The bever … is as bigge as a dogge, long, gentle, of blacke and shining haire, with a very long taile, and feete like a goose.
—PIERRE DE LA PRIMAUDAYE, THE FRENCH ACADEMIE (1618), A BOOK OWNED BY MILES STANDISH IN NEW PLYMOUTH1
In 1591, a yeoman called John Hall went to the gallows for theft, committed on a highway leading out of London. His punishment was routine, but his felony was not. In Middlesex, where Hall was indicted, each year seventy criminals met their end by hanging, but in his case the stolen property contained something new and still very unusual.
The items he took were clothes fit for a man of style: a pair of sea green satin breeches, a velvet jerkin, and a black silk and mohair cloak lined with taffeta. They belonged to a clergyman, one Everard Digby, fellow of a Cambridge college and author of England’s first coaching manual for swimmers. The stolen goods were valued at fourteen pounds at a time when the average minister earned little more than twice that in a year. Among them was the finest fashion accessory of a gentleman: a beaver hat worth twenty shillings, or one pound.2
Hall was perhaps the first man in England hanged for stealing a hat made of felt from the fur of a beaver. First reported in Paris in 1577, beaver hats reached London a little later, in the early 1580s, perhaps on the heads of the Duke of Anjou and his entourage when he came to seek the hand of Queen Elizabeth. From the very first they fascinated those who saw them. In 1583, the chronicler of exploration Richard Hakluyt inspected in Paris a haul of furs brought back from Canada. He described “divers beastes skynnes, as bevers, otters, marternes, lucernes, seales,” and coming as he did from a nation of shopkeepers, Hakluyt swiftly appreciated the trading opportunity that the French had found in North America. As for the hats, the earliest literary reference in England dates from the very same year. Amid ranting disapproval, the writer recognized the commercial draw of this new luxury.
In The Anatomie of Abuses, Philip Stubbes condemned the wicked vanities of maypoles, the theater, and the ruff. Among the marks of sin, he included extravagant hats, and especially the new variety made from beaver felt. “And as the fashions bee rare and straunge, so are the things wherof their Hattes be made,” he wrote. “Some of a certaine kind of fine haire, far fetched and deare bought … Bever hattes of 20, 30 or 40 shillinges price fetched from beyond the seas.”3 Stubbes spoke like another true Englishman, censorious but eager to appraise this new commodity in cash.
Whether or not the beaver hat was an emblem of vanity, it rescued the Plymouth Colony from extinction. By the 1620s, the beaver hat had ceased to be a foppish, eccentric novelty, and instead it became an almost universal object of codified desire. As Coco Chanel once said, a hat is more than just something you wear in the street. Its shape, its color, its style, and its erotic charge, the material from which it is made, its price, its maker, and the conventions that govern the display of a hat have a host of meanings in the life of their time. The beaver hat was far more than an item of headgear. When worn in London, it served as a gilded fetish, bearing little resemblance to the austere black cone familiar from Puritan imagery.
At the peak of their activity, in the 1630s, the Mayflower Pilgrims sent more than two thousand beaver pelts home to England, where their sole use was to make a hat. Without the fur trade, the colony would have failed, and the name of the ship would have faded into oblivion. This is something historians have long acknowledged, but only in passing and with little comment. More than fifty years ago, in the classic account of merchants in the new colonies, the Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn referred to the central role the beaver played in the opening phase of Puritan settlement. Nobody has followed Professor Bailyn’s lead, and the early days of the New England fur trade remain a neglected subject, alluded to and then forgotten.
In the 1990s, a brilliant French-Canadian scholar, Bernard Allaire, used the superb archives of Paris and provincial France to examine the French end of the business. The English records are more fragmentary, but they complete the picture. We start with a set of manuscripts preserved in the library of the archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace in London.4
BACON’S BEAVER HATS
Among the most curious archives at Lambeth are the Bacon Papers. They include bills for beaver hats of the highest quality, supplied between 1594 and 1597 to Anthony Bacon, elder brother of Sir Francis Bacon, the philosopher and politician. The novelist Daphne du Maurier, the author of Rebecca, wrote a biography of Anthony Bacon, an exotic figure, a spy as well as a member of Parliament, and a man touched by scandal. He was a homosexual at a time when death might be the penalty. Indeed the bills include items for trimming and lining two old beaver hats belonging to a young manservant who was apparently Bacon’s lover.
