Closely tied to the expansion of Bristol’s European trades was the evolution of commercial interests in the New World. Three main lines of development may be distinguished. The North Atlantic had the great fisheries off Newfoundland and New England. Further south there was traffic in the commodities of Virginia and the West Indies. Finally, the search for a Northwest Passage remained a recurring theme in Bristol’s history. Each in its way was related to the older southern trades; the fishery provided a highly marketable commodity to sell in the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, while the other ventures sought “at the first hand” the same type of profitable imports that Bristolians commonly acquired on the southern routes.
Bristol’s knowledge of the Newfoundland fishery was already well established by the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. Following Cabot’s discovery, during the early sixteenth century the Bristolians maintained a steady interest in Newfoundland cod. The midcentury ushered in a period of reduced English presence on the Grand Banks: by 1570 the entire English fishing fleet amounted, according to the Bristolian Anthony Parkhurst, to no more than “iiii sayle of small barkes.” The English returned in force to Newfoundland, however, in the mid-1570s, with a doubling or even quadrupling in the number of English on the Grand Banks. But Bristol became involved in a large way only in the 1590s. There were three returning ships in 1591–92, ten in 1594–95, twelve in 1598–99, and sixteen between 1600 and 1602. In the 1610s and 1620s eight to sixteen vessels made the journey each year, and in the 1630s, when Bristol’s American interests had become more widely diversified, about half that number made a direct return to the city from Newfoundland and New England. The stimulus for this turnabout was undoubtedly Elizabeth I’s war with Spain, which disrupted the settled patterns of Bristol’s trade in the sixteenth century. The war left much shipping idle; if not employed in privateering, these ships were available for the time-consuming enterprise of fishing or trading for fish across the Atlantic. In the same years, rich new fishing grounds were discovered in American waters off Ramea. And, finally, the Spanish conflict stimulated aggressive new enterprises in the Mediterranean, where salt fish were in high demand.
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Bristol’s interest in the New World was largely one of trade. For most of the period little thought was given to colonial settlement, although in Elizabeth’s reign Anthony Parkhurst of Bristol lobbied for it. But even he was concerned with founding a permanent establishment primarily in order to sustain the fishery. Better facilities, he argued, would improve the catch by permitting salt to be produced on the spot, thus lowering costs, and by enabling the residents to fish beyond the early fall, when the prospect of winter storms forced the fleets to sail homeward. The joint London-Bristol Newfoundland Company, founded in 1610, which managed to plant a colony at Conception Bay, conformed closely to this scheme. The Newfoundland colony established in James I’s reign was very much a Bristol venture. Eleven residents of the city, ten of them leading merchants, were charter members. Trade in fish was the principal aim. Although no outright monopoly was claimed, the settlement was intended primarily to give its backers special advantages in the fishery, particularly by permitting a longer fishing season and by offering the settlers opportunity to monopolize the best fishing grounds. The proximity of the settlement to the fishing grounds, moreover, placed the Company’s agents in an exceptionally good position to buy the catches of non-Company fishermen and transport them to the continent. The Company also hoped to sell fishermen pine boards and timber for barrel hoops and staves.
Since, throughout the early seventeenth century, it was the fishery and the prospects of trade rather than the idea of a colony in its own right that attracted the Bristolians, when this interest was outweighed by other pressures they avoided participation. Above all, they sought independence for their own enterprises. By 1614, John Guy, their leader in Newfoundland, had fallen out with the Londoners of the Company over administrative policy and had withdrawn from membership, probably taking the other Bristolians with him. Still, the advantages of a settlement near the fishing grounds remained, and in 1617 a group of city merchants, possibly including some of the original members, formed their own settlement at Bristol’s Hope on Conception Bay. Richard Hayman, an Exeter man but brother-in-law to the Bristolian John Barker, styled it “Bristol’s Hope of Wealth.”
This same desire for independence and commercial gain conditioned Bristolians’ responses to other colonial ventures. When in 1621 Sir Ferdinando Gorges attempted to bring them into a joint stock venture for planting New England they vigorously resisted the idea, although by this time they were interested in fishing off the New England coast, “in regard that the Newfoundland fishing hath fayled of late years.” They were willing, however, to seek a license from Gorges to maintain their fishery there. During the later 1620s and the 1630s, however, the reluctance of at least some Bristolians to hold land in New England was eased, but, as in Newfoundland in 1610 and 1617–18, fish remained the foundation of these settlements. In 1626 Robert Aldworth, who had previously invested in Martin Pring’s 1602–03 and 1606 explorations of the New England coast and in the Newfoundland Company of 1610, bought Monhegan Island from Abraham Jennings of Plymouth, another Newfoundland Company investor. In 1630–31, moreover, Aldworth and his son-in-law Giles Elbridge acquired twelve thousand acres on the Pemaquid peninsula. Both Monhegan and Pemaquid were used regularly by the English in the early seventeenth century as bases for fishing ventures. Thus, for Aldworth, perhaps the greatest Iberian and Mediterranean trader of his day, the hope for gain was much the same as it had been in Newfoundland. Whatever other benefits might follow from his enterprise, they began with the acquisition of fish to sell in European markets.
