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Trade and expansion in the 17th century
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Trade and expansion in the 17th century

New opportunities

Godspeed at Greenwich.
View full size imageA replica of the Godspeed at Greenwich in 1985.
During the 17th century, London's merchant adventurers continued to seek out new commercial opportunities.

In December 1606, three small ships - the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery - sailed from Blackwall with the backing of a Company of Merchant Adventurers. They founded the state of Virginia in North America.

That was 14 years before the Pilgrim Fathers set out from Plymouth. Here is a photograph of a replica of one of the ships, the Godspeed.

Landfall Virginia

The portraictuer of Captayne Iohn Smith Admirall of New England.
View full size imageCaptain John Smith.
The expedition finally reached Virginia after four months at sea. The leader of the Blackwall party was Captain John Smith, who helped to set up a trading settlement at Jamestown.

At this time, the life expectancy of settlers in the Americas was only two years.

Life was almost impossible for the merchant adventurers because of:

  • the harsh winter climate
  • the lack of fresh water
  • the spread of disease
  • attacks by the Native Americans.

The Virginia Company

Map of Virginia, 1615.
View full size imageAn early sketch map of Virginia, c. 1615. © NMM
In 1609 the Virginia Company was established. The company traders exchanged woollens and weapons for furs with the Native Americans.

Virginia has a warm, fertile climate, perfect for growing tobacco. Sir Francis Drake (1540-96) introduced the tobacco leaf to England in 1585 and smoking became popular in England, especially among the wealthier classes.

By the 1640s the English colonists in Virginia dominated the Atlantic tobacco trade. They were sending huge quantities to London.

The Hudson's Bay Company

Governor's Flag, Hudson's Bay Company.
View full size imageThe flag of the Hudson's Bay Company.
In June 1668, the ketches Nonsuch and Eaglet left the Thames to explore the territory around Hudson Bay in Canada. Only the Nonsuch reached her goal and returned four months later with a cargo of beaver furs.

Charles II realised that important results would follow from this first expedition. He sealed the Charter of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. The flag alongside carries the company's coat-of-arms.

Prince Rupert - first Governor

Minature of Prince Rupert (1619-82).
View full size imageMiniature of Prince Rupert (1619-82).
Prince Rupert, the king's cousin, was appointed the first Governor of the company.

The company was to prove valuable to the commerce of London and it played an important role in the extension of the British Empire.

The area the company controlled was known as Rupert's Land. It comprised nearly 40 per cent of modern Canada.


Multinational enterprise

Three ships of the Hudson Bay Company off Greenwich.
View full size imageThree ships of the Hudson's Bay Company off Greenwich.
What began as a simple fur trading enterprise evolved into a huge trading and exploration company. Its interests stretched:

  • to the west coast of Canada
  • south to Oregon
  • north to the Arctic 
  • east to Ungava Bay, in northern Quebec.
Hudson Bay Company trading token.
View full size imageHudson's Bay Company trading token.
The company had agents in Chile, Hawaii, California and Siberia. Its interests eventually included:
  • land development (it owned vast areas of the North American prairies)
  • merchandising and natural resources
  • real estate development.

Real Estate

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The rise and decline of Henry VIII's Dockyards
Fact fileElizabeth I
Queen of England, 1558-1603
Fact fileSamuel Pepys
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Fact fileSir Thomas Spert
The first and longest serving Master of Trinity House
Fact fileHenry VIII
The king who had six wives
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Sir Francis Drake's ship for circumnavigating the globe
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GalleriesWoolwich Royal Dockyard collection
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From Roman settlement to today's Docklands, explore the history of maritime London
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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