The hats came from two haberdashers, a father and son called Richard and Samuel Arnold: or rather, le Chapelier Mr. Arnould, as the latter liked to be known.5 Anthony Bacon never paid his bills on time, and so the Arnolds kept sending new invoices for silk, velvet, and taffeta nightcaps, as well as for beaver hats and their repair. Because they did so, the Bacon Papers document the early beaver hat almost as completely as we might wish.
Anthony Bacon bought fourteen hats from the Arnolds, five made from beaver felt and nine made from wool, but the beaver hats were by far the more expensive. They cost five times as much as the inferior woolen model. Even the cheapest of Bacon’s beaver hats carried a price tag of thirty-five shillings. It was big, black, and lined with taffeta. Above the brim, it had a hatband made of “Sypres,” meaning a transparent, gauzy crepe silk, imported from the Middle East via the island of that name. A forty-two-shilling hat came with a finer surface, and an even more extravagant interior: “a blacke smoth bever lyned with velvet with a duble Sypres.” The most expensive cost forty-six shillings, and sat grandly on the wearer, because it was black, smooth, and “lynd with tafyta and quylted in the head and a three pleat Sypres band therto.”
When beaver hats wore out, or fashions changed, they could be repaired, re-dyed, and lined with new material. The cost varied from as little as one shilling (“for mendinge an old bever”) to as much as sixteen, for a hat dyed and lined with taffeta and velvet. Because it could be reconditioned, and its shape or trimmings modified, the beaver hat became a flexible marker of status. Among the invoices, the cheaper alterations applied to the hats worn by Bacon’s young friend, while the more expensive were Bacon’s own. In an age obsessed with rank and degree, the beaver hat’s adaptability gave it a special appeal. Soon hatmakers found a host of ways to give each hat a character of its own, with gold and silver wire and silk in many different shades. A dull old hat with obsolete trimmings would tarnish its owner’s status, while a new beaver hat would elevate it. The same prestige applied to the men who sold the hats, and the Arnolds were far more than mere artisans.
Beaver hat makers were prosperous people, and the Arnolds lived for four decades in the wealthiest wards of the City, west of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where they ranked among the highest taxpayers, near neighbors of Shakespeare. The Arnolds stood at the very top of the hierarchy of the Company of Haberdashers, the body to which by tradition hatmakers belonged. With as many as 1,500 members, in a city with a population of no more than 200,000, the Haberdashers came second only to the Merchant Taylors as the largest and most powerful of London’s livery companies. In the 1590s, Richard Arnold served twice as warden of the company, and he belonged to the committee that ran its affairs.
They were aristocrats of commerce, the Arnolds, and they embodied links between exploration, luxury, and the Protestant faith. When the king granted a patent to the Newfoundland Company, among its thirty founding members were four haberdashers and eight merchant taylors. At his death in 1618, the chapelier Samuel Arnold left five pounds to “my loving ffrend Mr. Samuell Purchas, Minnister of the parish at St. Martens at Ludgate.” A cleric of many talents, Purchas made his name as a zealous anti-Catholic pamphleteer, but also as the editor of Purchas His Pilgrimes, a sprawling compendium of seamen’s and travelers’ tales from all parts of the world. First published in 1617, it was read by the Pilgrims. It contained a sea captain’s description of the neighborhood of New Plymouth, written only a year before the Mayflower’s voyage.6
Later historians have often portrayed Puritan merchants as troubled souls, afflicted by an inner conflict between religion and the stress of commerce. This does not seem to have worried men such as the Arnolds. As senior haberdashers, they supported Puritan clergymen, such as John Downam, a divine who acted as the company’s spiritual adviser and wrote books that William Brewster collected: in America, Brewster owned seven copies of Downam’s sermons and manuals of prayer. At the same time, they sold beaver hats with no sign of unease. Godly the haberdashers might be, but they saw nothing wrong in making a profit from the lure of the exclusive.
Versatile, sensuous, durable, but chic, visibly expensive but open to subtle reinvention, the beaver hat became a Jacobean version of the tweed suits designed by Miss Chanel. Worn by women as well as men—a portrait of Anne of Denmark, King James’s queen, shows her wearing a splendid plumed example—it retained the status of a fashion classic for nearly two centuries. It did so because new aspirations found an outlet by way of the special qualities of the fur. Half the history of England in this period can be found written on the surface of felt hats.
