Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Butman & Targett, New World, Inc.

Think back to what you learned in school about the first English settlers in America. Yes, the Jamestown settlement predated the Pilgrims’ arrival, but it never really captured our imagination. After all, Jamestown had a rocky time of it, with over 80% of the colonists dying in 1609-10. The moralistic storyline of the Pilgrims, however, became an integral part of our own national story. We learned that the Pilgrims had escaped religious persecution in England and (with their stay in the Netherlands often glossed over) decided to start a new colony in America, that they sailed on the Mayflower and landed (or probably didn’t) at Plymouth Rock.

What we didn’t learn about, except perhaps in passing, was that “even the Pilgrims, those paragons of virtue, were funded by merchants, entrepreneurs, business leaders—both great and modest—and were organized as a commercial enterprise. Without the funding and the backing of a business organization, albeit a badly managed one, the Pilgrims might never have left Leiden.”

New World, Inc.: The Making of America by England’s Merchant Adventurers (Little, Brown, 2018) by John Butman and Simon Targett recounts how, with both the crown and individual investors in dire need of new sources of revenue, the possibility of trade with faraway lands became alluring. The book begins about 70 years before the Pilgrims sailed, when England, “a relatively insignificant participant in world affairs,” 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.” It was not certain whether the country could even survive.

But over the course of the next three generations “a constellation of remarkable people … emerged … to seek solutions to England’s ills.” Above all were the entrepreneurs who “masterminded a relentless stream of commercial enterprises dedicated to discovery, exploration, development, and settlement. … [T]hey organized, promoted, and supported hundreds of ventures, one after another, until multiple threads of failure began to stitch into a fabric of success. … 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.”

New World, Inc. is a fascinating account of both entrepreneurial risk-taking and the risk-taking of those men who set sail for unmapped destinations. The merchants often lost money; the sailors, their lives. And yet investors kept investing, sailors kept sailing.

One would like to say that Plymouth Colony was the vindication of all of these losses, but no. The Mayflower returned to England with nothing of value, and most of the investors eventually sold out of the Mayflower venture.

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