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The London Companies

Both the Ulster and Virginia plantations were to be managed by private companies based in London.

by Alister John McReynolds
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Alister is an Historian and Educationalist who is a noted authority on the subject of the Scots Irish / Ulster Scots history and culture. He has taught in the Secondary School and Community College sectors for over thirty years. For the last thirteen years he has worked as Principal and Chief Executive of Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education. Mr McReynolds is an Honorary Member of City and Guilds of London and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a Fellow of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His recent work entitled ‘Northern Ireland - The American Connection’ has just been published in the United States on behalf of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. During the past fifteen years Alister McReynolds has spoken at several colleges/ universities/learned societies in the United States. Alister can be contacted by email at amcreynoldsheritage@googlemail.com
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Although the Plantation of Ulster and the development of Jamestown in Virginia have much in common with each other so also both these projects borrowed from the Hamilton and Montgomery settlement of Lowland Scots in Counties Antrim and Down in 1606.

Here was a relatively simple situation whereby two adventurers, James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery, were actively seeking a private business opportunity and in the process were involved in a significant settlement of people.  However that which drew the Plantation of Ulster (1610) and Jamestown Virginia (1607) together was more complex and involved larger forces at play.

Apart from the almost simultaneous timing and the pivotal role of James I there is some similarity between the ‘parent bodies’ the The Honourable Irish Society and the Virginia Company of London in so far as both were centred around the formidable financial power of the City of London.

Arguably however the primary business of the Plantation of Ulster was that of introducing what was conceived as a ‘civilising’ cohort of settlers into Ulster.

The development of the Virginia Company of London at Jamestown Virginia was first and foremost an attempt to accumulate profit, to ‘get rich’ quickly.  In 1932 the American historian Frank Craven described the project in this way:-

"Whatever else may have entered into the activities of the company, it was primarily a business organisation with large sums of capital invested by adventurers whose chief interest lay in the returns expected from their investment".

Similarly it could be argued that the Plantation of Ulster had an economic function which was based around the concept of introducing arable farming and a 'money' rather than barter economy derived from working the land and developing the trades associated with the livery companies of London.

By 1604 England was emerging from a 17 year economic depression.  Investors were setting up joint Stock Companies such as the Virginia Company in which they pooled their finances to enable bigger projects to be undertaken and to finance overseas trade.  With the new King came the opportunity to begin to create an overseas empire and for the concept of Britain rather than just England to emerge.

That the Virginia experiment saw plantation as integral to the process can be seen in its full title of, "The Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the first Colony of Virginia - Jamestown".  Obviously given the distance and unknown quantity of the landmass at the time the New World project focussed on the development of one settlement namely Jamestown.  In the case of the Plantation of Ulster the scope of the exercise was larger in that the Flight of the Earls and the subsequent confiscation of their lands meant that the quantum of land available created the context for a more widespread process of settlement across six counties within the Province.

In Virginia raw materials and the extraction and shipping of these was paramount to the business.  Originally gold, silver, copper and jewels were sought but when this proved unsuccessful the Company turned its attention to more mundane produce such as timber, walnut oil, animal pelts and the newly developing cash crop – tobacco.

Initially raw materials were of some significance in Ulster, particularly timber, fish and flax.  However in many cases raw materials were of secondary significance.  This can be seen in the development by the Vintners' Company of London, of a business centre in County Londonderry at Vintnerstown (now Bellaghy) with this location being chosen on the toss of a coin.

One aspect of the Ulster situation that was similar to that of Virginia arose from the British need to be strategically circumspect about the country's position with regard to other European interests such as those of Spain.  Just as Virginia gave Britain a base from which to protect its North Atlantic enterprises from Spain so also Ulster could potentially give the Spanish a 'back door' into Britain and thus need to be secured by the British Crown.

There was a marked difference however in the eagerness of the City of London to 'do business' in Virginia compared with in Ulster.  The minute books of the London Livery Companies clearly demonstrate that there was no appetite for doing business in Ulster.  Indeed it was only when several respectable businessmen had been imprisoned, fined and issued with further threats that the companies acceded to pressure from Crown authorities to commit resources and become involved.

In Jamestown all was geared to sustaining and securing export of riches.  Unlike Ulster's planned towns Jamestown was fitted out as a garrison/depot rather than as a market town or permanent settlement.  Rather than by a market economy as in Ulster, Jamestown's settlers were sustained through a 'company store' known as 'the magazine'.  This supplied clothes, drink, food and tools and acted as a conduit for all goods that were shipped back to Britain.   The infamous Jamestown Governor Captain John Smith said of the sponsors of the Virginia Company, "all their aime was nothing but present profit".  Indeed he complained of the threats issued by them that if ships were not sent home full the settlers would be left there as "banished men".  In this context religion was used as a way to civilize the natives, largely to make them more amenable to trade - "us who by way of merchandizing and trade do buy of them the pearls of the earth and sell to them the pearls of heaven".

Hamilton and Montgomery were involved in the Antrim and Down enterprise in order to acquire wealth with a key part of their business being the export of people from overpopulated lowland Scotland.  The Plantation of Ulster borrowed some of this 'people trade'; there was plenty to go around and obviously the creation of a more stable settled society is conducive to business development.

In the case of the Virginia Company this 'people trade' was not yet needed; that was to come later in America in a different way as yet unheralded.  For now the 'Adventurers' of the joint stock company were interested in a quick turn around on the capital that they had ventured.  In the case of the Honourable the Irish Society in Ulster they by contrast knew that they were 'in for the long haul!
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