THE WOOL OF THE BEAVER
I said that beaver hats were first heard of in Paris in the 1570s, but this is not strictly true. People wore them in the Middle Ages—King Henry III had “a beaver hat of the greatest beauty” in 1261—but they suffered a long eclipse after about 1450, when hunters all but wiped out the animal in Europe and western Russia. When they arrived in London in the reign of Elizabeth, beaver hats swiftly revived a passion for sleek and gleaming felt, and that was the core of their appeal: the gloss and texture of a material long affiliated with monarchy and wealth.
For many centuries, felt signified power and prestige, like the tall felt hat that the Greek writer Xenophon saw on the head of the king of Persia. When the three wise men visited Jesus, they might have kept warm with something of the kind, because another Greek speaks of the felt turbans worn by Persian priests, or magi. These associations between felt, monarchy, and spiritual power had their origin in the very nature of the stuff. The best felt required not only the finest wool but also a long, exhausting process of preparation. The hairs had to be sorted and sifted, kneaded and molded into a mat, and then bound together by rolling to form a dense, smooth surface. Owing to the effort and expense involved, felt making stood far above weaving in the hierarchy of textile manufacture.7
Because of the life the animal leads, beaver fur has a special aptitude for the purpose. “Water is his natural element, and he cannot trust himself far from it with personal safety,” wrote the American naturalist Lewis H. Morgan, in a superb account of the beavers he met in the 1860s, when he was a director of a railroad company. Beavers spend nearly five hours each day swimming and foraging for food, and in Canada they sometimes remain beneath the icebound surface of their ponds for nearly half the year. So the beaver must keep warm and waterproof. Their tails must be big, to serve as a rudder or to thrash the pond water as a distress signal, but this requires a large surface area, prone to heat loss. Hence within the beaver’s tail are thick layers of fat and networks of blood vessels that circulate warm blood and retain heat at the animal’s core. The fur plays an essential part too, by way of insulation and protection.8
It comes in two forms. Shielding the beaver from injuries are the outer guard hairs, two inches or more in length. Too coarse to be used for felt, the guard hairs were discarded by hatmakers. Beneath them lies the inner fur, or beaver wool, like the soft down on the breast of a duck. This was the secret of the beaver hat. An average square inch of the wool contains nearly three thousand hairs, making beaver fur much finer and denser than a rabbit’s. When the poet Ben Jonson wished to describe a woman’s beauty, he likened it to newly fallen snow, swan’s down, or “the wool of the beaver,” and this was wonderfully apt. The fineness of the beaver wool gave its felt a smooth, silken quality that invited a stroking hand.9
Within its anus, the beaver has a gland that produces a creamy, viscous substance, a grease that lubricates the fur, making it waterproof. This too makes the end product ideal for wearing on the head. It also lacks the scaly layer of protein, which covers rabbit hairs like a sheath. Felt made with rabbit fur was coarse, and hatters preferred not to use it, until in the eighteenth century they discovered that a solution of mercury and nitric acid would remove the scales. Before that, beaver fur reigned supreme. It gave by far the best felt, resilient but pliable, fit to make a wide variety of shapes, to form the curves, crowns, and brims of hats of many different kinds. Its only rival was Peruvian vicuña, prized by the Incas and their Spanish conquerors.10
Beaver hat making had a language of its own to express the sequence of thirty expert steps needed to produce the finished item. Because the hatters of France were the masters of the trade, the principal source for our knowledge of the craft is an article in the Encyclopédie published by the French philosopher Diderot in 1753. Although some innovations may have intervened, between the time of Bradford and the age of Louis XV the process seems to have remained broadly the same. Indeed only with the help of Diderot’s description can we understand what William Bradford says about the skins that he shipped home.11
Diderot’s article makes a distinction between castor gras and castor sec. The castor gras appears under the name of “coat beaver” in Bradford’s history. It refers to a beaver pelt that has been scraped, greased, and worn inside out like a coat by a Native American hunter, such as those who lived by the Kennebec. Rubbed and abraded and smeared with sweat, the guard hairs fall away. The hunter’s perspiration gives the beaver wool beneath something that Diderot called “a particular quality … best for hat making.” The castor sec, or “parchment beaver,” is a pelt that has remained unworn and been left to dry in the sun. Coat beaver was the more valuable commodity, fetching, according to Bradford, some twenty shillings per pound, compared with about fifteen for an unworn pelt. When mixed with castor sec in a ratio of one to four, the coat beaver gave the fur the body and firmness needed for strong, glossy felt.
