King James I was a tough man to impress. Brighter than your average king, he was fluent in half a dozen languages, a student of science and an accomplished statesman. He commissioned what was to become the essential translation of the Bible, wrote poetry to his wife, treatises against tobacco and essays on the rights and duties of monarchs. He survived constant illness, numerous assassination attempts and the gunpowder plot. Yet even this tough Scottish Protestant had his soft spot – and canny Limehouse seafarer Christopher Newport knew where to find it.
Appearing at court one day in 1605, fresh from his adventures in the New World, Newport bowed low to his king and presented his gifts. Nothing so predictable as precious stones, gold or spices for this sovereign – the London captain pulled back a carpet to reveal a wild boar and two baby crocodiles. The stern Calvinist monarch broke into a smile of delight, and Christopher’s career as a privateer was secure for one more voyage at least.
The British Empire, as it would become, was founded on a mix of adventure, whim, ambition and pure plunder. And the men who set out from Wapping and Limehouse to conquer the globe were a curious hybrid too – part naval officer and part pirate. Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Newport himself would lead the ships which would settle the Americas, return with bounty from the New World and push the limits of navigation while fighting the Spanish, England’s principal enemy during the 16th and early 17th centuries. The darker side to the trade was that they were little more than pirates – plundering Spanish ships for their cargoes and killing their crews. And, with the push into Africa, many became slavers too. To the privateers, any cargo, human or otherwise, was fair game.
Monarchs such as James, who had imperial and trade ambitions, but could hardly afford to fulfill them with a standing navy, geared their policy upon the ruthless energy of men such as Newport, who could grow rich themselves while delivering bounty, new lands and delightful gifts to their patrons. It was this early modern version of a public-private partnership that built the Empire, and it would be used time and again.
In 1606, James was wrestling with a problem. European seafarers had discovered a huge continent on the other side of the globe, and there was a frantic dash to beat the Spanish, the French and the Dutch in setting up colonies. The London Stock Exchange didn’t exist yet, but City and East End merchants would happily buy shares in a company that promised unimaginable riches from the New World. The first joint stock company had been launched in London in 1555, with the Muscovy Company seeking the northeast passage to China. James chartered The Virginia Company to make good Britain’s shaky foothold on the American mainland, and within a year ships set sail for the New World.
Already in his forties, Newport had a 20-year career of raiding Spanish freighters in the Caribbean. The proceeds from these missions were shared with the London merchants who funded them. It may be no surprise to realise that the modern Stock Exchange was founded on piracy. Newport had captained privateer vessels including the Golden Dragon, the Margaret and the Little John, and in August 1592 landed the largest English plunder of the 16th century, when he captured the Portuguese Madre de Deus off the Azores. Gems, silks and 500 tons of spices would be unloaded at Wapping later that year.
It made the Limehouse man the perfect skipper of this risky new venture. At 120 tons, the Susan Constant was the largest of three ships that set sail for the new colony of Virginia in December 1606, but it was still just 35 metres in length. On 26 April 1607 Newport landed at Chesapeake Bay. It had been an unusually long and troublesome crossing. Captain John Smith had caused dissent and near mutiny on the voyage, and Newport had planned to have him summarily executed when they made land. Opening his sealed orders, he was dismayed to read that Smith was to be leader of the new colony. Sparing the troublesome captain, Newport headed inland with his crew and the 110 colonists (all male).
So the party established Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, with Smith as its leader. It was a poor site, set in the midst of swamplands and the settlers – largely English farmers – had no idea what to cultivate. Hunting was poor and the starving and diseased settlers became dependent on the supply ships which Newport ran back and forth over the following years. There would be countless setbacks. On one voyage, Newport was forced to beach his storm-lashed ship on what would become Bermuda. The resourceful East End sea captain had now founded not one but two British territories.
Somehow though, with Smith emerging as an inspired and inspiring leader, able to negotiate and trade with the Indians, Jamestown survived. And on Newport’s last trip, he brought the key to the colony’s survival. John Rolfe was a brilliant agriculturalist who would develop the new, sweeter types of tobacco on which Virginia would grow rich. It must have been an ironic victory for his tobacco-loathing king. Newport would find new horizons, meanwhile. He died on an East India Company expedition to Java in 1617.