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London Company

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Virginia Company of London Seal

The London Company (also called the Virginia Company of London) was an English joint stock company established by royal charter by James I on April 10 1606 with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America. It was one of two such companies, along with the Plymouth Company, that was granted an identical charter as part of the Virginia Company. The London Company was responsible for establishing the Jamestown Settlement, the first permanent English settlement in North America, in 1607.

The territory granted to the company included the coast of North America from 34th parallel (Cape Fear) north to the 41st parallel (in Long Island Sound, but being part of the Virginia Company and Colony, The London Company owned a large portion of Atlantic and Inland Canada. The company was permitted by its charter to establish a 100 mile square (26,000 km²) settlement within this area. The portion of the company's territory north of the 38th parallel was shared with the Plymouth Company, with the stipulation that neither company found a colony within 100 miles (160 km) of each other.

In 1607, the company established the Jamestown Settlement on the James River in Chesapeake Bay. By 1609, the Plymouth Company had abandoned its effort to establish the Popham Colony and had dissolved. As a result, the charter for the London Colony was adjusted with a new grant that extended from "sea to sea" of the previously-shared area between between the 34th and 40th parallel.

Table of contents

History of the London Company

The 1606 grants by James I to the London and Plymouth companies. The overlapping area (yellow) was granted to both companies on the stipulation that neither found a settlement within 100 miles of each other. The location of the Jamestown Settlement is shown by "J"
The 1609 grant to the Virginia Company of London "from sea to sea" is shown demarcated in red. The later grant to the Plymouth Council of New England is shown in green.

The business of the company was the settlement of the Virginia colony using as the labour force volunteer adventurers under the customary indenture system whereby in exchange for seven years of labour for the company, the company provided passage, food, protection and land ownership.

In December 1606, the Virginia Company's three ships, containing 144 men and boys, set sail. On May 13, 1607, these first settlers selected the site of Jamestown Island as the place to build their fort.

In addition to survival, the early colonists had another pressing mission: to make a profit for the stockholders of the Virginia Company. Although the settlers were disappointed that gold did not wash up on the beach and gems did not grow in the trees, they realized there was great potential for wealth of other kinds in their new home. Early industries such as glass manufacture, pitch and tar production and beer and wine making took advantage of natural resources and the land's fertility. However, the settlers could not devote as much time as the Virginia Company would have liked to their financial responsibilities. They were too busy trying to survive.

Within the three-sided fort erected on the banks of the James, the settlers quickly discovered that they were, first and foremost, employees of the Virginia Company of London, following instructions of the men appointed by the Company to rule them. In exchange, the laborers were armed and received clothes and food from the common store. After seven years, they were to receive land of their own. The gentlemen, who provided their own armor and weapons, were to be paid in land, dividends or additional shares of stock.

Initially, the colonists were governed by a president and seven-member council selected by the King. Leadership problems quickly erupted and Jamestown's first two leaders coped with varying degrees of success with sickness, Indian assaults, poor food and water supplies and class strife.

When Captain John Smith became Virginia's third president, he proved the strong leader that the colony needed. Industry flourished and relations with Chief Powhatan's people improved. In 1609, the Virginia Company received its Second Charter, which allowed the Company to choose its new governor from amongst its shareholders. Investment boomed as the Company launched an intensive recruitment campaign. Over 600 colonists set sail for Virginia between March 1608 and March 1609.

Unfortunately for these new settlers, Sir Thomas Gates, Virginia's deputy governor, bound for the colony, was shipwrecked in Bermuda and did not assume his new post until 1610. When he arrived, he found only a fraction of the colonists had survived the infamous "Starving Time" of 1609–1610. All too soon, the Mother Country learned of Virginia's woeful state. The result was predictable: financial catastrophe for the Company. Many new subscribers reneged payment on their shares, and the Company became entangled in dozens of court cases. On top of these losses, the Company was forced to incur further debt when it sent hundreds more colonists to Virginia.

There was little to counter this crushing debt. No gold had been found in Virginia; trading commodities produced by exploitation of the raw materials found in the New World were minimal. Attempts at producing glass, pitch, tar and potash had been barely profitable and, regrettably, such commodities could be had far more cheaply on the other side of the Atlantic.

Increasingly bad publicity, political infighting and financial woes led the Virginia Company to organize a massive advertising campaign. The Company plastered street corners with tempting broadsheets, published persuasive articles, and even convinced the clergy to preach of the virtues of supporting colonization. Before the Company was dissolved, it would publish 27 books and pamphlets promoting the Virginia venture.

To make shares more marketable, the Virginia Company changed its sales pitch. Instead of promising instant returns and vast profits for investors, the Company exploited patriotic sentiment and national pride. A stockholder was assured that his purchase of shares would help build the might of England, to make her the superpower she deserved to be. The heathen natives would be converted to the proper form of Christianity, the Church of England. People out of work could find employment in the New World. The standard of living would increase across the nation. How could any good, patriotic Englander resist?

The English rose to the bait. The gentry wished to win favor by proving its loyalty to the crown. The growing middle class also saw stock purchasing as a way to better itself. But the news was not all good. Although the population of Jamestown rose, high settler mortality kept profits unstable. By 1612, the Company's debts had soared to over £1000.

A third charter provided a short-term resolution to the Virginia Company's problems. The Company was permitted to run a lottery as a fundraising venture. Other attractive features of the charter allowed Virginia's assembly to act as the colony's legislature and also added 300 leagues of ocean to the colony's holdings, which would include Bermuda as part of Virginia. But the colony was still on shaky ground until John Rolfe's successful experiment with tobacco as a cash crop provided a way to recoup financially.

