This month

March 2009

Cosmography as Political Economy:
George Gardyner’s A Description of the New World

by Matthew Underwood

A Description of the New World

Title page from George Gardyner, A Description of the New World..., London, 1651.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

Published in 1651—just as English policymakers began to take seriously the notion of constructing a coherent empire on the Atlantic’s western shore—George Gardyner’s Description of the New World is notable in retrospect for advising them not to bother. Spain already controlled the richest territory, and what leftover lands the English had managed to claim yielded only mediocre commodities at staggering costs to their countrymen in terms of sufferings endured and lives lost. “It were better for them to serve fourteen years with the Turks then four in the Plantations,” Gardyner argued of his English fellows who entered indentures in places like Virginia, “for besides their being back-beaten and belly-beaten, it is three to one if they live out their servitude, by reason of the unwholsomenesse of the Countrey.” Rather than pursuing the same unprofitable and morally dubious western course any farther, Gardyner argued, the English should look east: the state ought to wrest control of trade policy from monopolizing trading companies, then use its newfound authority to retake the East Indian strongholds captured from English merchants by the Dutch, and generally expand its trade to untapped markets in Africa and Asia that could offer bullion for English goods, thereby bolstering the nation’s accounts.

Gardyner’s recommendations appeared in a thirty-page chapter dedicated to proscriptive political-economic analysis—all presented before any meaningful description of the new world. Its presence at the front of his book made clearer the point of much of what followed. Having argued the superiority of the Spanish position in America, Gardyner went on to conjure images of bounty in Hispaniola, where “there are divers rivers that afford Gold,” and “abundance of Oranges, Limons, Limes, Cotton-wool and Plantens” along with drugs, dye-woods, and “wild cattell, which are the largest of the world.” To this are juxtaposed images of English Bermuda, where “the commodity they yearly export, is some Tobacco, of the worst sort,” and the only precious metals to be found were pieces of eight that washed up by chance, from “the Spanish wracks, that happen often upon their coast.”

If Gardyner’s work had any effect, it was hardly the one he intended. Descriptions of Spanish riches and English poverty in America only intensified English designs on the region in the short term. In the following years, English imperial planners began to pursue explicitly Spanish-style political economic strategies to compete in America, rather than emulating the Dutch in the East Indies, as Gardyner had hoped. In practice, this meant attempts to centralize imperial policy and to usurp the Spanish in territories they had already developed. So Oliver Cromwell’s 1655 expeditionary force attempted the seizure of Hispaniola as part of his larger Western Design, claiming its riches for themselves and the larger Protestant cause in Europe whose fortunes Cromwell hoped to revive. (Rebuffed from Hispaniola, they settled for taking Jamaica instead.)

 While Gardyner’s arguments may not have prevailed, his work and others in the JCB collections written in a similar vein ultimately illustrate both that debates over the political economy of empire were prevalent and ongoing in this period, and that as often as not they cropped up where now we least expect to find them—as here, in a nominally “descriptive” cosmography of the new world.

In the winter of 2009, Matthew Underwood was a Center for New World Comparative Studies Fellow and a doctoral candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University..


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