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Of Raleigh And The First Plantation
The Elizabethans and America: Part II -- The fate of the Virginia Colony rested on the endurance of adventurers, the financing of London merchants, and the favor of a courtier with his demanding spinster Queen.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Sandys, who became treasurer of the company in 1619, was a remarkable man. Educated under Richard Hooker at Oxford, where he became a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, he was much more of an intellectual than Sir Thomas Smythe. He toured Europe with Archbishop Cranmer’s great nephew and dedicated the book he wrote, Europae speculum, to Archbishop Whitgift. We see that his early associations were archiepiscopal. This did not prevent him from being rather a demagogue in the House of Commons, where he was very forward in opposition.
In the Virginia Company Sandys captured the leadership of the lesser shareholders, many of whom, including fifty Members of Parliament, had not paid up their subscriptions. Sandys thereupon resorted to lotteries; he was very ingenious and resourceful, full of energy and ideas, up to anything and everything to raise money. And we must do him this justice: he did infuse new energy into, gave a fresh impetus to, the colony. After his first year of office, James refused to have him renominated: “Choose the Devil, if you will, but not Sir Edwin Sandys.” So Southampton was elected treasurer, though Sandys remained the moving spirit.
Sir Edwin, I fear, was a sharp customer. When it came to depressing reports from Virginia, he and John and Nicholas Ferrars doctored the minutes. An adept at maneuvering votes in council, by 1622 he had got into control of both companies. He now proposed a scheme of salaries for himself and offices for his supporters that was unprecedented. He as director was to receive £500 a year. Smythe, after five years as governor of the East India Company, had refused to accept more than £400 gratuity. For twelve years’ service as treasurer of the Virginia Company he was rewarded with twenty shares; Sandys got as much for one year, and John Ferrars as his deputy, the same amount for three years. It is not the first time that a reformer has been revealed as self-interested.
Meanwhile, so engrossed were they in these characteristic amenities of committees, idiotic dissensions, and personal maneuvers that the terrible Indian massacre of that year—in which 350 were killed and 500 more died within the twelvemonth—went unnoticed, so far as remedies went. Sandys and the Ferrarses suppressed information as to the worst miseries the colony endured, and put about misleading reports. But disquiet about Virginia grew, and Smythe’s governor, back from Bermuda, revealed the facts of Sandys’ feverish overshipping of colonists and the fearful mortality in consequence. He had certainly been energetic. In the four years of Sandys’ administration 4,000 had been transported; the net increase to the population was 275. In all, by 1622 some 10,000 souls had gone out to Virginia; of these only 2,000 were alive. As to money, under Smythe £80,000 had been expended; in the far shorter period of Sandys, between £80,000 and £90,000.
No: the effective founder of Jamestown colony was Sir Thomas Smythe.
These facts were revealed by a committee appointed by the Crown, which exonerated Smythe’s administration, going through all the books and figures, and condemned Sandys. There was furious dissension, for of course Sandys retained the support of the Commons. But the government had had enough of it; when Sandys and his allies appealed to the Commons, the Crown recalled the Virginia charters and resumed the government of the colony into its own hands: henceforth this took the classic shape of royal governors with assistants nominated by the Crown, with a representative assembly.
We may take this to end the founding phase in the colony’s history. Up to 1624 the whole cost of the plantation of Virginia was about £200,000, with what little return we have seen. We may profitably contrast the money poured out by England to settle her stock in Virginia with Spain’s ruthless exploitation of the West Indies—the regular drain of treasure from Mexico and Peru.
Within the colony, after such tribulations, all was at last set fair. Even before the last of them, the Indian Massacre of 1622, a most important development in government took place, from which the ultimate form of American government was shaped: the first representative assembly, based on popular election, met there in the tiny church beside the river at Jamestown. A touching scene in its simplicity and yet in all that it signifies—the heart of the political experience of the English-speaking peoples and the peculiar contribution they have to make to the world.