To remove what remained of the guard hairs, and leave just the beaver wool—the poil fin—required first the use of a knife three feet long, wielded by a man. Then a woman took a shorter knife and carefully finished the job. Pinning the outstretched pelt to an easel, she separated the poil fin from the beaver’s skin. She cut as near to the root as possible, taking the utmost care not to pick up tiny fragments of skin—chiquettes—which might cause imperfections on the surface of the felt. She divided the wool into three grades, depending on the part of the pelt from which it came.
On the beaver’s abdomen grew pale fur known as fin blanc, best for gray hats. On the animal’s back was the dark beau noir most suitable to make a jet-black model. Between them, on the flanks of the beaver, hatters found the finest, longest wool, known as l’Anglois. It was so long that it could be mixed half and half with silk and knit into clinging, sheer, luxurious stockings to suit the finest legs. Or, if kept by the hatter, l’Anglois made the grandest beaver hats, called chapeaux à plumet. They had a slightly raised pile like brushed velvet. And at this point in the process, any necessary blending could be done, by adding vicuña or fine wool from Spanish merino sheep, to make the raw material for a species of felt hats known as demi-castors. These appeared on the market early in the seventeenth century as a cheaper substitute for the best beaver variety.
When the various grades of fur had been sorted, there followed the most delicate maneuver of all. They used an instrument called an arçon, shaped like the bow of a violin, to sift the cut beaver wool into a mass of clean, fine hair free from dirt or tangles. The craftsman vibrated the string of the bow through the poil fin above a panel made of willow to form dense pudding-shaped piles of hair called capades, each an inch thick. A raw beaver skin of about 1.7 pounds yielded half a pound of usable poil fin. At least one pound was needed to make the four capades required for a single hat.
Next, the hatter inserted the capades into a conical canvas mold, called a feutrière, or “felter,” resembling a lamp shade. Then, against the sides of the felter, with his thumbs and fingers he kneaded the wool until it formed a firm sheet of an even consistency. He soaked each sheet in a mixture of wine lees and water. He rolled it flat on his workbench, carefully checked it for points of weakness, and repeated the process. Next he used a wooden mold to shape the felt into a hat. He began with the crown, formed over a pointed or curved wooden block. Then he bent and stretched the sides and brim. At last the hat was recognizable. It was sanded, brushed, trimmed with scissors, dyed and sealed with glue and gum, left to stand in a steam bath, and then dried again in a stove. Passing next to the milliner, the beaver hat was ready to be adorned with the linings, hatbands, and plumes described in the Bacon Papers.
BUCKINGHAM, THE BEAVER, AND PRINCE CHARLES
If men and women wanted beaver hats, they did so only because they wanted many other luxury goods as well. In Anthony Bacon’s bills, the beaver hat dressed itself in silk, in a counterpoint of elegance of complementary kinds, the shades and textures of the fabric and the felt enhancing each other’s expensive appeal. Like London’s thirst for wine that kept Christopher Jones in business, the English gentry’s greed for silk served as a sort of stock market index. It connoted affluence, and imports of silk soared during the reigns of Elizabeth and her successor. By 1600 London was said to have three hundred silk weavers, ten times more than in the 1550s, and by 1627 an expert on English trade saw this as one of the kingdom’s most essential industries. “I will here remember a notable increase in our manufacture of winding and twisting only of forraign raw silk … in the City and suburbs of London,” wrote Thomas Mun, a director of the East India Company, its principal importer. “At this present time it doth set upon work above fourteen thousand souls.”12
Only a minority could afford silk, of course. Nevertheless, the landowning classes were becoming wealthier, and so were London’s small but dynamic class of large overseas traders, not to mention lawyers enriched by a boom in litigation. Prosperity of this kind became available to allow the purchase of luxuries, among which the beaver hat was one of the most prominent. The most visible sign of the new enthusiasm for consumption was the first designer shopping mall, in the shape of London’s New Exchange. It was opened in 1609 by the king himself. Located in the Strand, appropriately close to the site of the modern Savoy hotel, the New Exchange offered everything the Jacobean consumer could desire: two arcaded floors of retail outlets, with milliners and haberdashers on the upper story. In 1622, the Council for New England decided it needed new office space, and so it chose the New Exchange: where else?
