In the early 1500s, England faced an existential economic crisis: Demand for their most lucrative export, woolen cloth, was plunging in Europe. They needed to find new markets for their product --and fast.
So a group of merchants set their sights on the vast market of Cathay --the word used at the time to refer to China --which was then the largest economy in the world, with nearly 30 percent of global GDP. (By comparison, India during this period produced roughly 20 to 25 percent of global GDP. England was peripheral to the world economy, producing an inconsequential 1 percent of global GDP.)
These English merchants sent expeditions in search of a new overland sea route that, they hoped, would take them over the European continent to China, enabling them to avoid having to sail through waters controlled by the Spanish and the Portuguese, their arch rivals.
After failing to reach Cathay (although they did make it as far as Moscow), they decided to turn westward, eventually reaching the shores of America, where they established small trading outposts and, eventually, full-fledged colonies.
This is how the tale begins in a captivating new book by Simon Targett and John Butman, New World, Inc.: The Making of America by England's Merchant Adventurers. Through meticulous research and a flair for bringing a colorful cast of long-deceased characters back to life, Targett and Butman tell the story of the founding of one of history's most successful startups: America.
"It's the 'prequel' to the Pilgrims," Targett told me in a recent podcast conversation. "You can't really understand America today if you only go as far back as the Pilgrims. Of course they are an important part of the founding. But there were many trips for 70 years before the Pilgrims, who eventually arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. As we delved further, we tracked and traced an unbroken chain of voyages. And we felt the story of these merchant adventurers --what we call the 'forgotten founders' -- provides a better narrative."
Targett and Butman relate the fascinating and largely untold story of the earliest days of globalization, of innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking, and of the creation of some of the earliest venture-financed companies in the world.
"What they did initially was to set up a company," explains Targett. "This we think of as perhaps the forerunner of all modern corporations. It was called 'The Mysterie, Company, and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown.'"
This was a period when the newly coined word, "company," was just starting to become a part of the English language. In a fascinating bit of etymology, Targett explains how the word was formed through the conjunction of the Latin words, "com," meaning "together," and "panis," meaning "bread." Together, the word loosely means "the breaking of bread together."
Of course, English merchants had supported and funded voyages for decades, and these had often been funded either by private individuals or private syndicates. "But the idea of going across the world required a higher level of organization and financing, so they set up this company which not only allowed them to pool their resources, but also allowed them to attract their resources from people who didn't want to get involved in the mundane running of company."
Like the startups of today, most of which are statistically prone to flop, failure was very much a part of the story. "It's remarkable how many setbacks these people experienced and yet they continued to believe there was a pot of gold or a fortune to be made at the end of it," observes Targett. "And, in a way, that driving spirit was key to these people. It's another feature of a modern America that we feel needs to be traced back to before the Pilgrims."
Targett compares these risk-taking, adventurous "forgotten founders" of 16th- and 17th-century England to one of the boldest entrepreneurs of our era, Elon Musk. "To some extent the people that we write about, these 'forgotten founders,' were venture capitalists. They were very much the Elon Musks of their day. Just as he is dreaming of new worlds, in his case Mars, their new world was America. And he's pulling together some of the best minds to help him design some of the rockets and the spaceships that will be needed. Likewise, the merchants pulled together the very best minds of their days--the scientists, the navigators, the buccaneers, the marketers."
"These 'forgotten founders' and the people they sent across were the first people to really experience and live the American dream. These were the people that often went across with nothing but made their place and made their home. They didn't all make fortunes, but they found a life, they found a place in society."