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Joseph Mariathasan: Britain, America and an Empire story

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday when the whole nation stops to celebrate the safe landing of the Pilgrim Fathers at Cape Cod in Massachusetts on 21 November 1620.

The story of the Pilgrim Fathers has been turned into an American legend that has become a central theme to the identity and culture of the nation. But it was not always so. The story of the Pilgrims did not play such a central role in the American psyche until some 200 years after the first Thanksgiving in 1621 when the emigrants who had sailed on the Mayflower celebrated their survival after a harsh winter.

What played a much more important role in defining American culture was not the retold fable of moral rectitude and national goodness exemplified by the Pilgrims, but instead the activities of English merchants. They were traders, and while not all may have been sinners, few if any would be regarded as saints. They overcame numerous hardships, disasters and setbacks to create commercial enterprises that ultimately allowed Britain’s American colonies to flourish. In so doing, they also laid the foundations of what later evolved into the British Empire. That is the premise of a new book entitled appropriately New World, Inc., by John Butman and Simon Targett.

The authors argue that the commercial aspects that underlie the foundations of America have been downplayed or suppressed, and as a result this key aspect of the country’s national character has been largely erased from the picture. Instead, the championing of the Pilgrims as ideal Americans by statesmen such as Daniel Webster was done in the service of a greater cause, the destruction of the slave trade in the southern states. “It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame of slavery any longer” he declared in December 1820. That, says the authors, marked the beginning of the “Pilgrim Century” during which the Pilgrim narrative was established as the founding story of America.

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But the culture of entrepreneurism and the American dream actually began in England 70 years before the Mayflower set sail. England was then a small kingdom at the margin of Europe, relatively insignificant in world affairs, facing an existential struggle for survival.

Over the course of three generations, a constellation of courtiers, intellectuals, scientists, artists, buccaneers and some of England’s most prosperous merchants “masterminded a relentless series of commercial enterprises dedicated to discovery, exploration, development and settlement”.

The book offers a detailed description of the forces that drove the initial explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and a host of others to North America. It tells the stories of the early attempts by merchants to pool resources to invest in highly speculative and often unsuccessful ventures to develop more trade and markets for England’s, primarily wool, products.

Initially, this entailed trying to find westward routes to the fabled Cathay, trying to emulate earlier explorers who had successfully established trading links with the emerging Russia and founded the Muscovy Company. For the commercial sponsors of the voyages, what mattered was what tradable products could be brought back for sale. There were even unsuccessful attempts to find gold in North America to emulate the astounding success of the Spanish in central and South America.

Finally, in 1607, the first colony, Jamestown, was established with the realisation that there were advantages to be had in establishing colonies in North America which could be self-sufficient through agriculture and trade and ultimate highly profitable through crops such as tobacco in Virginia.

Targett, as well as being an award-winning journalist, also holds a doctorate in history and perhaps this is reflected in the immensely detailed descriptions of events. The book itself introduces so many characters that there are 12 pages just devoted to listing them out, and a further 50 pages of bibliography and notes. There are also many themes including the origins and development of American culture that could be worth exploring further.

Butman and Targett’s book certainly has much of the raw material. Perhaps there is a case for exploring some of them separately in future articles by the authors. What the book does succeed in is in making a strong argument that the culture of entrepreneurism and risk taking that has made America great, was instilled in the country from its origins through the actions of English merchants.  

New World, Inc.
John Butman & Simon Targett
Little, Brown & Co, 2018

 

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  • The Mayflower lands at Cape Cod

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