europe generally, where aggressions against non-European territories had been checked by the growth of Turkish power, the Spanish and the English could still pursue the conquest of lands and peoples against the Spanish Arabs of Granada and the Celts of Ireland. Thus, the two major land-conquering and colonizing powers, Spain and England, preceded their respective transatlantic conquests by the conquest of neighboring peoples—the Moors of Granada by Spain in the late 15th century, and the Irish by the English, particularly during the 16th century. In these aggressions both the Spanish and the English not only acquired the skills and appetites for further violence, but also established the attitudes and policies to be applied to alien peoples through conquest, extermination, or enslavement.

Due to geographical and political conditions, Spain retained the military spirit of feudalism for a longer time than other European countries. The arid climate and the frontier wars with the Muslims caused the Spanish ruling class to remain essentially horsemen, who in place of agriculture emphasized sheep and cattle farming, occupations in which horsemen could be utilized and trained for war. This style of life had a profound influence on Spanish colonization. The Christian and Muslim farmers conquered by the Spanish nobles were kept in feudal serfdom to provide foodstuffs for the ruling class, to whom their villages had been granted. This feudal system, which had been imposed on the conquered lands of Granada and the Canary Islands, was then applied to the larger islands of the West Indies and later to Mexico, Venezuela, and Peru. The native villages were granted to Spanish conquistadores, who were to govern them so as to live upon the work of the natives. The hapless natives were compelled to provide food, cotton, and forced labor for building the great cities where the Spanish lived and from which they governed, and to work for large mining operations of the Spaniards. Alongside the agriculture of the Indians, the conquistadores developed the raising of sheep, cattle, horses, and mules to provide profits for themselves as well as work and plentiful meat for their keepers. Generally the Spanish colonists did not pursue productive work; instead they entered government and privileged occupations, in which to live from the work of the natives whom they enslaved.

The right to conquer, coercively convert, govern, and enslave the natives of the New World was subjected to intense criticism in a series of lectures in 1539 at the University of Salamanca by the great Dominican scholastic philosopher Francisco de Vitoria. In international law based upon the natural law, insisted Vitoria, the native peoples as well as European peoples have full equality of rights. No right of conquest by Europeans could result from crimes or errors of the natives, whether they be tyranny, murder, religious differences, or rejection of Christianity. Having grave doubts of the right of the Spaniards to any government of the natives, Vitoria advocated peaceful trade, in justice and in practice, as against conquest, enslavement, and political power, whether or not the last mentioned were aimed at individual profit, tax revenue, or conversion to Christianity. Although the Spanish government prohibited further discussion of these questions, the Vitoria lectures influenced the New Laws of 1542, which gave greater legal protection to the natives in America.

Nevertheless, there were defenders of imperialism in Spain who rejected international law and scholastic individualism and returned to the slave theories of the classical authors. Based on the theory of natural servitude—that the majority of mankind is inferior and must be subdued to government by the ruling class, of course in the interest of that majority—these imperial apologists proposed that the natives be taught better morals, be converted, and be introduced to the blessings of economic development by being divided among the conquistadores, for whom they must labor.

The serfdom of the Indians was most strongly and zealously opposed by the Dominican missionary Bishop Bartolome de Las Casas. Tireless in working to influence European public opinion against the practices of Spanish officials in America, Las Casas argued that all men must have freedom so that reason, which naturally inclines men to live together in peace, justice, and cooperation, can remain free and unhampered. Therefore, concluded Las Casas, even pursuit of the great objective of conversion to Christianity cannot be used to violate these rights. Not only was all slavery evil, but the natives had a right to live independently of European government. The papacy, in 1537, condemned as heretical the concept that natives were not rational men or were naturally inferior persons. These progressive views were also reflected in the abolition of conquistador feudalism in the New Laws of 1542; however, this abolition was revoked by the Spanish Crown three years later.

Political control of the Spanish colonies was first exercised by a committee of the Council of Castile, and then from 1524 by the Council of the Indies. In the New World, provincial governments were created, with the two most important, Mexico and Peru, raised to the status of viceroyalties. Economic control of the colonies was vested in the Casa de Contratacion, instituted in 1503 to license, supervise, and tax merchants, goods, and ships engaged in trade in the New World. In 1508 a Bureau of Pilots was established under the Casa which advised the Government on maritime matters and supervised navigation and navigators; its first chief pilot was Amerigo Vespucci. Sebastian Cabot held that office for about thirty years, after transferring from English to Spanish service, as England’s maritime interests had shifted from exploration to the development of a governmental navy.

The shift of English interests from exploration to naval construction was reflected in 1510, when the English government began to build a shipyard for making vessels for a navy. In 1512 the controller of the navy organized an association of pilots that would provide experienced navigators for the navy in return for privileges in control of English shipping, privileges similar to those granted to the Spanish Bureau of Pilots. With the controller of the navy as its first master, that association was chartered as “the master, wardens and assistants of the guild of the Trinity.” The Trinity House Corporation advised the government on maritime affairs and controlled navigation and seamen.

Just as Spain had made Seville the staple port to and from which all colonial commerce was compulsorily channeled, so Bristol was made the staple port for monopolizing English commerce with the New World. Bristol’s experience in colonial trade had begun with the grant of Dublin as a colony to the merchants of Bristol when England initiated its occupation of Ireland; that experience was enlarged when Bristol’s oceanic trade to the Iberian countries was extended during the 15th century to the sugar colonies of Madeira and the Canaries.