Luxury goods were far more than frivolities. Before the invention of steam power, at a time when agriculture dwarfed every other activity, if the state wished to make the economy grow more rapidly, it had very few means at its disposal. The productivity of farmers grew painfully slowly as they fought a yearly battle against the weather, weeds, and pests. When handicrafts like beaver hats were perfected, they at least helped to circulate wealth, and they created some well-paid jobs for those who made them.
Unlike those who worked on the land, skilled men and women in the luxury trades did not waste the winter months in idleness. They also helped improve the balance of payments, a subject that worried statesmen endlessly. If a brisk retail trade promoted manufacturing, and generated exports that earned bullion from abroad, then so much the better. But of course this required the input first of raw materials, carried home by sea. The goal was to create a trading nation that shipped back from its colonies goods such as raw silk and raw sugar, fish oil, walrus oil, fur, and potash, and sent them out again as finished products: taffeta, marmalade, satin, soap, hats, and gunpowder.
Hence luxury goods were a tool of policy, and the yearning for them led to North America. Hating tobacco as he did, King James hoped that silk would replace it as the staple product of Virginia. Worms wriggled their way to the New World in their thousands, sailing alongside human emigrants, to take part in silk-farming trials beside the Chesapeake. As for the beaver hat, nobody did more than the king’s son Prince Charles to stimulate demand, and so, perhaps ironically, the royal family played its part too in securing the future of Puritan New England. During the years when the Pilgrims first planned the Mayflower project, and then began to execute it, the beaver hat reached its apotheosis of glamour. It did so in the apparel of the prince.
Wasteful expense was a hallmark of the reign of King James. Royal fecklessness reached its most extreme point in 1617, thanks to the royal visit to Scotland, and the Crown’s deficit came to nearly £140,000 for the year. This was a huge sum. The numbers become still more scandalous when we remember that England was at peace, and when we see how much Prince Charles spent on clothes, wall hangings, and accessories for his household. In the space of fifteen months, he lavished no less than eleven thousand pounds on his wardrobe: for one thousand pounds less, the East India Company could build two ships fit to sail to Java, each one six times larger than the Mayflower.
Five volumes of the wardrobe accounts of Prince Charles survive, in manuscript form in the National Archives in London. Beautifully written, immensely detailed, but never published, they depict in all their splendor the garments that the prince wore. We read of his tennis suit, delivered in 1618, made from nine and a half yards of green and light blue satin, striped with silver. Lined with taffeta, the suit was stitched with seventy-two silver buttons and trimmed with seven yards of ribbon and a yard of lace. In all, it cost eighteen pounds and nine shillings to kit out the prince for a game, excluding the racket.
Alongside the tennis suit, we find four pairs of yellow silk tights, for which he paid a total of six pounds. His robes for attending Parliament had to be perfumed, and this cost ten pounds and eight shillings. Of course, he needed to redecorate at St. James’s Palace, and for this tapestries were an ornamental necessity. To make his twenty-one new wall hangings required 2,384 skilled man-days, and for this the bill came to £159. Close by, in the same accounts, we find listed the beaver hats bought by Prince Charles, and the prices paid: sixty-four beaver hats in 1618, fifty-seven in 1619, forty-six in 1623, and forty-three in 1624. They cost about fifty shillings each, before allowing for the hatbands and the plumes, which added perhaps another thirty-five. At the time, eighty-five shillings was the same price as the most expensive horse sold at a country fair, or eleven weeks’ wages for each of the men who wove the hangings.
These beaver hats bore little resemblance to the tall, pointed specimens seen in imaginary Victorian paintings of the Pilgrims. French sources, and portraits of Charles I, suggest that by the mid-1620s the up-to-the-minute beaver hat was a model called a mousquetaire. It had a low, rounded crown and a very wide brim, sometimes sweeping up or down in an elegant curve, and it was adorned with a gold or silver hatband and ostrich feathers. The hats changed their color from year to year, matching the shades of the prince’s suits of clothes. From this we can see how the court of King James and his son acted as the arbiters of taste, setting fashions that diffused through the remainder of genteel society.
