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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History The Virginia Companyhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 1:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
The Virginia Company and Colony

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The document distinguishes planters, basically colonists, from adventurers, who adventure only their money. They invest money; they don't go to America. And it authorizes the division of any property and profits earned by the company among these investors. Did you look at the character of the people who are investing in it? There are a lot of noble lords with titles; there are merchants; and there's a whole series of tradesmen, right?—fishmongers, grocers, haberdashers, companies of artisans. You might well ask yourself, why are they investing in this company? And we will return to that.

The charter also gives certain particular encouragements to the venture. This is the kind of thing the crown could do cheaply. The colonists and the descendants, the document says, "shall have and enjoy all liberties, franchises and immunities" of Englishmen who are born in England. The colonists and their descendants will have those privileges. That is a line that Thomas Jefferson will make a great deal of at the time of the American Revolution. The charter also freed the company from customs dues for a given period of time. Again, a financial incentive to the company.

So much for 1609. Move on to 1612. The charter of 1612 gave them more privileges. They got Bermuda. The 1612 charter also changes the government of the company in London. Under 1609 it's entrusted to a treasurer and a council. In 1612, they also set up what we would think of as stockholders' meetings—these weekly courts, and then the quarterly courts, where stockholders could come and participate in making policy decisions and governmental decisions with regard to Virginia.

Okay. So much for the company—move onto the colony. What was it supposed to do that would have been a benefit to England and to the shareholders? You have some articulation of that in a document in your packet that is headed Rationale for Colonization and was published in 1610. It's a little late, but it gives us an idea. The first item on the list of that document refers to basically converting the Indians and providing an asylum for the elect; that is, God-saved people who are gathered from the far corners of the earth. It's basically religious, but religious is also diplomatic. Insofar as they claim this territory for Protestantism, they're denying it to the Catholic Spaniards. But you may ask yourself how sincere this is. Are there echoes in the later documents about converting the Indians or providing asylum? I think there is relatively little.

Second—and this might have been slightly mysterious to you—there is talk about providing a place to receive the multitude of increase in people. What are they talking about? Well, it turns out that England's population had increased dramatically. Between 1500 and 1650 it went to 3 to 5 million. There's a sense here that England has too many people, excess people, more than could live on that land. And they could ship them out somewhere else, and they could do something useful. What could they do?

Point three. A whole series of commodities that England needs, that it imports from other countries, like Sweden or Russia—soap ashes, timber, iron, copper—they could get this from America. What a wonderful idea! You have your excess people; you send them somewhere; they get something for you so you don't have to buy it from other people. Better you buy it from your own, from your own people in another location.

Okay. There's three reasons in that document. But I think from others, including the instructions to the company and in some ways the charters, you see a couple other motivations. So number four: They're looking for a river that will go to China, the famous Northwest Passage. You know the idea you could sail West and get to Asia that brought Columbus out in the first place—they haven't given it up. In fact, that is a bad idea that doesn't go away very fast. But if they were right? Just think, if the Virginia Company had had access to a passage to China, why, they would be right in keeping with the other great trading companies. They would have their own route to wealth.

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