Unhampering the Market in England and the Netherlands

By artificially depressing the price of wool in England and raising it abroad from the mid-14th century on, the Merchant Staplers not only had greatly injured the growth and export of English wool but had also unintentionally spurred the establishment of wool and textile manufacturers in England. For woolen manufacturers could now buy wool at significantly lower prices than could their competitors abroad. This rising cloth industry was organized in country districts and villages, where it could be free of the restrictions and the excessively high prices and wage rates imposed by the privileged monopolies of the urban guilds. Furthermore, the merchants of Bristol were now able to bring to England the finer Spanish wool that formed the raw material for the developing manufacture of “new drapery,” a lighter and less expensive cloth than that woven from the heavier English wool. Since the technique of manufacture of the new drapery was new, it did not come under the controls and monopolies of the urban guilds, which manufactured the traditional heavy cloth. The period of peace from the mid-15th century on witnessed a rapid increase in population, but the rigid cartel restrictions of the urban guilds condemned large numbers to unemployment. Hence the expansion to the countryside of both the new-drapery and the traditional heavycloth industries of England. Unburdened of guild regulations on production, prices, and labor, the new rural woolen cloth industry was sufficiently elastic to respond to the demands of large-scale export markets for cheap plain cloth, by developing a large-scale organization of production forbidden by the guilds.

From the middle of the 15th century, indeed, there had begun to occur a great transformation of the entire economy of Western Europe. Stagnation and depression proceeded to give way to economic progress, as the state-ridden system of protection and regulation broke apart, and capital was accumulated and invested outside the controls that had encompassed the economy. In the Netherlands, in particular, a development occurred similar to England’s: the rapid emergence of a rural cloth industry, free of urban guild and municipal regulations and taxation. Furthermore, the controls and high taxation of commerce in Bruges drove trade to Antwerp, where, free of hampering legislation, privileges, and taxes, business was able to organize itself on the basis of a new spirit of capitalist progress and economic growth. For a century, Antwerp now became the commercial capital of Europe, drawing by its freedom not only the traditional trades of English wool and cloth, Baltic grain and timber, and luxury goods of the Mediterranean, but also the growing trade in spices and sugars of the Indies—East and West. Antwerp became the main center of importation not only of English wool, but also of English woolen cloth; for woven cloth would be sent to Antwerp for dyeing and finishing. As Henri Pirenne has noted,

Never has any other port, at any period, enjoyed such worldwide importance, because none has ever been so open to all commerce, and, in the full sense of the word, so cosmopolitan. Antwerp remained faithful to the liberty which had made her fairs so successful in the 15th century. She attracted and welcomed capitalists from all parts of Europe, and as their numbers increased so did their opportunities of making a fortune…. There was no supervision, no control: foreigners did business with other foreigners freely as with the burgesses and natives of the country at their daily meetings. Buyers and sellers sought one another and came to terms without intermediaries.

The rise of Antwerp as the great center of European commerce was complemented by the growth of the Dutch merchant marine; for the free-trading Dutch were the major carriers of goods to and from the unrestricted and progressive port of Antwerp, and were as motivated by the spirit of liberty and capitalism as was Antwerp. During the 15th century, the herring, upon which the Hanseatic trade had been founded, migrated from the Baltic to the North Sea and became a cornerstone of Dutch commercial development. Holland and Zeeland became the major herring fisheries of Europe; they improved the techniques of curing the herring and transporting it to all the ports of Europe, while simultaneously refining the methods of shipbuilding and fishing. Hence the Dutch were able to compete successfully with the Hanseatic traders in the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Atlantic, to Bordeaux and Lisbon.

Too many historians have fallen under the spell of the interpretation of the late 19th-century German economic historians (for example, Schmoller, Bucher, Ehrenberg): that the development of a strong centralized nation-state was requisite to the development of capitalism in the early modern period. Not only is this thesis refuted by the flourishing of commercial capitalism in the Middle Ages in the local and noncentralized cities of northern Italy, the Hanseatic League, and the fairs of Champagne—not to mention the disastrous economic retrogression imposed by the burgeoning statism of the 14th century. It is also refuted by the outstanding growth of capitalist economy in free, localized Antwerp and Holland in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus the Dutch came to outstrip the rest of Europe while retaining medieval local autonomy and eschewing state building, mercantilism, government participation in enterprise—and aggressive war.

The Tudors

Despite the rise of rival Dutch shipping, the continued importance of the Hanseatic League in the economic life of England was indicated by the Treaty of Utrecht (1474), which confirmed the trading privileges of the Hansards in England, including the payment of lower duties than the English merchants paid. But the accession of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne in 1485 marked the beginning of a steady growth of the power of the English government. Medieval forms were transformed by the Tudors into a more efficient and complete machinery for repression, especially in regulating those economic activities that had achieved prosperity by freely evading the government’s regulations, controls, and taxation. Monopoly rights were granted in 1486 to the Fellowship of the Merchant Adventurers of England in all trade to the Netherlands except in wool; especially important was the export of cloth to the finishing and dyeing centers of the Netherlands. Furthermore, navigation acts restricted to English ships the importations of wines, in the vain expectation of thus increasing the number of English sailors and ships sufficiently to develop a strong governmental naval force.