The beaver hats purchased in 1617 were mostly black, with one white beaver model lined with taffeta. To go with them, the prince’s staff ordered brightly colored hatbands, in crimson and gold, rose pink, nutmeg, and silver. Red seems to have been the color of the season, because the prince also purchased a suit of crimson satin. To adorn a favorite hat, he bought a rich plume for his personal use, for seven pounds. In 1618, the colors changed to green. The grandest hat that year was “a grassegreene Beaver lyned with taffeta,” doubtless for the prince himself, and it cost seventy shillings. Green remained in vogue in 1619. The accounts include bills for four white beaver hats for pages, each with a green and gold hatband. That same year the prince’s pack of beagles wore green collars and strained at green leashes as they trotted to the hunting field.
Four years later, the beaver hat reached its moment of ultimate splendor. It did so in circumstances that show how it became an international style, transmitted between the royal courts of baroque Europe. In 1623, Prince Charles and the Duke of Buckingham paid an ill-fated visit to the king of Spain, so that the prince could woo the king’s sister, the infanta. Their wardrobe expenses alone came to more than £9,344, because they had to clothe eight footmen, three grooms, and twenty-six gentlemen-in-waiting.13
To grace some outdoor gathering in Madrid, they ordered a great tent, a pavilion made of silk and velvet. Beneath it the prince sat in a velvet-upholstered chair embroidered with gold and silver. The tent was tawny in color, and so too were the costumes of his retinue. From a London haberdasher, Prince Charles bought twenty-six silk-lined black beaver hats for his gentlemen-in-waiting. They had twenty-six hatbands embroidered with silver and twenty-six “faire plumes of tawny and white.” To match their plumed hats, they wore suits and cloaks of tawny velvet trimmed with silver lace, silk stockings, and twenty-six pairs of tawny garters.
By the 1620s, the beaver hat had become an item as essential to the dignity of rank as a crown and scepter were to medieval monarchs. For that same reason, it became an emblem of status for members of the peerage and the landed gentry too, and so we can roughly quantify the demand for pelts. By this time, after the death of Anne of Denmark, there were in effect three royal households—the king’s, the prince’s, and Buckingham’s—and let us assume that each one needed fifty hats each year. Perhaps the hundred-odd peers of the realm bought half as many, say twenty-five each. Say, too, that the twenty thousand or so families of the landed gentry each ordered just one.
We come to a minimum requirement of nearly twenty-three thousand beaver hats each year. These figures are guesses, but they serve their purpose, conveying the order of magnitude of the trade. At the very least, the English needed each year about the same number of beaver skins, even if they blended the felt with Spanish wool or vicuña. Where was the fur to be found? There were only two possibilities, and one lay at the far end of an especially perilous sea voyage.
CONVOYS TO RUSSIA
On October 20, 1621, boatmen on the Thames saw moored in the river five ships that had recently returned from the distant north. They came from the White Sea port of Archangel, six weeks away from London, and their journey there and back took them around the North Cape of Norway. The voyage to Arctic Russia was shorter by five hundred miles than the passage to America, but extreme cold, fog, the currents around the North Cape, and the danger of pack ice rendered it far more dangerous. It was undertaken for the sake of access to products that only Russia could supply.
On board, the five vessels carried the skins of hundreds of seals, ermines, and squirrels and that of a single wolverine. Most precious of all, on board a ship called the Encrease, were two thousand sable skins, imported by a man named Ralph Freeman. They made sable muffs, prized accessories since Queen Elizabeth ordered one of the first from Paris. For London’s hatters, Freeman brought home nearly four thousand beaver wombs, the segment of fur from the animal’s abdomen.14
Freeman was the uncrowned king of the fur trade. More than half the pelts that came into the Thames that autumn were his. He served his turn as lord mayor, he belonged to the board of the East India Company, and he invested in Virginia and Newfoundland. At his death Freeman left legacies equivalent to about eleven thousand acres of farmland. His supremacy in fur came about because, in 1620, he led a consortium that bought the exclusive rights to send ships back and forth from London to Archangel, rights that belonged to the Muscovy Company. With this deal, Freeman acquired complete control of English trade with Russia, and he kept it for the next decade, giving his rivals a new incentive to look westward across the Atlantic.15
From the moment that beaver hats became fashionable again, in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, a choice existed with regard to the source of pelts, and the principal countries concerned took different routes. The French went west. They obtained their skins from North America with a chain of supply that led from the St. Lawrence to the Louvre, by way of a royal hatmaker, based in the Rue de la Lingerie in the heart of Paris. In London, the haberdashers chose to take their skins from the east, from Archangel, but by the early 1620s this was becoming a less and less attractive option. A new source was necessary, even before Freeman made it essential to find an alternative.
