The Prequel to the Pilgrims
On May 6, 1621, the Mayflower returned to England from the fledgling American colony of New Plymouth. In the eight months since the little ship left the English coast behind, the seventy investors that had bankrolled the voyage--mostly London merchants--had not received a scrap of news about the fate of their venture. Now, as the ship's master, Christopher Jones, eased the Mayflower into its dockage at Rotherhithe, an ancient landing place two miles down the Thames from London that had become a huddle of boatyards, sailors' cottages, and merchants' warehouses, the financial backers eagerly awaited news about the one thing they cared about most: what saleable cargo the ship had brought back from the New World. Perhaps it carried oak timbers for shipbuilding and barrel-making. Perhaps it contained cedar, which was much prized for the construction of exquisite dining-room furniture. Perhaps there might be great bundles of sassafras, the wildly popular plant that could be decocted into remedies for syphilis, malaria, incontinence, and the common cold. Best of all, and certainly the most lucrative, there might be beaver pelt for fashioning the hats that had become all the rage with aristocrats and rich merchants. Such commodities could quickly find a ready market, not only in England but in mainland Europe, and perhaps even in Asia, where they could be traded for the fabulous goods that the English craved: Chinese silks and velvet and linen, precious stones and metals, spices, medicines, fine wines and exotic foodstuffs, and Turkish carpets.
But no. The Mayflower carried no goods or commodities, nothing saleable, nothing of value at all. Instead, the hold groaned with rocks, loaded as ballast to replace the weight of the 102 settlers left behind on the far-distant shoreline.
Disappointed and unwilling to throw good money after bad, most of the investors eventually sold out of the Mayflower venture and washed their hands of the New Plymouth settlers, the people later referred to themselves as "pilgrims." Four centuries later, however, the tables have turned. The commercial organizers of the Mayflower voyage have long since been forgotten, while the Plymouth settlers have been enshrined as the true originators, the makers of America. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary, that great storehouse of the English language, defines the Pilgrim Fathers as "the founders of the United States."
But the story of the making of America actually begins in England in the mid-1500s--seventy years before the Mayflower set out to brave the westerly gales and cross the Atlantic. At that time, England was a small kingdom at the margin of Europe, a relatively insignificant participant in world affairs. The island realm faced a daunting array of social, commercial, and political problems: rising unemployment, failing harvests, a widening gulf between rich and poor, and a crisis of leadership. A prepubescent boy, Edward VI, nominally led the country following the death of his father, the tyrant-king Henry VIII. But a cabal of ambitious noblemen held the real power. A whiff of rebellion, perhaps even revolution, hung in the air. And to provide a physical manifestation of the country's precarious health, a virulent disease known as the sweating sickness returned for the first time in a quarter of a century, destroying lives and devastating communities. You could be dancing in the morning, the saying went, and be dead by noon. In just a few days, nearly a thousand people perished in London.
Throughout the land, conditions had grown so dire that a terrifying question loomed over the kingdom's cosmopolitan capital city as well as its countless rural villages: Can England survive?
As if in answer to that existential question, a constellation of remarkable people, often linked by family ties, emerged over the course of three generations to seek solutions to England's ills. There were courtiers, intellectuals, scientists, writers, artists, and buccaneers. Above all, there were some of England's most prosperous merchants. Although these entrepreneurs rarely ventured overseas themselves, they masterminded a relentless stream of commercial enterprises dedicated to discovery, exploration, development, and settlement. Variously bold, obsessed, hungry for gold and glory, and driven by compelling ideas about social improvement and commercial advantage, they organized, promoted, and supported hundreds of ventures, one after another, until multiple threads of failure began to stitch into a fabric of success.
In the process, they developed many of the elements that shaped America as it grew into the country we know today. They originated new corporate and political institutions workable in the New World, embraced new approaches to leadership and social organization, and applied the latest technologies and the latest thinking. They learned how to raise funding, share risk, and allocate capital in ventures with unpredictable outcomes. And most strikingly, they learned how to overcome seemingly insuperable challenges, accept and learn from failure, and cherish the quality that Americans have come to regard as quintessentially their own: perseverance. In New World, Inc., we tell their story--the prequel to the Pilgrims. And, insofar as their actions helped to usher in the modern world, it is our story, too.