In 1496 the English government negotiated with the government of the Netherlands the Great Commercial Treaty (Intercursus Magnus), which provided favorable commercial conditions for English merchants at Antwerp. The important contribution of the Intercursus Magnus to international law was to recognize the freedom of English and Dutch fishermen on the high seas, especially on the North Sea, which had become the major European fishing area. The fishermen were to be free to fish anywhere and to use the ports of either country in an emergency. For a century and a half, the Intercursus Magnus remained the foundation of Anglo-Dutch commercial and maritime relations. However, by an act of 1497 the English government implemented its treaty power to monopolize and control trade to other countries; specifically, the act excluded English competitors of the Merchant Adventurers from the Netherlands trade by granting that company a monopoly in the trade with Antwerp. The cloth trade to the Netherlands now became the privileged monopoly of a limited number of London merchants, who came more and more to have the closest fiscal relationships with the state through loans at favorable terms to the government.

For more effective enforcement of government power under the Tudors, executive power was exercised by a specially selected group of government advisers that, because it met in secret, was called the Privy Council. The Privy Council acted by means of fiat proclamations rather than by legislation of Parliament. Judicial power was granted to the Court of Star Chamber, a prerogative court that tried the violations of the proclamations by the mere force and whim of government rather than by the traditional common law, which guaranteed the rights of the people. Defending the government from the criticisms of the people (called libels), from conspiracy and riots (that is, any gathering protesting the oppressions of the government), and from infractions of its coinage, the Star Chamber was notorious for the imposition of ruinous fines, cruel imprisonment, whippings, brandings, and mutilations of those who came under its aegis. To aid its work, the Tudor Government had set aside the common-law prohibition of the use of torture.

The Tudors also introduced the first permanent state military force in England, as they had established the foundation for a governmental navy. Military force was most generally used to subject the Irish to English rule. Poynings’s Law (1495), which established the model for the control of colonies by the English government, extended to Ireland the repressive and absolutist measures current in England, and required all legislation in the Irish Parliament to receive prior approval from the Privy Council in England. When, a century and more later, England acquired transatlantic territories and Englishmen fled there to escape the economic effects of mercantilism or the repressions of the Privy Council, the Star Chamber, or prerogative will, it was the English subjugation and domination of Ireland that furnished the earliest precedents and models for attempted imperial control of the peoples in America.

During the 16th century a principal office developed in the Tudor government that would later have the greatest importance for the English colonies in America. This was the secretary of state, a title of Spanish origin, indicating some of the strong political and cultural influence derived from England’s commercial and diplomatic relations with Spain. By 1540, there were two secretaries of state, each of whom had full authority to act on a wide range of matters dealing with the king and his officials and the king and foreign governments. The secretaries of state became responsible for the expanding areas that the Privy Council took under its jurisdiction: judicial matters, internal government, taxation and economic controls, leadership of the houses of Parliament, military and naval affairs, foreign affairs, and, finally, colonial affairs, when England acquired and governed colonies.

During the first half of the 16th century, while the English government was neglecting the New World for state building and navy building, English fishermen quietly but regularly began to enjoy the abundant fishing in the waters off Newfoundland. Fishing ships put out from West Country ports, such as Bristol and Plymouth, and then sold the fish in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. On their return, these ships carried the goods of the Mediterranean to northern Europe; for with the decline, and cessation in 1532, of the Venetian-Flanders fleets that had been calling in Southampton, English merchants imitated the Dutch and themselves carried the trade of Italy, Spain, and Portugal to Antwerp. The Venetian fleets could no longer compete in the spice and Atlantic trade because of a growing shortage of and therefore a high price for timber in the Adriatic, and because Portuguese aggression against Venice’s Arab allies at the ports of the Persian Gulf cut off its spice routes. Such oceanic voyages, however, were not at this time of interest to the English government, which was pushing for the building of large ships and the maintenance of fishing fleets in the nearby North Sea, where the sailors could be regularly and immediately available to be pressed into the navy for military adventures in Europe, in alliance with Spain. To this end a navigation act was introduced in 1540 requiring the use of the larger, more expensive, and less efficient ships of the English shipowners and captains instead of the smaller, less expensive Dutch ships. However, privileged merchants, such as the Merchant Adventurers, in trade with Spain or its possessions (for example, Spain and the Netherlands), were exempted and could, by employing Dutch shipping, gain a competitive advantage over independent English merchants. Decreased English participation in the North Sea herring fishery caused by the greater efficiency of the Dutch as well as by the Reformation, which greatly reduced the religiously based demand for fish in England, greatly alarmed the English government. To maintain the traditional source of impressment of men into the government’s navy, a statute of 1549 imposed upon the English a political abstinence from meat under penalty of fine, in place of the previous purely religious abstinence.

This intensification of mercantilist policy was accelerated by the intervention of England into the dynastic wars on the Continent in the 1540s. To support its military activity, the English government initiated a series of great debasements of the currency as a hidden form of taxation of the people. The depreciation of the currency made England’s goods cheaper to foreigners, who were able to purchase more English goods for the same amount of money. This taxation by inflation thus called forth an unnatural expansion in the production of the export commodities of wool and cloth, dislocating the economy both in agriculture and in industry. By 1550 the great increase in the costs of production, brought about by the inflation, caught up with the fall of the foreign exchange rate, thus ending the artificial comparative advantage causing the increased export of cloth. The inevitable end to the overexpansion of export industry, stimulated by the government’s debasement in the 1540s, resulted in a severe depression, prolonged during the 1550s by further restrictive and monopolizing economic intervention by the government. Thus Parliament passed laws to protect the guild industry and to bring the free rural industry under the control of the traditional patterns of regulation and taxation; at the same time, the Merchant Adventurers, who were becoming the major tax collectors and lenders of money to the government, received a more complete monopoly of the export of cloths to Europe.