Archangel was never an ideal trading partner. Ice closed the White Sea for eight months of the year, and so ships bound out from London would sail in convoy, between April and June, aiming to reach the port in time for its summer trade fair. They had to hurry back, or risk being trapped when the sea froze, and it was all too easy to stray out into the North Atlantic, or founder along the hazardous eastern coast of the British Isles. By 1620, the Archangel fair had become one of the busiest in Europe, with forty-odd ships arriving each year, both English and Dutch, but they did business there only because Russia had lost its more obvious outlets to the west. In 1581, the Swedes captured the Russian port of Narva, on the Baltic about 150 miles west of St. Petersburg, and it was because of this that Ivan the Terrible first established a haven on the White Sea.16
For the English, the Archangel connection rapidly became a strategic necessity, even though their relationship with the Romanovs was far from untroubled. For their masts, pitch, rosin, and rope, England’s navy depended almost entirely on the link. So did the East India Company, for the ships it launched from its slipways into the Thames. In an average year in the reign of James I, the Royal Navy bought four hundred tons of cordage, and the best was made from Russian hemp. Grown by peasants in the hinterland of Smolensk, it was spun into yarn in fishing villages in winter and then carried fifteen hundred miles by sledge to Archangel to be sold. A single warship needed fourteen barrels of tar and two tons of rosin each year to seal and grease its timbers. This too had to come from Russian forests, and as England’s merchant fleet expanded, its needs multiplied also.
This was why both Elizabeth and James I tried to maintain friendly relations with the tsars. The connection was simply too important to lose, not only for the sake of the Royal Navy, but also for the access that Archangel gave to the overland silk and spice route to Persia, by way of the Caspian Sea.17 Sadly, the Kremlin did not make a safe, reliable ally, because of Russia’s internal instability, and because of its frequent wars with the Swedes and the Poles. In 1617, the Swedes forced the Russians to hand over the entire coastline from Latvia to Finland. The following year, the Poles attacked Moscow and carved a vast slice out of the western territories of the tsar. In order to fight the Poles, in 1618 the beleaguered tsar asked James I for a loan of £100,000. Since James was even more insolvent than usual, he asked the City of London’s merchants to raise the money. This they did, but it was a heavy burden and repayment was by no means guaranteed.
The Russians drove hard bargains, and especially in the fur business. It evolved side by side with the commerce in naval stores, and with the small but luxurious trade in caviar from the Volga basin, but the tsars kept it strictly under their control. This was so from the moment in the early 1580s when Russian fur trappers began to look for pelts in Siberia. By that date, trappers and hunters had hunted to extinction fur-bearing animals on the western side of the Urals. So, looking mainly for sable, they crossed the mountains, led first by the Stroganov family, merchants from Moscow, who created a private commercial empire in the east. Unleashed by the Stroganovs, in 1581 the Cossack general Ermak conquered the Tartar stronghold of Sibir.
From New Voyages to North America (1703), by Baron de Lahontan, perhaps the most realistic early European representation of beaver hunting, showing beavers being speared through holes in the ice, shot, trapped, and pursued by dogs. A French soldier, Lahontan went to Canada in 1683 and traveled as far west as Minnesota. (London Library)
Three hundred miles beyond the Urals, Sibir was the gathering point for vast quantities of fur. Ermak sent back to Moscow a rich tribute of sable, black fox skins, and two thousand beaver pelts, and the tsar responded by making the conquest of Siberia a goal of Russian policy. Cossacks, traders, and trappers built a network of forts and blockhouses to draw these immense spaces within the pale of Muscovite dominion.18 Once that was achieved, the tsar made money in three ways. He imposed a fur levy on the native people, he took a tithe from private traders, and he purchased skins for the imperial account or for resale at a big markup to foreign merchants. To prevent foreigners from trying to sneak into Siberia by the back door, in 1619 the tsar banned voyages to the east of Archangel, along the northern coast.
