Jamestown 9: The politics of Virginia in England


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The History of the Virginia Company of London

In this two-part episode, we discuss the politics of colonization in England.  England hadn’t successfully set up any New World colonies when Gosnold and Archer started to push for a new attempt, and the colony immediately became the subject of power struggles and political intrigue.

Lord Robert Cecil

Robert Cecil was arguably the most powerful man in England in 1607, including the king, himself.  The Earl of Essex had rebelled at the end of Elizabeth’s reign in an attempt to reduce Cecil’s power.  The Gunpowder Plot involved some of the same people.  Using his vast network of spies and agents, Cecil thwarted both, and used both as a way to round up his political enemies.  He was the original “Machiavellian,” and he immediately took control of the Virginia venture.

When his spy, Hugh Price, informed him of negative remarks Gosnold had made about King James at a dinner party in Southampton, Gosnold’s name was removed from all company paperwork.  Cecil patron Richard Hakluyt wrote the Virginia Company instructions to make the company answer directly to Cecil.  Cecil engineered for Ratcliffe and Kendall to be put on the Council.  He then put Brewster in Virginia as a spy.  And, it was also he who made Newport admiral of the venture (even though George Somers was one of the original patentees, and every bit as respected as Newport).

The Spanish

The Spanish didn’t want to provoke war by wiping out England’s North American colony, but they also saw English presence in the region as a threat.  They worried that the English were setting up a piracy base, but King Philip wanted to avoid confrontation.  Philip’s advisors pushed hard for him to attack the colony, but he waited.

His ambassador, Don Pedro de Zuniga, pushed James to end the venture, but James deflected.  He feigned ignorance and said he didn’t take the colony seriously, though he didn’t believe the Spanish owned all of North America.  His disinterested attitude comforted the Spanish somewhat.

Thomas Smythe

As Virginia proved unprofitable, Thomas Smythe used all the influence he had to keep investors from abandoning the project.  He was also the founder of the East India Company.

The Sirenaicals

The Sirenaicals were a secretive London drinking society.  Shakespeare, multiple Jamestown settlers (or their families), and many Rebel MPs (who led the Parliamentary opposition to King James) were members.  John Smith was a friend of the club’s leader, and he sent a description of Virginia to the club.  The club published Smith’s True Relation, and it was an instant success.  This book created a wave of interest in colonization and attracted new investors.  The Rebel MPs also pushed for a new Virginia Charter, which would give the company expanded rights and privileges.  The man who wrote the new charter was the leader of the Rebel MPs, Edwin Sandys.

Prince Henry

James’ 13 year old heir was inspired by Elizabethan explorers, and even befriended Sir Walter Raleigh (who was, at the time, in the Tower for treason against his father).  He started leading the push for colonization, fueling public fervor even more than before.

The Third Supply

With a new charter in place, and enough investors to launch a massive new expedition, Virginia seemed to be on the verge of immense success.  Henry visited the docks as the ships prepared to leave.  Cecil, however, made one last attempt to sabotage the voyage.  He recalled Gates to London at the last minute, and made everyone else sit on their ships, waiting, eating their supplies, and risking arriving too late to plant crops.  George Somers, the new admiral of the fleet, gave the order for the ships to go, with or without Gates.  Cecil quickly demoted Gates and allowed him to return to the docks, and the ships set sail.

England had every reason to be optimistic.

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