The accession of Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) was followed by the transformation of piecemeal, unsystematic government interventions, into a comprehensive program of restrictions, privileges, and taxes. Elizabeth’s reign brought to culmination the trend to absolutist government, especially noticeable in the exercise of power by the prerogative courts. By the Statute of Labourers and Apprentices of 1563, Parliament extended to the whole nation the restrictions that had formerly been limited to the urban guilds. In order to check and control the free capitalist textile industry based on rural labor, the government bound rural workers to agricultural labor and extended restrictive seven-year apprenticeship requirements and maximum-wage rates to the rural cloth industry. In this way, by crippling the free cloth industry, the government moved to confer special privilege on two powerful groups: the backward urban guilds, who were being outcompeted by the free and progressive rural cloth makers; and the quasi-feudal landlords, who had been losing workers to the higher paying cloth industry. To overcome the protections afforded defendants in common-law trials, the punishment for violating New Laws was placed by the Privy Council into the hands of the prerogative courts, where prisoners could be tortured and were deprived of the benefits of trial by jury. The Court of Star Chamber also developed censorship to control the reading of the people, and the laws of seditious and slanderous libel to protect the government from criticism.

Under the pressure of the financial crisis and of the control of markets by monopoly trading companies, the only possible avenue for the export of cloth appeared to be the opening of new areas of trade. As a result there was a resumption of English maritime exploration by the merchants seeking markets for cloth and sources of raw material. The most successful of these attempts began in December of 1551 with the formation of “The Mystery and Company of the Merchant Adventurers for discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown.” To it Sebastian Cabot, the partner and son of John Cabot and chief pilot of Spain for thirty years, was appointed as governor for life. After consideration by the Trinity House Corporation, which was empowered to review petitions for charters of exploration and trade, the company received its charter. Organized according to Italian practice as a joint stock company, it was named the Russia or Muscovy Company. The company received a grant of monopoly in 1553 for all trade with Russia, Central Asia, and Persia through the White Sea port of Archangel. An expedition to Archangel and Moscow returned in 1554 with permission to sell English cloth and purchase Russian furs plus the spices transported along the Volga River from central Asia and Persia. The descendants and relatives of the founders of the Muscovy Company were important in later explorations, most of which were conducted under the auspices of the company.

Smugglers, Pirates, and Freebooters

The English also looked to Spanish America as a market for the export of cloth and the purchase of raw materials. Although Spain maintained a system of monopoly trade to the New World, it could not supply large quantities of goods at low prices due to the regulations, taxes, and privileges of the mercantilist system. By the mid-16th century, the silver mines of Mexico and Peru were not only contributing greatly to a monetary inflation in Europe, but also making the Spanish commerce with America the most valuable part of transoceanic trade. While Europe had difficulty in selling goods in Asia in exchange for spices, and therefore had to reexport American silver for spices, it could not supply enough manufactured goods to Spain for purchasing the silver, hampered as it was by the restrictions, monopoly, and taxation imposed by the Spanish government. These restrictions and inefficiencies of the Spanish monopoly greatly encouraged smuggling by ships from other European countries.

Large amounts of manufactured goods were reexported to the Spanish colonies from the Portuguese colony of Brazil, which around the middle of the 16th century became, by virtue of the absence of restrictions and heavy taxes, the major sugar-producing area in the world. Just as the bullion from America in payment for manufactured goods, and loans on the slave trade from West Africa (through which goods were smuggled to the West Indies) by the Genoese, now made Antwerp the banking capital of Europe, so the sugar trade from Brazil to Portugal by Jewish merchants, and from Lisbon to Antwerp by Dutchmen and Portuguese Jews living in the Netherlands, made Antwerp the center of the finest and cheapest sugar-refining industry in 16th-century Europe. The English, like the Portuguese, were able to engage in the illegal trade to the West Indies at reduced risks, because of close diplomatic relations between England and Spain. In 1562, Sir John Hawkins of Plymouth, after acquiring 300 slaves in West Africa, received permission to sell them in slave-hungry Hispaniola and to purchase a valuable cargo of sugar. Hawkins made a second voyage in 1564 to sell English cloth. In return for a license to trade in the West Indies and promises as to his peaceful trade, Hawkins offered to aid the Spanish in destroying the Colony established in Florida by the French, who were also the Jeadingi pirates in the West Indies.

The Spaniards, however, decided to do this job themselves. In 1564 a group of French Huguenots under Rene de Laudonnière settled at the mouth of the St. Johns River on the east coast of Florida, and there constructed Fort Caroline. The Spaniards, worried about their bullion convoys and the threat of buccaneers, and anxious to enforce their claims of monopoly power over Florida, sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés from Spain to crush the French. In 1565 Menéndez founded the great base of St. Augustine, the first permanent city in the Western Hemisphere, and fifty miles south of the French settlement. After a French fleet moving against the Spaniards was wrecked in a storm, Menéndez, heavily outnumbering the French, then marched overland and butchered over two-thirds of the settlement, especially including prisoners, save for a hundred colonists who managed to escape to some French vessels in the harbor. Philip II, king of Spain, rejoiced at the news: “Say to him [Menéndez] that as for those he has killed, he has done well; and as for those he has spared, they should be sent to the galley [i.e., into slavery].”

In retaliation, a French nobleman, Dominique de Gourgues, outfitted an expedition at his own expense, landed in early 1568 near the fort (now renamed San Mateo), and mobilized many Indians who were happy to take revenge on the hated Menéndez. Gourgues now swept down on the Spanish garrison, taking it completely by surprise and conquering it easily. The entire Spanish force, prisoners again included, was now in turn put to the sword. Although Menéndez himself escaped punishment by being absent in Spain, Gourgues was able to enforce poetic justice. Menéndez had hanged several prisoners, publicly posting the notice that they were hanging as Protestants, not as Frenchmen. Now Gourgues hanged a score of his prisoners on the same trees, and posted the sign: “Not as Spaniards, but as liars and murderers.”