Just as Bristol’s activities in Newfoundland and New England helped the city’s merchants acquire the high-value commodities upon which their commerce depended, traffic to and from the West Indies and Virginia was also tied to Bristol’s southern trade routes. The commodities they sought there substituted for the profitable wares they purchased in their commerce with the Iberian peninsula, the Atlantic islands, and the Mediterranean. And they were used in the Mediterranean trade in just the way fish were. We have already seen that Bristol’s ties to the West Indies extend back into the early sixteenth century, when such men as Robert Thorne and Thomas Tison of Bristol maintained a direct trade through Seville with the Spanish possessions in the region. As Anglo-Spanish relations soured in the mid-sixteenth century, however, this open and legitimate traffic came to an end and was replaced by a long period of commercial warfare in which Bristol played its share. In 1576, for example, John and Andrew Barker, in reprisal for the loss of their goods in the Canaries to the Inquisition the previous year, mounted an expedition of two ships, the Ragged Staff and the Beare, “to the coast of Terra Firma and the Bay of Honduras in the West Indies,” which, unfortunately for the Barkers, ended in disaster. Despite this outcome, at least one Bristol ship was privateering in the West Indies in the 1590s. Caribbean and South American waters exerted a powerful attraction for the Bristolians. Even the Barkers maintained an interest. In 1612–13, John Barker, nephew of Andrew and son of Andrew’s partner John, mounted an expedition to the Marowijne River in Guyana. The voyage was aboard the Sea Bright of Bristol, with Martin Pring as master.
If fishing and the tobacco trade were both aspects of Bristol’s quest for the highly profitable wares of the southern trades, the epitome of this mode of commerce was the city’s recurring search for a short route to the riches of the Orient, the search for the Northwest Passage. As we have seen, Bristol had conceived of such a westerly route with John Cabot’s voyages in the 1490s. From then on, it was a continuing theme of commercial life in the city, lying dormant for a time only to be excited by some new prospect of discovery. About the year 1508, for example, Bristolians aided Sebastian Cabot in an exploration of the American coast in search of a southwestern passage to the Orient. In 1521, they were involved with Cabot’s proposals for a venture to find the Northwest Passage. In Elizabeth’s reign they aided Frobisher, at least indirectly, on his second voyage, in which the suspected discovery of gold and the prospect of the city as the site of a smelting works tantalized them as much as the Northwest Passage itself. They were even more intimately involved in Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 voyage, when Richard Hakluyt the Younger, who was prebend of Bristol Cathedral, approached the merchant community there about a venture, and Walsingham wrote them directly endorsing Gilbert’s plan. The sum they eventually invested came to £1,000. Finally, in 1631, their appetite was whetted again: a large group of Bristol merchants financed the voyage of Thomas James of Bristol in search of the Northwest Passage. James himself says he was encouraged by the merchants who furnished him his ship, which seems to have been mounted to insure that a London-based voyage by Luke Foxe did not capture all the wealth and glory.
There is no mystery about the aims of these voyages. They were intended to find an easy way to the Orient and thereby convert Bristol, already interested in the spice trade, into a major entrepôt in its own right. This heady dream manifested itself in a variety of other ways during this period. Edward Pryn of Bristol, for example, was a member of the Muscovy Company, hoping, with the rest of its members, to find a Northeast Passage and settling, as the others did, for a route to the wealth of Persia that bypassed the Levant. About the year 1611, Thomas Aldworth, brother of Robert, joined the service of the East India Company as an agent. Perhaps through his agency, Martin Pring entered the same service about 1614. Other Bristolians also found the power of the East irresistible in this period. James Oliver, for example, sailed to Mokha in 1625 and established a factory there. These Bristolians wanted a direct trade to the East that would permit them to bypass Lisbon and the Levant and bring home pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and the rest without having to deal through middlemen. To have accomplished this would have converted the port from a significant provincial center to a boomtown such as Leghorn had been earlier in the sixteenth century. Whether they pointed their vessels west or east, these venturesome Bristolians sought to become the intermediaries in the spice traffic and in dealing in other Eastern riches. It was a vain hope, as Thomas James, locked in ice and in fear for his life, discovered, but to the heroes of commerce engaged in these feats of merchandise the prospect of success made it worth the risk and the investment.