Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 9. Writings on the administration of particular offices, and on Companies for Commerce and for Colonisation

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 9. Writings on the administration of particular offices, and on Companies for Commerce and for Colonisation

The needs of the time called forth a form of business management which was generally regarded as almost peculiar to England. In no other country did company trading proceed on quite the same lines. The great commercial companies of the seventeenth century were, historically, an offshoot of older civic institutions; for the most part, they had the character of associations where each member traded independently, but with the use of common facilities and under the acceptance of common rules. The Merchant Adventurers’ was by far the most celebrated of these companies; its affairs were managed in a residency beyond the sea, and it had a large membership not only in London but in Newcastle, York and Hull. Along with the Eastland company, which traded to the Baltic, it had been the chief organ through which the successful rivalry of Englishmen with the Hanse league had been carried on. There were many complaints, however, that this company did not show an enterprising spirit and had failed to develop the market for English cloth abroad as it might have done. Its privileges were suspended, for a time, by James I, and were the subject of constant debate. Two of the secretaries of the company, John Wheeler and Henry Parker, wrote effectively in its defence, and the policy for which they argued may be said to have triumphed. The Adventurers entered on a new lease of life before the restoration, and maintained an important position in the commercial world till the Hamburg residency was suppressed by Napoleon in 1806.

The great company which was formed to compete with the Dutch and Spaniards, and to obtain direct access to the markets of the east, was organised on somewhat different lines, as it was soon found convenient that such distant adventures should be carried out on the basis of a joint stock. The advantages and disadvantages of this new trade gave rise to much criticism and discussion. The critics argued that it diverted capital from home, and denied the expediency of allowing bullion to be exported from the country. The answers were given by Sir Dudley Digges, by Robinson and, especially, by Sir Thomas Mun, whose Discourse of Trade to the East Indies and England’s Treasure by Foreign Trade put the case extremely forcibly; and this company also was reinstated under Cromwell and entered on a career of commercial greatness and political power, such as its first advocates could never have foreseen.

The company form was also employed successfully for purposes of colonisation. The Virginia company has the credit of overcoming the difficulties which had rendered the first experiments of English plantation on the American continent disastrous failures. It was under the wing of a Plymouth company that the Pilgrim Fathers settled in the New world, and the settlers who were sent out by the company of Massachusetts bay developed powers not only of self-government but of federation which have done much to determine the character of the polity of the United States. The possibilities and methods of plantation called forth a large amount of pamphlet literature, and the writings of captain John Smith, Sir William Alexander and many others, show, not only the extraordinary risks which had to be run by the pioneers, but the forethought and enthusiasm by which they were inspired to surmount them.

The risk of distant colonisation threw the adventurers back upon considering more closely the possibilities of plantation in Ireland. Indeed, it was generally recognised that, while it might be desirable for England to obtain a footing in the New world, it was essential that Ireland should be so developed as to become a source of strength rather than of weakness to the crown. The problem why Ireland had not been brought into line with the English model of well-ordered society was discussed by Edmund Spenser and by Sir John Davies. Efforts continued to be made to introduce such elements from England and from Scotland that portions of the country might be successfully Anglicised; and, in some cases, this work was facilitated by the deportation of the older inhabitants, for which political unrest had given an excuse. The most completely organised and interesting of the settlements was that which was carried out in the county of Derry with the help of the great London companies; in it we see most clearly what was the Stewart ideal of a well-organised territory, with a city and market towns and townships and estates. The whole policy of these undertakings was bitterly criticised on the fall of Strafford, and James I cannot be said to have been very successful in inducing the citizens of London to enter heartily into this scheme of public welfare.

Another direction in which the development of public resources occupied the attention of the government was in regard to the introduction of new industries. England, which has since become the workshop of the world, was then almost entirely destitute of skilled work in iron or steel, and was particularly badly equipped with guns and munition of war. From the beginning of the reign, lord Burghley set himself steadily and persistently to introduce new industries from abroad; but he was careful that they should not be injurious to existing trades, and that they should be really planted in the country, and not merely carried on by foreigners settled in England, who had no abiding interest in the realm. The same policy was pursued, though with less wisdom and caution by both James I and Charles I. On paper, their schemes for introducing the art of dyeing, the manufacture of alum, the development of a silk industry and the use of native materials in the manufacture of soap, appeared admirable; but the projects were not practically successful, and private interests were roused in opposition without the attainment of any real public good. Sometimes, these attempts were made by concessions granted for a period of years; sometimes, they were undertaken by the crown under official management. James and Charles could not but be inspired by the successes of Henri IV in dealing with similar problems in France; but they were unfortunate in not having advisers of the capacity of Sully and Olivier de Serres.