Due to English intervention into the constitutional and religious struggle of the Netherlands against Spain, English activity in the West Indies tended more and more toward piracy against Spanish shipping. The English freebooters were encouraged in their piratic attacks by the Crown, which participated in the profits of the plundering voyages. Sir John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake were defeated at Vera Cruz in 1568, but in 1571 and 1573 Drake plundered the Spanish silver depots at Panama. In 1577–80 Drake dared to circumnavigate the globe; he was the first Englishman to challenge the concept of the Pacific Ocean as a vast Spanish lake. Along the way, Drake plundered Chile and Peru, and purchased tons of spices in the East Indies. In 1585 Drake returned to the West Indies; on this voyage his fleet plundered Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and St. Augustine. In 1587, he attacked Lisbon and Cadiz, and in 1588 participated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which had attempted to retaliate against English attacks. This was a victory that brought to England domination of the seas.

Although the distraction of Spanish bullion would continue to complicate English colonial activities in the future, the actual settlement of North America was founded on the search for trade by the Muscovy Company and the extension of land conquest and speculation from Ireland to America. A staunch defender of monopoly, special privilege, and the royal prerogative, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, after serving as an officer in the war of extermination against the Irish (1566), had proposed to establish English colonies on the confiscated Irish lands and was appointed governor of southern Ireland in 1569. Gilbert emerged as the great leader of the futile quest for a northwest passage around North America to the Orient. He published in 1576 his tract in behalf of this search, Discourse of a Discovery for a New Passage to Cataia (i.e., to China). The Muscovy Company, holding a monopoly privilege for exploration and trade in the Atlantic Ocean north of London, desired to find a northwest passage, as well as stations for its whaling fleets for the whale oil used in the manufacture of soap. The Muscovy Company thereupon licensed Martin Frobisher, a nephew of one of the founders of the company, to explore Greenland and Labrador in search of a passage. Frobisher made three fruitless voyages, in 1576, 1577, and 1578.

Meanwhile, Gilbert perceived corollary possibilities of power and personal profit by the colonization of Newfoundland—both in the conquest of its fishing grounds and as a base for search for a northwest passage. Preparing to petition Queen Elizabeth for a monopoly patent of exploration and colonization of North America, Gilbert sought the advice of “Dr.” John Dee, mathematician, magician, astrologer, and mystic adviser to the queen. Dee was much consulted in matters of exploration. To support the petition, Dee submitted reports extending previous historical fantasies that the English Crown possessed the God-given right to North America and to sole ownership of all remotely adjacent seas and to all the fish therein. Gilbert received the patent for exploration and colonization in North America in 1578. Humphrey Gilbert made several preparatory voyages to Newfoundland as did his brother Adrian, his half-brother and freebooter Walter Raleigh, and his associate John Davis. After further engaging in conquest and colonization in Ireland, Gilbert prepared, during 1582–83, another voyage for “western planting” in Newfoundland to establish a fishing colony. He was lost at sea in 1583. In February 1584, Adrian Gilbert and Walter Raleigh were granted a patent for northwest exploration under which John Davis made three voyages (1585–88) in a vain quest for a northwest passage, while in the following months of 1584, Humphrey Gilbert’s monopoly patent for North American colonization was renewed in favor of Walter Raleigh.

Sir Walter Raleigh had been inspired by the Reverend Richard Hakluyt concerning colonization of the New World. Hakluyt, a friend of his and Gilbert’s, had written paeans to the idea of English colonization. Indeed, Raleigh commissioned Hakluyt to write Discourse of Western Planting (1584), to be submitted to Queen Elizabeth in order to induce her to invest money in their colonization schemes. In this work, Hakluyt promised virtually every boon to the English establishment—especially to the merchants and the Crown—markets for its products (especially woolens), raw materials for its purchases, furs, timber, and naval stores; outlets for her surplus population, and bases from which to loot Spanish shipping. Sir George Peckham, an associate of Gilbert and Raleigh, wrote in 1583—in support of Gilbert’s project—that a Newfoundland colony would provide a port to increase England’s fishing fleet, a supply of valuable furs, and a northwest passage. But all of Hakluyt’s and Peckham’s propaganda could not induce the queen to loosen her purse strings.

The products that Peckham and Hakluyt expected America to produce and the trade with foreign countries that they expected American trade to replace—these expectations, were not arrived at accidentally. Their program was founded on the experience of the Muscovy Company, which had established trading posts on the inhospitable coasts and in the forests of Russia. But the project was not described merely to indicate the close comparisons between America and Russia, from whose forests had come furs, timber, and naval stores, and over whose routes came the spices and luxuries of the Orient. Rather, the plan was offered as an alternative to the Russian trade that was desperately needed by the London merchants. For England’s Baltic trade had been crippled by conflicts with the Hanseatic League, and the English government had granted to the newly chartered Eastland Company a monopoly of exports to the Baltic areas.