Also from Lahontan’s book of 1703, a North American beaver (Special Collections, the Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex, England)
By 1620, the Cossacks had reached the rivers that feed Lake Baikal, close to the longitude of Beijing, and the speed of their advance must have caused problems of its own. As they went, they ravaged the wildlife they found. It was said that by the mid-1620s they had wiped out the beaver as far east as the Yenisey and Tunguska valleys, and a glance at the map shows that this region lies two thousand miles from Moscow. Given that beavers are easily trapped and killed, this was entirely possible.
Their dams make obvious targets, and they have the effect of changing the current of water downstream, alerting a trapper to their presence. Another fatal weakness of the beaver was its preference for certain trees and shrubs. Why does the beaver choose to munch the quaking aspen and the willow? Because their wood is digestible and packed with nourishment, and the willow contains salicylic acid. The active ingredient of aspirin, it is eaten by beavers to give their bodies a natural medicine. All a trapper had to do was to break a hole in the ice near the beaver lodge and poke a willow or an aspen branch into the water. Lured to the edge of the pond, the hungry beaver made an easy target for the spear.
If this holocaust of mammals had reached the Yenisey by the 1620s, then as furs became more distant, the price must have risen: the data lie hidden, perhaps, in the Russian imperial archives. Even if it did not, English haberdashers had another motive to consider America as an alternative. At Archangel, the Russians would accept nothing but hard currency. So the ships that sailed from London had to take bags of Spanish coins: the Sea Venture, for example, left for Russia in 1617 with nearly four thousand pounds in pieces of eight.19 Carrying bullion required a warrant from the Privy Council, because of the national shortage of precious metals, and because the East India Company had first call on silver: their suppliers of spices and silk in the Indies insisted on it. When English stocks of bullion collapsed in 1620, the situation must have become almost impossible.
By the time the Mayflower sailed, the English merchants who traded with Russia had mostly been forced out of business. Again the Dutch played their unhelpful part. The Muscovy Company did not deal exclusively in furs or naval stores: starting in about 1610, it also sent whaling expeditions to Spitsbergen, between Norway and Greenland, for the sake of whale and walrus oil. But soon the Dutch arrived, and the two countries found themselves fighting an undeclared war in the Arctic. Claiming priority in the same waters, Dutch whalers attacked the Muscovy Company’s ships, wrecking its trade, and set fire to its post at Archangel.
Typically, King James added to the confusion by granting a new whaling charter to a Scottish consortium, led by a favored courtier, to compete with the Muscovy Company. The wars between the Russians, Swedes, and Poles also took their toll on the company, damaging Russia’s trade. What remained went mostly to Amsterdam. By 1618, three-quarters of the ships that made the summer run to Archangel came from the Netherlands. In the spring of that year, unable to fund their share of the loan to the tsar, the Muscovy merchants had to seek a rescue by way of a merger with the East India Company. The latter agreed, reluctantly, because it needed to protect its supplies of Archangel rope.
As things turned out, the merger failed to serve its purpose. By the end of 1619, the Muscovy Company had collapsed, suffering from heavy losses, and the East India men decided to exit the business. They sold the whaling stations to the investor group led by Ralph Freeman, and with them the right to trade back and forth to Archangel. Recorded in the board minutes of the East India Company, the deal was done in February 1620. With this transaction, Freeman cornered what was left of England’s commerce with Russia, in fur, rope, and caviar. He controlled it throughout the 1620s, sending out six or seven ships each season.20
On June 22, as Jones made the Mayflower ready for sail, the Virginia Company put out a promotional pamphlet. It contained the following sentence: “The rich Furres, Caviary and Cordage, which we draw from Russia with so great difficulty, are to be had in Virginia, and the parts adioyning, with ease and plenty.”21 The words speak for themselves. Because of beaver hats and rope, because of Freeman, because of the tsars, and because of the shortage of bullion, the easier voyage to America became a compelling, attractive proposition, for merchants and mariners alike.