MERCHANT ADVENTURERS. The term "merchant adventurer" had been applied to merchants since the early fifteenth century. While it originally referred to English merchants engaged in any export trade, it came to represent those who were willing to "adventure, " or risk, their money in speculative ventures.
One of the most speculative adventures to be found in the seventeenth century was the colonization of North America, and merchants backed a handful of attempts to settle the New World beginning in 1583. The best-documented endeavor belonged to the London Merchant Adventurers, who backed the Pilgrims as they established Plymouth Plantation in 1620.
The Pilgrims were a group of religious radicals, separatist Puritans, populating Nottinghamshire in England. Although Queen Elizabeth I did not seem to mind their existence, her successor, King James I, took strenuous issue with their beliefs. Seeking freedom to practice their religion, a group of Pilgrims, led by John Robinson, attempted to leave England illegally in 1607; their destination was the Netherlands. The captain of the ship they had hired betrayed them, and many of their goods and much of their money was confiscated in a raid as they boarded.
Eventually, many of the Pilgrims did make it to the Netherlands, but many of them were impoverished by the time they got there. Although they were able to practice their religion, they were still hounded by King James's spies. Additionally, many of the Pilgrims still wished to live under English rule rather than Dutch.
The New World seemed to offer the opportunity the Pilgrims needed, but the cash-strapped group had no means of getting across the ocean and establishing a colony. John Carver, a successful London merchant and brother-in-law of John Robinson's wife, joined the Pilgrims around 1610. Seven years later, he and Robert Cushman, a wool comber of some means, were dispatched to London to seek financial backing for a transoceanic journey.
While they were in London, Thomas Weston, an ironmonger from that city, visited Robinson in the Netherlands. A promoter who had heard of the Pilgrims' need for funds, he offered to put together a group of merchants to back the venture. Weston and his London Merchant Adventurers also recruited other people, not separatists and known as "strangers, " to make the voyage to Virginia, as all of England's territory in America was then known. The merchants are believed to have invested about 7,000 pounds.
They formed with the colonists a joint-stock company, meaning the merchants would put up the money and the colonists the labor in a seven-year agreement. During those seven years, all land, livestock, and trade goods such as lumber, furs, and other natural resources were owned in partnership. At the conclusion of the seven-year period, the company was to be dissolved and the assets distributed.
The Virginia Company of London, itself a merchant adventurer group that had backed the ill-fated Jamestown colony under Captain John Smith in 1607, eventually issued a patent in 1619 allowing the Pilgrims to colonize in its territory. This patent was superseded in 1620 by one granted to John Peirce, a London clothier and associate of Weston's.
After the Pilgrims landed north of the territory claimed by the London company in December 1620, a second Peirce patent was issued in 1621 by the Council for New England, the rechartered Virginia Company of Plymouth, which held the rights to colonization in the northern end of England's New World holdings.
Weston and his fellow investors were dismayed when the Mayflower returned to England in April 1621 without cargo. The malnourished Pilgrims had been subjected to "the Great Sickness" after the arrival at Plymouth, and the survivors had had little time for anything other than burying their dead and ensuring their own survival. Weston sold his London Merchant Adventurer shares in December, although he did send a ship, the Sparrow, in 1622 as his own private business venture.
The Pilgrims attempted to make their first payment by loading the Fortune, which had brought 35 additional settlers in November 1621, with beaver and otter skins and timber estimated to be worth 500 pounds. The ship was captured by French privateers and stripped of its cargo, leaving investors empty-handed again.
A second attempt, in 1624 or 1625, to ship goods to England failed when the Little James got caught in a gale in the English Channel and was seized by Barbary Coast pirates. Again the London Adventurers received nothing for their investment. Relations, always tempestuous between the colonists and their backers, faltered.
Facing a huge debt, the Pilgrims dispatched Isaac Allerton to England in 1626 to negotiate a settlement. The Adventurers, deciding their investment might never pay off, sold their shares to the Pilgrims for 1,800 pounds. Captain Smith, of the failed Jamestown venture, felt the London Merchant Adventurers had settled favorably, pointing out that the Virginia Company had invested 200,000 pounds in Jamestown and never received a shilling for their investment.
Bartlett, Robert M. The Pilgrim Way. Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971.
"Plimoth-on-Web: The Library." Plimoth Plantation. Updated November 2001. Available from http://www.plimoth.org/Library/library.htm.
J. A. Cannon
merchant prince a person who has acquired sufficient wealth from trading to wield political influence.