The conflict between the Dutch and the Spanish in the Netherlands had brought upon Antwerp a series of calamities that ruined it as the great European center of commerce. Moreover, when the king of Spain acceded to the Portuguese throne in 1580, the Dutch were eliminated from the vital trade in spices from Lisbon, causing a rise in prices. Most important, in the 1580s the Muscovy Company’s trade with Russia suffered crippling blows when the Cossacks disrupted the Volga route, by which England had received spices from Persia and central Asia, and when Russia lost its Baltic coast, including the port of Narva, to Sweden. To regain the spice trade, a group of leading merchants of the Muscovy Company formed the Turkey Company and the Venice Company in 1581 for direct trade with the Levant in spices and Mediterranean goods. Because of wars in the Levant, these companies sent English merchants overland to India to establish a direct trade in spices. When these merchants returned, the Turkey and Venice companies were merged into the Levant Company (1592), with a charter to trade with India through the Levant and Persia.

Having secured his monopoly grant of colonization, Sir Walter Raleigh “planted” in 1585 the first English colony in what would later be the United States, on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina. The area had been first explored by Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville under Raleigh’s direction the previous year, and was named Virginia in honor of England’s virgin queen. The new colony had few dedicated settlers, however, and the people returned to England two years later. In 1587 still another Raleigh expedition, headed by the painter John White, tried to effect a permanent settlement of Roanoke Island. Indeed, the first English child born in America, Virginia Dare, granddaughter of John White, was born that summer at Roanoke Colony. But English interest in and communication with the tiny colony was cut off during the battle with the Spanish Armada, and White, stranded in England, could not return to Roanoke until 1591. He could then find no trace of any of the colonists. The first attempt at English colonization of America had totally failed.

If Raleigh and Gilbert had received their inspiration for colonizing from such men as Hakluyt, their practical experience had been picked up in the course of subduing and enslaving Ireland. After serving in the army attempting to impose English rule on Ireland, Gilbert had proposed, in the late 1560s, to plant Englishmen in Ulster, as the Irish were forcibly driven out. A few years later, Gilbert became governor of Munster in Southern Ireland; in the course of “pacifying” the Irish, he drove out Irish peasants and replaced them with West Country English. Even as late as 1580, Gilbert and Raleigh fought together to suppress the Irish in Munster, and were rewarded with sizable grants of land. After the American colonizing failures, Raleigh turned his attention back to Ireland. There he planted English colonists to grow tobacco on the forty thousand acres of land he had been granted in Munster. In 1589 Raleigh, having expended forty thousand pounds on the American failure and not succeeding in persuading the queen to supply more, was happy to sell his patent for North American colonization to a group of associates and London merchants, largely connected with the Muscovy Company and including John White, the Reverend Richard Hakluyt, and Sir Thomas Smith. Raleigh, however, reserved to himself the right of dominion over the prospective colony.

Leading circles in and around the Muscovy Company had thus resumed the monopoly of rights to exploration and colonization of North America, which monopoly they had briefly held a decade earlier. But now they had a far greater incentive to pursue their grant to try to find compensation for the upheavals of the spice and Baltic trade, and of Antwerp, during the 1580s. Consideration was therefore given to establishing a sea trade direct to the East Indies by English and Dutch merchants. Thomas Cavendish, who had served on the Raleigh voyage to America in 1585, had sailed around the world during 1585–88 and had returned with a cargo of spices. The war with Spain now completely cut England off from the Levant spice trade, and in 1589 the London merchants received permission from the Privy Council to send three ships to the East Indies, carrying silver out of the country to pay for spices. Cavendish and John Davis, another old associate of Raleigh, made an unsuccessful attempt to circumnavigate the world. James Lancaster, who had been a merchant in Lisbon, was in 1591 dispatched with three ships to India; he returned in 1594 with one ship and a cargo of spices. In 1593 the Muscovy and Levant companies moved to the fore, sending George Weymouth to search for a northwest passage to India along the coast of North America.

The Dutch began in 1594 to form companies for distant voyages around Africa to India. Their first fleet returned in 1597, thereby giving a new impetus to the activity of English merchants. In 1598 alone, Dutch companies sent five fleets, totaling twenty-two ships, to the Indies; John Davis was the chief pilot of the Zeeland fleet. By 1601, over a dozen Dutch fleets of almost seventy ships had sailed for the East Indies. Because of renewed English voyages and conflicts with the Portuguese, the Dutch merchants forming the companies that had sent the ships to the East Indies began to amalgamate them, and in March 1602 all the Dutch companies merged into the United East India Company.

In September 1599, London merchants belonging to various trading companies, especially the Levant Company, formed an association on the model of the successful Dutch companies and petitioned the government to charter a company of London merchants having a monopoly of trade by sea to the East Indies. The charter to the East India Company was granted on December 31, 1600, under the title of the “The Governor, and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies”; the Levant Company was granted a new charter to distinguish the monopoly areas of the two companies. The governor named in the charter of the East India Company was Sir Thomas Smith (or Smythe). Smith’s grandfather, Andrew Judd, had been a principal founder of the Muscovy Company. His father had preceded him as a leading tax collector, and had been a key royal official in erecting the edifice of royal absolutism, high taxation, and economic restrictionism during the Elizabethan era. Smith was governor also of the Muscovy Company and the Levant Company, of which he was a founder, and was also the principal member of the group of London merchants to whom Raleigh had in 1589 assigned his patent for American colonization. Indeed, Smith was the governor of every one of England’s privileged companies then interested in foreign commerce and colonization. Smith has been referred to as the greatest “merchant-prince” of his era, but it is clear that his status and wealth arose not from private trade, but from the governmental privileges of tax farming and grants of monopoly.

