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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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Okay. He leaves, and all hell breaks loose again. 1609 to 1610 is the starving time. There is nobody there. The colonists go back to their nasty, fruitless habits. They have nothing to eat. This is the period where there is cannibalism. Somebody buried an Indian; others dug him up, boiled him with herbs and roots. Well, it's after that, somehow, the company gets the notion—those people want to go back. They meet Lord de la Ware coming in. He persuades them to stay, and they impose order by martial law. And you have the martial law—Lawes Morall, Martiall, and Divine that are imposed, and basically keep order in the colony between about 1611 and 1618.

What's the colony like in that period? Think of it rather like an estate or a labor camp, if you will. All the land is owned by the company, and the people who are there, the "colonists," are working for the company. They are hired hands, and they are not entirely free. They have indentured themselves, and the evidence suggests, many for seven years. Maybe it's like a prison camp to some extent. You are forced to stay there. Look, some of the most Draconian punishments are for those who want to leave or to go off and trade with things stolen from the company store, of course, with the Indians. That's the kind of problem they're having—individuals out for their own profit; individuals don't want to work with others; individuals who just want to get out of there.

Another thing: The population is vastly unbalanced—as many as seven men to one woman, by one calculation, which might explain some of the sexual laws that you see in the laws defined. By this point the company comes to understand certain things that are very helpful: that there is no gold or silver around, nothing they can just pick up off the land and ship out. Look here at some contemporary explanations for Virginia's failure—the document from 1612 in your packet, which recognizes "This isn't Mexico or Peru," and says it was the Spaniards' good luck to find a land that's full of people, heavily populated, and of people who work the land so that it produced sufficient food at all times, who had the use of gold and silver. "But we chanced in a land, even as God made it," the document says, with, as they saw, "idle improvidence, scattered people, with no gold or other commodity worth selling." And this meant that the settlers simply could not do what they were originally expected to do. And John Smith reinforces this, doesn't he? He says, "You want these goods that you could get from Sweden or Russia? Buy them there! You know, they know how to do it. They're all set up. We are in no way capable of this. It's a much better economy to buy it somewhere else."

But they do find a crop for export, which is, of course, tobacco, and here the hero is John Rolfe. He is the husband of Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, and by that marriage, a certain peace with the Indians was affected. Even more, John Rolfe experiments with seeds for tobacco from the West Indies, which produced a mild form of tobacco. There was tobacco in Virginia which the Indians smoked, but apparently bit the tongue, bit in the mouth, and it was not considered acceptable by European customers. But he finds the West Indian variety can be grown quite successfully. Managed to sell a few pounds in 1614. But by 1616, they had exported—Virginia and Bermuda together, but mostly Virginia—2,500 pounds. And by 1618, the exports were up to 50,000 pounds! They had found an export product.

And so the population starts to increase. There are about 400 in April 1618, maybe 700 the next spring. The colony ceases to be simply a company operation. Almost everything is being grown by private people on their own farms, whether rented or owned. And everything is sacrificed to grow tobacco. And you see a description of the state of the colony in the document referring to its condition when Governor Argall took over in 1617. Basically it's falling apart. Jamestown is in total disrepair, with all spare places planted with tobacco. And there are Indians, our famous "salvages," everywhere. And they are learning the use of firearms. Indeed they need them, to use those firearms to do some hunting for the colonists who don't seem to be doing it for themselves.

And the company itself is in grave trouble. It hasn't given out dividends, except land. The investors are very disgruntled. And they discover, "Hey, the general treasury is virtually empty," although at one point it had collected as much as 75,000 pounds. There are charges of mismanagement; there is vigorous infighting within the colony. They can't get enough money to supply the colonists. Indeed, they create a subsidiary company called the Magazine, which ships supplies to Virginia and collects tobacco from the colonists for it. But the colonists complain bitterly that the Magazine, having a monopoly, is asking monopolistic prices, much too high.

Okay, we've come to 1618. Here is our moment to reassess where the colony stands. It looks a little discouraging, but I think the documents also indicate that a lot has been learned by mistakes made along the way; that the experience of the previous—previous 11 years has allowed a certain accumulation of wisdom that could be drawn upon in making out a plan for the future. Where should the company go from there? What would the colonists need to thrive, to make the colony work for them, and maybe also make profits for the Virginia Company? Remember, they will have to make their plea for whatever they're asking to the Virginia Company in London. They still have authority over the colony. Was the Virginia Company's failure avoidable? Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to come up with a program which will save the Virginia Company.

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