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Not all Bristolians, as we know, agreed with the Merchant Venturers’ view of the proper urban social and economic order. Many of the retailers and artificers saw freedom to trade as a natural concomitant of their status as burgesses. For these shopkeepers and craftsmen, the American trade represented a shoemakers’ holiday of its own. It offered an opportunity to trade abroad in an area outside the control of the Merchant Venturers. It gave small men the chance to use their capital and their contacts to become merchants. Of the many who did so, some indeed were shoemakers. James Wathen, for example, ran a steady business in the American colonies in the mid-seventeenth century. During the early 1650s he traded with both Virginia and Barbados, importing tobacco and sugar and shipping servants. During these same years his brother Richard acted as servant to a Barbados planter, providing James with a business connection on the island. Although Wathen never achieved Simon Eyre’s eminence, like the London shoemaker his commercial activity continued unabated through his later life. After the Restoration we find him still plying the colonial trade just as he had under the Commonwealth.[55]

Wathen’s career not only reveals the ways the emerging Atlantic economy disrupted traditional patterns of commercial life in Bristol but also illustrates how the troubled politics of the 1640s and 1650s had thrown the city into turmoil. For Wathen not only “interloped,” as the Merchant Venturers might have said, in foreign commerce, but in his kinship ties he represented the forces of political and religious radicalism in the city. He came from a large family of middling men—tanners, wiredrawers, shoemakers, pinmakers, and mariners—who not only engaged in American trade but challenged the civic establishment as well.[56] For example, James Wathen, Senior, a pinmaker and cousin of James the shoemaker, was one of Bristol’s more outspoken sectaries in the early 1650s; so was John Wathen, apothecary, another kinsman. John Wathen eventually became a partner in the Whitson Court sugar refinery founded by Thomas Ellis, merchant, in 1665, while other Wathen relations also engaged in American trade. Moreover, Ellis, a leading Bristol Baptist, had gotten his start in the sugar trade in the 1650s by shipping large cargoes of shoes to Barbados, which perhaps links him directly with James Wathen, shoemaker, as well.[57]

The men who “spirited” Farwell Meredith to Barbados share this same combination of religion and economics. Marlin Hiscox and Richard Basse also were tied to a group of active sectaries. The Hiscox clan was closely connected through apprenticeship with William Philpott, a cooper who was Richard Basse’s stepfather—a fact which makes the crew of the Dolphin almost as cosy as an eighteenth-century cousinage. Basse himself grew up in the same household as William Bullock, a shipwright who was one of Bristol’s truly large-scale dealers in colonial goods in the mid-seventeenth century. Both Philpott and Bullock, like James Wathen, pinmaker, and John Wathen, apothecary, appear among the supporters of the radical Colonel John Haggatt in the 1654 elections to the first Protectorate Parliament. Moreover, Bullock and some of the Hiscox family were early Quakers.[58]

Numerous other Bristol sectaries also engaged in colonial commerce during these years. For example, Christopher Birkhead, a mariner who sometimes voyaged to the West Indies and the Chesapeake, was one of Bristol’s more militant saints. In the mid-1650s, Birkhead, by then a follower of George Fox, had already acquired an international reputation as a troublemaker for disrupting Presbyterian services at Bristol, Huguenot services at La Rochelle, and Dutch Reformed services at Middleborough.[59] Captain George Bishop, a New Model Army man, an Agitator at Putney, onetime secret agent to the Commonwealth’s Council of State, Haggatt’s colleague in the 1654 parliamentary election, and early sectary, also engaged in colonial trade in this period.[60] Captain Thomas Speed, another New Model Army man and also by 1655 a leading defender and propagandist for the Bristol Friends, was if anything an even more important American merchant. In the early 1650s he engaged with several other Bristolians in a series of projects to transport Irish prisoners to the colonies.[61] By the middle of the same decade he had become almost as important as William Bullock in American commerce, importing over seventeen tons of Barbados sugar during 1654–55 and accounting for considerable quantities of Virginia tobacco during the following year.[62]

Other American traders among the sectaries led somewhat more sedate political and economic lives. The Baptists Major Samuel Clarke and Robert Bagnall, for example, were the merchants of the Samuel Pinke of Bristol, which Christopher Birkhead sailed for the Caribbean in August 1653.[63] Both of them traded in West India sugar and Virginia tobacco in the mid-1650s. Samuel Clarke’s brother Joseph, a scrivener, and Robert Cornish, a sailor, were also Baptists dealing in American imports in these years. Among the Quaker traders we find such men as the grocers Thomas Ricroft and John Saunders, the ironmonger Henry Roe, the mariner Latimer Sampson, and the merchant Jasper Cartwright. These were middling traders, importing smaller quantities of American goods than Bullock and Speed but maintaining a steady commerce nonetheless. Unfortunately, it is impossible to make a complete tally of the Bristol Baptists and Quakers who invested in colonial enterprise during the mid-seventeenth century, since we do not know the names of all the city’s sectaries in this period. But for the ten years following the establishment of the Wharfage Book and the Register of Servants we can identify more than sixty such individuals in the city who engaged in trans-Atlantic commerce, some trading only once or twice, some like Bullock and Speed among the city’s largest dealers in colonial commerce, but many, like Wathen, conducting a modest but continuous traffic with America.[64]

These men possessed ideals of community and individual commitment different from the hierarchical views held by conservative Bristolians such as the leading Merchant Venturers. In their congregations they had long since rejected the structures of authority of the established church. They believed in a community of the spirit, and they governed themselves through regular meetings at which a democratic ideal of brotherhood prevailed.[65] To men and women reared with these religious convictions, Simon Eyre’s world, as depicted by Dekker, would have seemed far more congenial than the Merchant Venturers’, for the idea of a rigid structure of occupations ranked in a neat hierarchy bore little resemblance to their most profound experiences of community life. It is perhaps no surprise to find them often acting to break down the strict boundaries separating stranger from Bristolian and mere inhabitant from full citizen. The “coloring of strangers goods” was a commonplace of business practice among them. When the civic authorities made a concerted effort to end this ancient misdemeanor in the mid-1660s, they found Thomas Ellis and his Baptist associates heavily engaged in it.[66] Some of the sectaries even began their careers in Bristol as “interlopers” pure and simple. Major Samuel Clarke, for example, only entered the freedom of the city in 1652 after a shipment of imported fruit belonging to him had been seized as “foreign bought & sold.”[67] Moreover, the merchant sectaries, especially the Quakers, could not follow Clarke’s lead in becoming Bristol freemen, since their consciences prevented them from swearing the burgess oath. Many traded illicitly all their lives. Among them perhaps was John Wathen, whose name never appears in the Bristol burgess books.[68]


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