The first voyage of the East India Company went out under the direction of James Lancaster and John Davis in 1601, and was followed the next year by George Weymouth’s second voyage along the coast of North America, sponsored by the East India and Muscovy companies. Meanwhile, Sir Walter Raleigh resumed his interest in the New World in 1602, sending out another futile expedition to search for survivors of the Roanoke Colony. But in the following year, Raleigh’s colonizing activities were unceremoniously cut short by the accession of King James I to the throne of England. One of James’s first acts was to consign Raleigh to an indefinite imprisonment in the Tower and abruptly to vacate his dominion over Virginia. Among the king’s motives was the desire to give Spain a tangible token of the new king’s wish to conclude peace between the two warring countries. For Raleigh was now perhaps the most ardent warmonger and plunderer against Spanish shipping and whose colonizing activities sought bases for aggression against Spain; his incarceration was therefore a particularly apt token of peace between the two nations. Indeed, peace was concluded the next year, in August 1604, after which King James cracked down on the formerly lionized captains of piracy and freebooting.

American Neofeudalism

The Treaty of London of 1604 provided for freedom of commerce between England and Spain, as it had existed prior to the war. Since England had had the right to sail to Spain and Portugal, England now claimed that its ships could sail to the East and West Indies as well. Spanish America was the source of tobacco, and its use in England increased greatly once trade was reestablished on a regular basis, even though James disapproved of its use as a poisonous weed. Although the London merchants hoped to monopolize the renewed trade with Spain, the protests of the merchants of the West Country ports, especially Bristol and Plymouth, forced the government to backtrack. First it tried to include the West Country merchants in the monopoly, and then it decreed for all English merchants freedom of trade to Portugal, Spain, and the western Mediterranean, a policy that was later to apply to American merchants. At the same time, the privileged merchants of the Levant and Muscovy companies were suffering further losses because of local difficulties, especially foreign invasions of Russia.

While economic pressure was turning the attention of English merchants once again to possible markets and supplies of raw materials in North America, and peace renewed attention to the New World that had been diverted by the war against Spain, the peace treaty also terminated the previously permanent employment of many military and naval officers engaged in the war. In 1605 Weymouth again explored the coast of New England, this time in behalf of a group of soldier-courtiers, including Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the Earl of Southampton, and the latter’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Arundel. Weymouth’s return in July 1605 led to several projects for trade and colonization in America, and in September of that year, petitions were presented to the Privy Council for the formation of companies to engage in these activities. Although the Privy Council was then considering a project to plant English colonists in the lands taken from the Irish in Ulster, the value of North American colonies to English shipowners and to the English navy led the Trinity House Corporation and the Privy Council to approve the petitions. Finally, in April 1606 Raleigh’s old dominion over Virginia was granted to two sets of powerful merchants, which included the merchants to whom Raleigh had sold his rights of trade.

The new patent divided the monopoly powers of government over Virginia between two joint stock companies of merchants. The South Virginia Company was to have claim over the land between the thirty-fourth and thirty-eighth parallels, roughly from Cape Fear north to the Potomac River; the North Virginia Company was to rule between the forty-first and forty-fifth parallels, roughly from Long Island to Maine. To stimulate competition and to provide incentive for colonizing, the zone in between was thrown open to settlement by either company, with the stipulation that one could not settle within one hundred miles of the other. Since the South Virginia Company was headed by leading merchants of London, it soon became known as the London Company; while the North Virginia Company, centered around merchants of Plymouth, came to be called the Plymouth Company. Each company was granted powers to allocate its land in any way it wished; the king reserved the then customary royalty of five percent of whatever gold or silver might be mined from the new land. Insisting upon overall royal control and dominion unique to monopoly charters of that era, the king vested supervisory control of the two companies in a Royal Council of Virginia, which was appointed by the king and which in turn was to appoint resident local councils to govern each of the two colonies. The settlers and their descendants were supposed to enjoy all the “liberties, franchises, and immunities” of Englishmen at home—a clause immediately contradicted by the absence of any provision for elections or home rule.

The Plymouth Company for North Virginia was composed of west country merchants, gentry, and soldiers, and was headed by the governor of Plymouth, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who desired to establish a fishing and fur-trading colony independent of the London merchant-financiers. Also included in the group were Raleigh Gilbert, a son of Sir Humphrey, and Sir John Popham, chief justice of the King’s Bench; Sir John had played a leading role in procuring the charter. The Plymouth Company dispatched an exploratory expedition in October 1606, and sent colonists to America in May 1607 under Raleigh Gilbert and George Popham, a relative of Sir John. A settlement was established on the Kennebec River in what is now Maine, but because of a severe winter and poor crops, and the death of the two Pophams, the colony was abandoned in September 1608. Thereafter the Plymouth Company did not attempt further colonization, but concentrated on the Newfoundland fisheries and some fur trade.

The London Company for South Virginia was composed of members of leading political families. The leading member was the ubiquitous Sir Thomas Smith, the leader of the group that had purchased trade rights from Raleigh, and the governor of the East India, Muscovy, and Levant companies. Other leading members were: the Reverend Richard Hakluyt; Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, a leader in the monopoly-chartered East India, Burma, and Guinea companies; and the leading London merchants involved in the Muscovy, Levant, and East India companies. And just as the Levant Company had been founded by members of the Muscovy Company, and a quarter of the stockholders in the East India Company were members of the Levant Company, so over one hundred members of the East India Company were now investors in the London Virginia Company, a main purpose of which was to provide a source of raw materials, such as tropical products, spices, and furs. Another prominent member in the London Company was Sir Edwin Sandys, a prominent Puritan and friend of a royal favorite, the Earl of Southampton.

