April 16, 2001
Short Sweet Life of
The Virginia Company
Emily Rose, Princeton University
PRINCETON -- The most striking
absence from John Smith's map of Virginia, first published in 1612,
is any reference to the Virginia Company which was, after all, the
legal proprietor of the land under English law until the company
was dissolved in 1624.
This absence is emblematic of Smith's fraught
relations with the company managers and directors. Though the names
of John Smith and the Virginia Company are inextricably linked, Smith
worked for the company shareholders for only a few years; he worked
against them for even longer.
Smith's version of the early days of settlement
has long influenced our histories.
The Virginia Company governed the land according
to a series of royal charters. The first was granted in 1606 by King
James I, and it created two companies, one operating out of Plymouth
with the aim of establishing a more northern colony and one operating
out of London with the aim of establishing a more southern colony.
The Plymouth Company established Sagadahoc
Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. But
by the end of 1608, the colonists of the Plymouth Company had all
packed their bags and returned to England. The London Company (also
known as the Virginia Company) planted itself on the Powhatan River
(renamed the James) and established Jamestown in 1607.
Captain John Smith went out in the London
Company's first adventure and was on the sealed list of councillors
that was opened on board the ship heading to Virginia. In the fall
of 1608 (by when the other leaders had died or left Virginia), Smith
became president of the young colony's council.
The original organization of the company
proved unworkable, however, and in 1609, the London Company received
a new charter when it was reorganized as a joint-stock company in
an attempt to make it more responsive and effective.
A new fleet of ships was sent to supply Jamestown
and to reform the government by martial law under the direction of
Sir George Somers and Sir Thomas Gates.
However, the lead ship of the fleet, the
Sea Venture, crashed on the reefs surrounding Bermuda before it could
reach Virginia. The famous shipwreck which many scholars think was
in Shakespeare's mind as he wrote the first scene of The Tempest caused
Somers's delay and allowed Smith to retain control for many months
in Virginia: the papers authorizing the change of control remained
in Bermuda with the new governor.
A new royal charter in 1612 extended the
geographic boundaries of the London Company's grant to include Bermuda,
which looked more promising than Virginia. Bermuda was spun off in
1613 to a smaller group of investors, most of whom were shareholders
in Virginia. In the early maps of Bermuda, the seal of the Bermuda
Company is displayed along with that of the Virginia Company.
One would expect, then, to see the seal of
the Virginia Company on Smith's map rather than his own personal heraldic
device—which was added to later editions of the map.
Supplanted as council president and injured
by gunpowder, Smith returned to England in 1609 after the first corporate
restructuring. Alexander Brown noted a century ago that Smith "not
only failed to give satisfaction to his employers but he gave great
dissatisfaction and was never employed by the Council of Virginia
again" (Brown 1008).
Though he made two subsequent voyages to
New England (sometimes called Northern Virginia) beginning in 1614,
he never again found employment with colonial entrepreneurs.
Smith published his treatise A Map of Virginia
(which included the first state of the map on which this website is
based) in 1612 without the approval of the company. Scholars suspect
that this is one reason he had it printed in Oxford instead of London.
Smith's later petition to the Virginia
Company seeking a reward for past services was denied; in 1622 he
proposed writing a history of Virginia, a proposal which was never
endorsed by the company. The following month, it should be noted,
Smith's friend, the prolific Samuel Purchas, was given shares in the
company as were other corporate promoters such as the poet John Donne.
The absence, therefore, of any reference
to the Virginia Company and the enhancement of Smith's own emblem
on the map itself should be seen as visual and graphic counterparts
to his written attempts to enhance his own role and diminish that
of the investors and managers who hired him and sent him to Virginia.
Smith was an important player in the propaganda
war which preceded the dissolution of the Virginia Company in 1624.
Smith positioned himself as an expert on Virginia, but in fact he
had not been there for a decade and a half when he answered the questions
put forth by the Royal Commission on Virginia.
He had little information that could not
be gained from others returning to England with more up-to-date news
on the vast changes which had taken place in the colony. Nevertheless,
Smith's participation suggests that his views were well known and
that he could be relied upon to oppose the current management.
At the time, the company was deeply divided
into factions, groups of investors with different objectives and different
ideas about how the colony should be run, who should run it, and how
it should make money.
Smith appears to have sided with the party
of the Earl of Warwick (a leading investor in pirate ships), and the
great merchant Sir Thomas Smythe (a former governor of the London
They were seeking to wrest control of the
Virginia Company of London from Sir Edwin Sandys (the parliamentary
leader), and the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare's patron). In this
conflict, an aging King James sided with the Earl of Warwick: he had
long hated Sir Edwin Sandys and twice had tried to remove Sandys from
the office of governor of the company.
The King was always looking for money and
saw the Virginia Company as a good source of cash—either through 'voluntary'
loans and donations or by means of taxes on tobacco.
The endgame over the company's charter began
in April 1623. At the instigation of Smythe's son-in-law, the Privy
Council began an investigation into the operations of the Virginia
That investigation was directly tied to failed
negotiations over a contract to import tobacco from Virginia to England,
which had dragged on for a year. It was the tobacco contract and not
the 1622 Indian massacre (as many American historians assume) that
raised red flags in London.
From April 1623 to May 1624, control of the
company was fought for in the Privy Council, in the royal courts,
in Parliament, and in the court of public opinion. It was during this
period that John Smith compiled his Generall Historie of Virginia.
Close scrutiny of Smith's role suggests that
he was not a disinterested observer simply promoting colonization
but a partisan player. He had been trying to get himself hired by
the management of the company but the Sandys-Southampton leadership
had expressed no interest.
In April 1624, the company was declared void
in the courts, and government of the colony was taken into the crown
hands. In June, the King appointed a new commission for Virginia,
and in July, Smith's Generall Historie was published.
Within the year, Smith's arms were recorded
at the College of Arms. The timing is curious since the arms were
awarded for services provided in Turkey more than two decades earlier,
and they were based on a rather vague document. One is tempted to
see in the recognition of Smith's arms (and the right to call himself
a gentleman) a reward for services recently rendered to the King of
England. In contrast to the famous map, the 1624 title page of Smith's
Generall Historie bore not only regal portraits of Elizabeth, James,
and Charles, but also three corporate seals as well as Smith's heraldic
The prominent display of the seals of Virginia,
Bermuda, and New England was meant to suggest a corporate endorsement
which John Smith never received.
In May 1625, Virginia and Bermuda were formally
proclaimed part of the royal empire ruled by Charles I. Captain John
Smith's map of Virginia, with his own arms prominently displayed and
the royal seal front and center and topped by an imperial crown stated
ownership of the land in no uncertain terms.
The Virginia Company was erased from history,
just as it was erased from Smith's map. In its stead, Captain Smith
and the royal family took pride of place.
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