Women Investors and the Virginia Company in the Early Seventeenth Century
This blog accompanies Misha Ewen’s Historical Journal article ‘Women Investors and the Virginia Company in the Early Seventeenth Century’
Milicent Ramsden, Lady Elizabeth Grey, Lucy Russell, countess of Bedford—these are just some names of the women who invested in the Virginia Company in the early seventeenth century. In my article, I explore the role of women who ‘adventured’ their purses, rather than their person, in New World trade and colonisation. It focuses on two women in particular: Rebecca Romney, the wife of a merchant and merchant in her own right, and Katherine Hueriblock, who was born into a Dutch mercantile household, but who also developed her own independent interests in overseas colonisation and commerce.
Unfolding the histories of women who invested in the Virginia Company was the starting-point of this research, but as I began tracing Romney and Hueriblock through the archives, I learned that their involvement in the Virginia Company was part of a wider story. Using a range of sources from letters and court cases, to wills and a surviving church memorial tablet in Acton (West London), I pieced together their role in New World ventures more broadly, including activity in the sugar trade, colonisation of Newfoundland, and search for the elusive northwest passage.
Women investors have remained hidden. The lives
of women who were involved in the early English empire as settlers are much
more familiar to historians than those of women who never voyaged to America,
but instead supported colonial ventures at home through financial means. The early
modern laws of coverture pose one challenge. When a woman married, if she did
not have a separate property arrangement, then all that she owned became her husband’s.
We know that the laws of coverture were flexible and could be circumvented, but,
nevertheless, it makes it difficult to know the full extent of women’s
investment in trading companies.
Even if women had the opportunity to
circumvent coverture, investing was still not an opportunity that all could
pursue. The women who invested in the Virginia Company, as far as I can tell,
were from merchant, gentry or noble backgrounds, so they had the means and the
experience to engage in this activity. Buying shares in joint-stock companies,
like the Virginia Company, was far from a guaranteed investment. Yet, as
scholars of the Financial Revolution have demonstrated, women who wanted to
increase their fortunes were not necessarily risk-averse. Romney and Hueriblock
pursued a range of investment opportunities, showing that they had a good
understanding of financial markets and practices. Romney lent on ‘bond’ to the
company, which was a loan with fixed interest, whilst Hueriblock was alleged to
have defrauded the company’s lotteries, a game of chance that was introduced
into England from the Low Countries during the late sixteenth century.
Romney and Hueriblock were not exactly obscure women—they had wealth, status, and privilege—and still, their role in New World colonisation and trade has never been uncovered. If we are to fully understand this period of English overseas expansion, and the building-blocks of empire, then we have to integrate women’s diverse histories too.