The London Virginia Company sent forth its first settlers in December 1606; they were carried then as in succeeding years on ships provided by privileged favorites. The crucial question then becomes: Will the land pass after a time into the hands of the settlers, or will it remain permanently in the hands of privileged overlords dominating the settlers?

England, the major sovereign over the lands of North America, had been subjected to feudalism since at least the Norman Conquest of the 11th century. After the conquest of England in 1066, the conquerors parceled out large tracts of land to the ownership of their leading warlords, and this newly created nobility became the liege lords of the subdued peasantry. Since the overwhelming mass of Englishmen were still engaged in agriculture, feudalism became the crucial fact about English—as well as other European—society. The major attributes of the feudal system were: the granting of huge estates to landowning warlords, the coerced binding of the peasants (serfs) to their land plots, and hence to the rule of their lords, and the further bolstering by the state of feudal status through compulsory primogeniture (the passing on of the estate to the oldest son only) and entail (prohibiting the landowner from alienating—selling, breaking up, etc.—his land). This process froze landlordship in the existing noble families, and prevented any natural market or genealogical forces from breaking up the vast estates.

But after the late 14th century, the serfdom aspect of feudalism began a steady decline in England, as compulsory labor service imposed on the peasants began to be commuted permanently into money rents (“quitrents,” which quit or freed one of the onerous obligations of feudal—including military—service). By the early 17th century, however, feudal military service had not been abolished, and the two other aspects of feudalism—primogeniture and entail—remained intact.

An important specific spur to imposing feudalism on the colonies of the New World was England’s experience in subjugating Ireland. In the process of conquering Ireland during the 16th century, the English concluded that the “wild Irish” were no better than “Savages” and “unreasonable beasts” and hence could be treated as such—a significant preview of English treatment of the American Indian. As a result, the English decided that, as in Ireland, a colony had to be “Planted” under direction of a central monopoly organization run along military lines; they also decided to favor imposing on a colony a system of feudal land tenure. It was no coincidence that the leaders in the early English colonizing projects in America had almost all been deeply connected with the planting of Englishmen (largely a supposed surplus of poor) and feudal landownership in Ireland. Indeed, many of the active incorporators of the Virginia Company had substantial interests in Irish plantations.

As recently as 1603, in fact, a crushing defeat of the Irish had spurred renewed colonization in Ulster by the English government. The hapless Irish peasants were declared to have no rights in owning land; instead, their lands were handed over by the Crown in large grants to privileged courtiers and monopoly companies, all enjoying feudal powers over the new domain.

The Irish were deliberately exterminated or driven off their land, and the vacant lands compulsorily planted with an alleged surplus of English poor, who were now little better than serfs. The treatment of the Irish and Ireland provided a directly illuminating model for the gentlemen colonizing in Virginia.

That the first English settlements in the New World were organized not directly by the Crown, but by private monopoly companies, meant that the proprietary company would be interested in subdividing its granted land as quickly as possible to the individual settlers, in order to reap a rapid gain for its shareholders. The situation was of course not that of the free market; if it were, the British government would (a) have refrained from claiming sovereignty over the unused American domain, or especially (b) have granted ownership of the land titles to the actual settlers rather than to the company. The privileges to the chartered companies, however, did not prove disastrous in the long run: the companies were eager to induce settlers to come to their granted land and then dispose of the land to them at a profit. The cleansing acid of profit was to dissolve incipient feudalism and land monopoly. It is true that the fact of the land grant to the company engrossed the land for a time, and raised its price to the settlers, thus restricting settlement from what it would have been under freedom; but the quantitative effects were not very grave.

Brief Bibliographical Essay

In recommending books and references, the historian is in a happier position than his colleagues in political philosophy or the social sciences. In contrast to these other disciplines, a work of history does not lose the bulk of its value because of errors in ideology or points of view. An historical work can be extremely valuable despite great differences in basic political or even historical points of view, provided that it focuses on the right questions and that its scholarship is sound. For one thing, such a book can supply the factual data, which are the vital stuff of history. The following references, then, are not in the least to be construed as endorsements of the basic points of view of the authors.

It is the increasing loss of the stuff of history, in fact, that provided much of the inspiration for the present volume. It is rare these days to find a general work on American history that retains the richness of narrative an the vital factual record. Instead, while historians have written excellent monographs on specific areas, the more comprehensive works have either been brief essays presenting the author’s point of view, or textbooks remarkable for the increasing skimpiness of their material. Perhaps college students these days are expected to know less and less actual history in their courses. The result is a series of unproven, ad hoc dicta by the historian; such a product fails to present the student or the reader with the factual data that support the historian’s conclusions or that allow the reader to make up his own mind about the material.

As a result of these trends, the reader interested in American history is no longer in a position to find those multivolume works so plentiful in the past, works which not only presented the author’s point of view and conclusions, but also brought to the reader the narrative events, the stuff of history itself, that enabled the reader to find a comprehensive viewpoint backed by the data, and to make up his own mind about the American past. The present volume undertakes to begin to fill this gap.

Still useful on the European background is Edward P. Cheyney, European Background of American History, 1300–1600 (1904), as are J.H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963), and Wallace Notestein, England on the Eve of Colonization, 1603–1630 (1951).

Also see the newer work by Carl Bridenbaugh, Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1500–1642 (1968).

The literature on English Puritanism and the Civil War is enormous; perhaps the most useful for insights into the New England scene are the pro-Puritan The Century of Revolution, 1603–1714 (1961) by Christopher Hill, and Hill’s God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970); and the pro-Leveller book by H.N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (1961).