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1606: Jamestown, Virginia, Episode 18 - 19/10/05


In 1606, James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London. Here was the constitutional beginning of the British in America.

Virginia at this point was not the clearly defined state we know today. It was virtually all the land known between the St Lawrence and Florida. The ambitions of the investors and settlers were quite different from those who had gone to the East Indies within the past ten years. The Far East was strictly trade. The Americans were more about social as well as economic opportunity.

Moreover, the British were intrigued by the Asian peoples in a way they were not by the North American tribes. India and the Indies and certainly China were sophisticated societies with grand histories. America had no fabulous society of emperors and bejewelled princes. No extraordinary wealth with royal elephants eating from silver dishes. There was no pepper, no spice, no calico.

Most of all, Virginia was always to be a permanent settlement that would conform to the Roman principles the British adopted when imagining settlements. A colony had to mirror the Britain left behind. That was the basis of the first voyage of the Virginia Company.

There was too another big difference with previous voyages, certainly those made by Ralegh or in his name. The charter was granted not to an individual but to a joint stock company. Each shareholder would make or lose money. Everyone therefore, had an interest in the colony succeeding and the cash flow was easier to maintain.

Three ships set off in December 1606 and in May 1607 settlers arrived at what would become Jamestown.

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Historical Figure

Portrait of John Smith, early 17th century (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

John Smith
(Getty Images)
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John Smith, 1580-1631

He came from Lincolnshire and was bound apprentice to a local merchant. Smith thought his future should be that of an adventurer. This period, the transition from Elizabethans to Stuarts, was full of exciting discoveries and seemingly endless opportunities as explorer or soldier of fortune.

Smith started as the latter as a mercenary in France against Henry IV and then in Hungary against the Turks. It was here that he was captured, sold into slavery before escaping to England. He was 26 when he signed on for the voyage to colonize Virginia and was said to have been saved from certain death by Pocahontas.

His experiences of survival as a soldier and his ability to strike a New World form of diplomacy with the Indians set him aside from the other settlers. Many of his exploits are embellished in his own story, The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith published in 1630, the year before his death.

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Did You Know...

That when the Virginia was launched as a joint stock company, a share could be bought for not much more than twelve pounds. That was a tidy sum for a small investor but it was possible for many and so the company was less vulnerable if a major investor pulled out.

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Contemporary Sources

Secret orders from the Virginia Co of London
A section from the secret orders from the Virginia Co of London to its expedition leader to be opened only on arrival in Virginia.

"First, erect a little store at the mouth of the river that may lodge some ten men, with whom you shall leave a light boat, that when any fleet shall be in sight, they may come with speed to give you warning. Secondly, you must in no case suffer any of the native people of the country to inhabit between you and the sea coast; if you neglect this, you neglect your safety. When you have discovered as far up the river as you mean to plant yourselves, and landed your victuals and munitions, you shall do well to divide your six score men into three parts, whereof one party you may appoint to fortify and build, of which your first work must be your storehouse for victuals; the second party you may employ in preparing your ground and sowing your corn and roots; ten of these forty you must leave as sentinel at the haven's mouth. The other forty you may employ for two months in discovery of the river above you, and on the country about you. When they do espy any high lands or hills, twenty of the company may cross over the lands, and try if they can find any minerals. The other twenty may go on by river, and pitch up boughs upon the bank's side, by which the other boats shall follow them by the same turnings…"

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