10/27/11 - jamestown was a way to get to china

In today's encore excerpt - England's motivation in establishing colonies such as Jamestown was commercial, in large part to find a river route through North America to the Pacific Ocean and China. Englishmen invested vast sums in Jamestown and other colonies in search of huge payoffs from trade with the Orient:

"[Sir Thomas] Smythe was leading the effort to reorganize the struggling Jamestown venture under a new royal charter. Smythe would serve as the treasurer (the de facto governor) of this 'second' Virginia Company when it was chartered in May 1609. The Virginia venture would send out an unprecedented nine-vessel relief flotilla to Jamestown that summer, and it evidently was consuming the lion's share of available capital [in London]. ...

"With more than six hundred active investors, the [Virginia] company's objectives were so multifold that there were heated disagreements on priorities: Establish a profitable plantation? Find a passage through the continent to the Orient? Secure cargoes of medicinal herbs? Seek out rumored mineral riches especially gold? ...

"As strange as it might seem to us today, the idea of reaching China by cutting through the heart of North America was a powerfully persuasive idea [at that] time, which owed its currency to arguments made in a little book that had recently been a bestseller. It was a publishing phenomenon ... called A Briefe and True Relation of the Discoverie of the North Part of Virginia ... and the author was John Brereton.

"The volume was inflated with content meant to lure investors to the cause of exploration and colonization. ... A key component ... was a treatise by ... Edward Hayes, on colonization and exploration. ... Inspired by the river systems of Europe and western Asia, Hayes proposed that there must be also great rivers in North America draining not only eastward, into the Atlantic, but also westward, into the Pacific, within the temperate zone. The midcontinental gap between the headwaters of these as yet undiscovered rivers he imagined to be perhaps one hundred leagues, or three hundred miles. Goods could be transported overland between them by horses, mules, or 'beasts of that country apt to labour' such as elk or buffalo, or 'by the aid of many Savages accustomed to burdens; who shall stead us greatly in these affairs.'

"Hayes argued that a route to the Orient could be found through the continent of North America, instead of above it. ... He also believed that colonization was a precursor to making a passage search. ... His passage-making premise was at the core of English designs on eastern North America. Both the Jamestown and Kennebec colonies of the original Virginia Company were sited with the idea of exploiting a river course that met Hayes's transcontinental criteria, and much of the initial energy at Jamestown was devoted to investigating such a route, initially on the river James.

" 'When it shall please God to send you on the coast of Virginia,' the first flotilla of the London wing of the Virginia Company was instructed by its backers in 1606, 'you shall do your best endeavour to find out a safe port in the entrance of some navigable river, making choice of such a one as runneth farthest into the land.' And if they discovered several suitable rivers, among which one had two main branches, 'if the difference be not great, make choice of that which bendeth most toward the Northwest for that way you shall soonest find the other sea.'

"This 'other sea' was the South Sea, the East India Sea, the 'Back' Sea: the Pacific Ocean."


Douglas Hunter


Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage that Redrew the Map of the New World


Bloomsbury Press


Copyright 2009 by Douglas Hunter


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