One of the objects in Agecroft’s collection is a wooden tobacco box. Made in the late 19th century in the Netherlands, this fruitwood box is covered in detailed carvings—different symbols, representations of domestic life, names and the date 1654. The odd carvings on this box have led to a lot more questions than answers. We are going to focus on tobacco trade leading up to 1654, an eventful year for the Dutch, the English and the colonial residents of North America.
The Dutch took an interest in the Virginia colony early, visiting in 1619, twelve years after the colony was founded and five years after the first paltry tobacco shipment left Jamestown. Most tobacco was shipped to London for further sale on the continent. The Dutch were able to establish commercial contact with the colony in the 1620s and 1630s but the English government heavily opposed this foreign trade. King Charles I, in 1637, told Virginia officials to “strictly and resolutely forbid all trade or trucking for any Merchandize whatsoever w[i]th any Dutch shipp that shall…come to any of yo[u]r plantacons.” Furthermore, if trade did occur under extreme “necessitie,” officials were to make sure that the Dutch “Owner of the said Tobacco or other commodities…bee brought w[i]thout faile to [the] Port of London there to pay unto us such duties as are there due.”i
Export trade of tobacco increased greatly during the 1630s, growing to three million pounds traded annually, but Dutch traders struggled to find cargo. Dutch merchant David Pieter DeVries, after spending eight months failing to find tobacco at Virginia plantations, stated that “those who wish to trade here must keep a house here, and continue all the year, that he may be prepared, when the tobacco comes from the field, to seize it…it is thus the English do among themselves.
Fortuitous events would change Dutch trading fortunes in the 1640s. English markets were saturated with tobacco by the end of the 1630s and prices fell. Further gains were made during the course of the English Civil War. In 1642, King Charles I fled London and moved north to Nottingham, raising the royal standard there. Virginia, the oldest colony and very Anglican, supported the Royalists. With the Royal Navy and most cities in England siding with Parliament, Virginia found itself cut off from its mother country. In 1644, the third Anglo-Powhatan War began, with the Powhatans taking full advantage of Virginia’s fragile state. The beginning attack wiped out 1/10th of the population.
Dutch traders capitalized on Virginia and England’s fragile state. The Dutch deployed tobacco agents, ships called fluits, merchants who settled in local communities to buy up tobacco and established permanent trading houses, allowing the Dutch to acquire Virginia tobacco, still paying high prices for the commodity. To the Virginians, the Dutch sold highly desired supplies—horses, lumber, wheat, clothing, slaves, alcohol and cloth sent down from their colony of New Amsterdam. In 1647, Virginia Governor William Berkeley declared that trade with the Dutch was essential for the colony’s “being and subsistence.” By 1648, half of the European ships in the Chesapeake were reportedly Dutch owned.