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Using Sir William Berkeley's essay, "A Discourse and View of Virginia," this module examines trade arrangements and economic diversification in colonial Virginia.

Sir william berkeley and virginia’s colonial economy

By the early 1620s, in the colony of Virginia, tobacco cultivation began to impact every aspect of daily life. The leafy plant was a vital cash crop, a mode of currency, and a credit/debt mechanism. Planters in the Chesapeake seized large tracts of land in the hopes of maximizing profit, all the while pushing native peoples farther away from the coastline. However, not all Virginia residents agreed that the tobacco economy was the most effective route to prosperity for the infant colony. In particular, Sir William Berkeley (1605-1677)(see figure 1) the governor of Virginia from 1642-1652 and 1660-1677, tried to push for diversification in the economic activities of the colony. Within his essay, “A Discourse and View of Virginia,” available online as part of ‘Our Americas’ Archive Partnership (a digital collaboration on the hemispheric Americas), Berkeley presents his case for Virginia’s leadership in the growing Atlantic economy of the seventeenth century. This module discusses the various U.S history and literature classroom applications for Berkeley’s writings, with a focus on the AP themes of American Identity and Economic Transformations.

Sir william berkeley

A portrait of Sir William Berkeley.

Berkeley was a royal insider from an early age and his governorship reflected the royal interests of Charles I and then Charles II. For a solid historical analysis of Berkeley’s life and accomplishments, see Warren Billings’s Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Virginia (2004). As Virginia’s governor, Berkeley was responsible for conveying the rulings of the Parliament and the King to the Virginia Assembly. The English rulers also pressured him to maximize Virginia’s economic possibilities. Sometime in late 1661/early 1662, Berkeley created the “Discourse” which was, in the words of one historian, “a brief for Crown support of his plan to diversify the Virginia economy”(Billings, 277). Berkeley begins his proposal with an overview of the natural advantages of Virginia, including the “Bay of Virginia, formerly called Chesapeack Bay.” He then proceeds to describe the possibilities for mining and silk farming. In the middle of the document, Berkeley reveals his true intent, which was to ask the Crown and Parliament “to adde one penny more to the Customs of our[Virginia’s] Tobacco” and then to have those pennies given back to Virginia for her use, including the purchasing of firearms to “resist the Indians.”

Educators could introduce the “Discourse” as part of the early colonial lectures. In particular, Berkeley’s proposal provides insight into the constant negotiations occurring between the colonies and the Crown, eventually leading to the American Revolution. One contentious issue was Parliament’s ruling in 1660 that all tobacco shipments from the colonies had to go through England. With these issues in mind, students could be asked to read through the document looking for statements that indicate Berkeley’s growing frustrations with Crown rule. Berkeley also mentions the Dutch trade, another source of controversy, because Parliament had forbade foreign trade in 1651. Within the “Discourse”, Berkeley spends considerable time describing Virginia’s relationships with the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, and other English colonies, particularly Barbados. Aided by a map displaying the early American holdings of these empires, students could analyze the “Discourse” focusing on Berkeley’s suggested economic relationship with Barbados. Why does Berkeley think that, while “Barbadoes fends a better commodity into England,” Virginia still had the competitive edge? Possible additional reading assignments could include chapters from the Oxford History of the British Empire: The Origins of Empire (1998).


An image of a tobacco plant.

Although Berkeley was confident in Virginia’s economic potential, Parliament did not agree and they refused to provide additional financial support to the colony. The “Discourse” hints at the reasons for Parliament’s hesitance. What were some of the recurrent economic problems faced by colonial Virginia? In particular, Berkeley mentions the damaging rumor that only the laborers of the “meanest quality and corruptest lives” travel to Virginia. His statement on the labor problem could provide an entrypoint into a discussion of indentured and slave labor in the colony. In a similar fashion to the “Discourse” other writings, such as John Hammond’s Leah and Rachel, or the two fruitfull sisters, Virginia and Maryland (1656) tried to downplay the harsh labor conditions. For more on Virginia labor conditions see, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975).

Early virginia

A map of early Virginia.

In addition, just as Berkeley tried to diversify Virignia’s economy, his writings allow for a broader treatment of colonial agriculture in the classroom. It is a safe bet that most students do not understand the early U.S. methods of silk production. A lecture and activity could focus on students identifying Berkeley’s variety of economic suggestions (ship building, silk farming, mining, etc.) and then researching one of the suggestions and reporting back to the class. The powerful influence of the tobacco culture will become all the more clear when a student understands how the emphasis on this single crop stifled other economic possibilities. One work that suggests the connections between tobacco and labor needs is Alan Kulikoff’s Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800 (1986). After Berkeley’s death, in the 1680s, a global depression in the tobacco prices led many individuals to wish that they had diversified their crops. And, in an additional hundred years, the ongoing trade issues between the colonies and the Crown would come to a violent, and revolutionary, climax.


Billings, Warren. Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Origins of Empire . New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hammond, John. Leah and Rachel, or the two fruitfull sisters, Virginia and Maryland . London: Mabb, 1656.

Kulikoff, Alan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800 . Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Meyers, Debra, and Melanie Perreault, eds. Colonial Chesapeake: New Perspectives . New York: Lexington Books, 2006.

Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia . New York: W. W. Norton&Co., 1975.

Tate, Thad, and David Ammerman, eds. The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

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