Unfortunately by 1616, the Virginia Company suffered further adversity. The original settlers were owed their land and stock shares; initial investors at home were owed their dividends. The Company was forced to renege on its cash promises, instead distributing 50 acre (200,000 m²) lots in payment. The next year, the Company instituted the headright system, a way to bring more settlers to Virginia. Investors and residents were able to acquire land in paying the passage of new settlers. In most cases, these newcomers spent a period of time in servitude on the investor's land. Sir Edwin Sandys, a leading force in the Virginia Company, strongly supported the headright system, for his goal was a permanent colony which would enlarge British territory, relieve the nation's overpopulation, and expand the market for English goods. Sir Thomas Smith, as the Company's Treasurer, had a different dream: the Virginia Company's mission was to trade and to make a profit.

In the end, it was Sandys' vision which prevailed. When he became Treasurer of the Company in 1619, he moved forward to populate the colony and earn a protective status for the tobacco crop which had become the cash crop of Virginia. At the same time, he urged colonists to diversify their plantings and thus become less reliant on only one staple. The colonists ignored this advice, to their later dismay.

In 1621, the Company was in trouble; unpaid dividends and increased use of lotteries had made future investors wary. The Company debt was now over £9000. Worried Virginians were hardly reassured by the advice of pragmatic Treasurer Sandys, who warned that the Company "cannot wish you to rely on anything but yourselves." March 1622, the Company's and the colony's situation went from dire to disastrous when the Powhatan Indians staged an uprising which wiped out a quarter of the European population of Virginia. When a fourth charter, severely reducing the Company's ability to make decisions in the governing of Virginia, was proposed by the Crown, subscribers rejected it. King James I forthwith changed the status of Virginia in 1624. Virginia was now a royal colony to be administered by a governor appointed by the King. The Virginia Assembly finally received royal approval in 1627 and this form of government, with governor and assembly, would oversee the colony of Virginia until 1776, excepting only the years of the English Commonwealth.

Indian relationships

The instructions issued to Sir Thomas Gates on November 20 called for a forcible conversion of Native Americans to Anglicanism and subordination to the colonial administration. The records of the company record a discussion during one of their first meetings about publishing a justification of their business enterprise and methods "give adventurers, a clearness and satisfactione, for the justice of the action, and so encourage them". Others opposed this, arguing that "there is much a confession in every apology" and called for "quietness and no doubting" not wanting to create a public debate where Catholics and neutrals might attack them. Whereas Catholic arguments would be in support of Spanish legal claims to the New World under the Donation of Alexander, it was feared that the neutral "pen-adversaries" might "cast scruples into our conscience" by criticising the lawfulness of the plantation. It was decided to forego such a publication of a justification.

However in 1608 Sir Edward Coke, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice offered a ruling in Calvin's Case which went beyond the issue at hand: whether a Scotsman could seek justice at an English Court. Coke distinguished between aliens from nations at war with England and friendly aliens, those from nations in league with England. Friendly aliens could have recourse to English courts. But he also ruled that "all infidels" (i.e. those from non-Christian nations) there can be no peace and a state of perpetual hostility would exist between them and Christians.

In 1609 the company issued instructions to kidnap Native American children so as to indoctrinate them with English values and religion. These instructions also sanctioned attacking the Iniocasoockes, the cultural leaders of the local Powhatans. However it was only when Thomas De La Warr arrived in 1610 that the Company was able to commence a against the Powhatan with the First Anglo-Powhatan War. De La Warr was replaced by Sir Thomas Dale, who continued the war. It was during this period that Pocahontas married John Rolfe.

The military offensive was accompanied by a propaganda war: Alderman Robert Johnson published Nova Britannia in 1609 which compared Native Americans to wild animals – "heardes of deere in a forest". While it portrayed the Powhatans as peace loving, it nevertheless threatened to deal with any who resisted conversion to Anglicanism as enemies of 'their' country. (Johnson was the son-in-law of Sir Thomas Smith, leader of one of the court factions within the Company in London.)

In 1622 the Second Anglo-Powhatan War was started. Its origins are disputed. English apologists for the company say that Opchanacanough initiated the war. Robert Williams, a contemporary Native American Law Professor argues that Opchanacanough had secured concessions from Governor Yeardley which the company would not accept. Thus Opchanacanough attack on March 22 1622 may have been an attempt to defeat the colony before reinforcements arrived. 350 out of 1,240 colonists were killed. The Virginia Company quickly published an account of this attack which was steeped in Calvinist theology – the massacre was the work of providence in that it gave an excuse for the complete genocide of the Powhatan, and the building of settlements on their former towns. New orders called for a "perpetual war without peace or truce" "to root out from being any longer a people, so cursed a nation, ungratefull to all benefitte, and incapable of all goodnesses."

External links

Further reading

  • The Three Charters of the Virginia Company of London edited and introduction by Samuel M. Bemiss, published by Virginia's 350th Anniversary Celebration Corp, 1957, Williamsburg, Virginia. ISBN 0806350881
  • Dissolution of the Virginia Company: The Failure of a Colonial Experiment by Wesley Frank Craven, published by Oxford University Press, 1932, New York
  • The Virginia Company of London, 1606–1624, by Wesley Frank Craven, published by University Press of Virginia, 1957, Charlottesville, Virginia. ISBN 0806345551
  • The First Seventeen Years: Virginia, 1607–1624, by Charles E. Hatch, Jr. ISBN 0806347392
  • History of the Virginia Company of London with Letters to and from the First Colony Never Before Printed, by Edward D. Neill, originally published by Joel Munsell, 1869, Albany, New York, reprinted by Brookhaven Press ISBN 1581034016







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