The Virginia Company




In the seventeenth century, setting up a colony across many thousands of miles of ocean in a new land was a very expensive and risky business. It was a business that the English Crown preferred and was willing to delegate to private money. However, even partnerships of several very wealthy individuals was inadequate to raise the required capital . And so, the Crown was content to issue a charter to a group of various people to set up a joint-stock company, that would raise the necessary initial capital by issuing shares to subscribers.

The company was designated as "The Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the First Colony of Virginia". The title distinguishes between two types of subscribers or sponsors: "Adventurers" and "Planters". "Adventurers" was the word used for the stockholders, who generally remained in England, and very rarely ventured their persons in the colony in Virginia. They bought shares in the company and, to a greater or lesser degree, attended the meetings of the Court of the Virginia Company in London. "Planters" referred to the people who actually went to Virginia to set up settlements, and for this they received a share in stock.
The seal of the Virginia Company.

And thus, the 1609 Charter states: "Whether they goe in their persons to be planters there in the plantacion, or whether they goe not, but doe adventure their monyes, goods or chattels, that they shalbe one bodie or communaltie perpetuall and shall have perpetual succession and one common seale to serve for the saide bodie or communaltie; and that they and their successors shalbe knowne, called and incorporated by the name of The Tresorer and Companie of Adventurers and Planters of the Citty of London for the Firste Collonie in Virginia". The two types of stockholder have been neatly highlighted in the title of the book "Adventurers of Purse and Person", compiled and edited by Martha Woodroof Hiden.

The Charter provided for a Council to administer and govern the colony indirectly from London. It was made up of a treasurer, a secretary and a group of main shareholders. It was this Council that managed the finances; promulgated laws and ordinances; issued advice to the colony; took decisions over issues arising in the colony; and organised the shipping of supplies and settlers to Virginia. This extract (left) shows a typical entry in the Court Book of the Company. Each Court started with the Treasurer and officers, followed by the other names who attended. The treasurer from 1620 to 1624 was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron.

Each share had a value of 12 10s. and these could be assigned to other people. In theory, each shareholder would receive a dividend but, due to the adverse conditions facing the colonists, in practice this dividend did not materialise and was not realised. Indeed, in November 1616, on ending the first seven-year period, so small were the Company's profits that it was decided to distribute land in Virginia instead to individual or group stockholders according to the number of shares they owned. Any such stockholder who would undertake to set up a plantation and pay the expenses of the transportation of the planters would be given 100 acres of land for each share as well as 50 acres for each person they transported, a system that came to be known as 'headrights'. These new settlements were known as "particular plantations" to differentiate them from the ancient boroughs or incorporations and the small personal plantations.

From 1617, these particular plantations were established and developed along the north and especially the south shores of the James River. Indeed, initally the south shores remained sparsely settled until the granting of patents for particular plantations from 1618 onwards. Settlements had been mainly confined to the area north of James River to the east and west of Jamestown. They branched off south east to fill the Kecoughtan peninsula but most preferred to settle up-river to the west, which provided more protection from the threat of Spanish attacks, a danger that was at times more feared by colonists than Indian raids. In 1611, Henricus (Henrico City) was established by the Company. By 1614, it had also set up Kecoughtan (Elizabeth City) and Charles City. Likewise the favoured target area of early private plantations was up-river of Jamestown although some were still sited in its immediate vicinity. In 1617, Smith's Hundred (Southampton Hundred) was begun across the river and Martin's Hundred was set up in 1618.

Virginia Colony c.1622
Thumbnail Inset: Link to Capt. John Smith's map of Virginia, published 1624.

By 1619, when Captain Lawne arrived, settlement had begun to break out along the southern shores. Worsley's patant for a particular plantation was one of several of the earliest issued. With the opening up of colonisation to private individuals or groups, a renewed stream of settlers were encouraged to voyage to Virginia in what has been described as "the Great Migration", which lasted from 1618 until 1623. By 1620, three types of landowners were in evidence: the Company, particular plantations (belonging to a syndicate of adventurers back in England) and planters living in Virginia. This was the situation into which Sir Richard Worsley and his associates ventured, when they applied for a patent in 1618 or 1619.

The "Magazine" or "Society of Particular Adventurers for Traffic with the People of Virginia in Joint Stock".

The early colonists found the provision of a sufficient food supply so difficult that they relied on trade with the natives, exchanging trinkets and tools for food. And, although they were often in conflict with certain tribes, they were still able to benefit from continual supplies of corn from the natives by virtue of the varying and ever changing attitude of the tribes towards each other and the colonists themselves.

However, supply ships did their best to provision the infant colony but the time interval between these ships arriving in Virginia was many months. The Company therefore tried its best to make the colony self-sufficient, as far as possible, by sending out iron-workers, glassmakers, "vignerons", saltmakers, shipwrights and others. They were to set up their works in Virginia and so lessen the dependence of the settlements on supplies from the motherland.

The discovery that the area around the James River provided ideal conditions for the growth of the tobacco plant led , in a short time, to its wholescale cultivation by many of the colonists to the detriment of wheat or corn. A superior form of tobacco had been brought to Virginia from the West Indies by John Rolfe in 1614 and the colonists realised they were able to grow marketable tobacco very successfully. Tobacco required far less labour than sugar cane in its cultivation and harvest and could be easily loaded onto ships from small wharfs in creeks next to the tobacco plantations. No large scale port facilities were required. And so the cultivation of tobacco took precedence over food cultivation.

In 1616, the Company decided to set up a sparate but subsidiary company to manage the supply or provisions to the colony. It was called the "Magazine" or "Society of Particular Adventurers for Traffic with the People of Virginia in Joint Stock" and it was allowed a monopoly in supplying Jamestown and outlying settlements. It too was constituted as a joint-stock company and its investors alone were to benefit from any accruing profits. However by 1619, it was experiencing large financial problems and so on 20 January 1620, it was dissolved by the Virginia Company.

The supply of the colony was opened up to free trade. And it is at this time that merchants, like Robert Newland of Newport and East Cowes, step into the gap left by the "Magazine". It is in 1620 that Robert Newland was obtaining the leases of property in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight and setting up facilities, such as a quay and storehouses. Indeed, Newland was so bound up with the Virginia Company that he was one of the named associates of Sir Richard Worsley, who obtained a patent for a 'particular' plantation in 1619. Worsley's patent authorised the establishment of "Isle of Wight Plantation" or, as it was commonly known, "Lawne's Plantation".