The wider world of William Penn

By Emily Mann

A recent symposium contextualising the life and legacy of William Penn (1644-1718), the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, had strong resonances for our own turbulent times. The key themes of “The World of William Penn”, organised by Ruth Canning and Hiram Morgan at University College Cork, included toleration and migration, conflict, persecution and exile, and the wide-ranging discussions around the papers reflected on Penn’s significance for the development of the modern United States of America as well as his vision for a European Parliament. With economic and political interests in America, Ireland and Britain, and an acute understanding of the power of print, he would surely be churning out polemical pamphlets right now if he remained among us.

From the perspective of the PEIC’s interests in corporate governance, commercial and social networks, civil liberties and cross-cultural interactions in the processes of early modern globalisation, the invitation to speak at the symposium provided a very useful opportunity to consider how the Quaker-courtier’s colonial adventures in both Ireland and America connect to other early modern English projects to extend trade and territory in the Atlantic world and beyond.

Statue of William Penn holding his charter for Pennsylvania. The statue crowns City Hall in Philadelphia, where both the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed. Photo Robin Stevens
Statue of William Penn holding his charter for Pennsylvania. The statue crowns City Hall in Philadelphia, where both the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed. Photo Robin Stevens

Approaching Penn and his “Holy Experiment” in America in the context of earlier and contemporary colonial and commercial settlements makes particularly noticeable the past tendency in scholarship on seventeenth-century English activities overseas to compartmentalise and fragment; to focus on individual schemes and identify what makes them distinct, and to leave more expansive pictures of empire for studies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Just as Penn remains – to borrow the words of Andrew Murphy, who gave the keynote at the Cork symposium – “a man apart, a figure whom many know a little, but few know well”, a political thinker in the shadow of the likes of Locke, Milton and Boyle, so I have found his “Experiment” often set apart, treated as singular and relatively isolated from narratives and investigations of England’s emerging empire, of which Penn’s colony was on the contrary a strategic part.

Cork is a fitting place to rethink the historiographical isolationism in more connected ways. I was last here a year ago, contributing a paper about visual images of the Royal African Company’s fortifications on the coast of West Africa to a workshop on Comparative Coastal Topographies, and on both occasions the Atlantic-facing Irish port city proved an ideal place to consider global contexts. Through the seventeenth century, Cork’s great natural harbour became an increasingly important centre in transoceanic trade, so that by the early 1700s the port was home to an English East India Company agency as well as providing vital provisioning for slave ships and West Indian plantations. My research on English colonisation of islands in the Caribbean has taught me the exploits of William Penn senior, the admiral who led Oliver Cromwell’s so-called “western design” in 1655. It was in the aftermath of that disastrous mission, in which the English were dramatically routed from Hispaniola and instead settled for the smaller, less defended colony of Jamaica, that the Penn family retreated for a while to their Irish estates – these, too, being Cromwellian confiscations.

In his twenties, Penn junior managed land and people in Ireland for his father (and found Quakerism in Cork), and his experience as a colonial proprietor here had repercussions for his proprietorship of Pennsylvania. Indeed, his membership of an existing colonising elite in Ireland, followed in the 1670s by his involvement in the proprietorship of West New Jersey, undoubtedly helped him negotiate with King Charles II to secure a charter to settle a vast tract of land across the Delaware River from Jersey in 1681. One lesson he would have drawn from his extensive experience – perhaps especially from his great friend and surveyor of Ireland William Petty – was the instrumental importance of maps and plans, as tracts and tools, in promoting such projects to officials and public alike.

My paper stressed and explained the importance of three striking maps produced under Penn’s instructions in the 1680s: A Map of Some of the South and eastbounds of Pennsylvania in America, being partly Inhabited (1681); A Map of the Improved Part of the Province of Pennsilvania in America (1687); and the iconic Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia (pictured below), drawn by Penn’s surveyor general, Thomas Holme, and printed in London in 1683. By placing these maps in a connected history of mapping, I aimed to shed light on the colony’s place in a connected history of England’s emerging empire. I also wanted to reunite these images with their related texts.

Thomas Holme, A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America (London, 1683)
Thomas Holme, A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America (London, 1683)

Providing appealing visions of the new world that Penn hoped to create in the “wilderness”, the printed images were part of a very impressive marketing campaign driven by the need to capitalise the colonial enterprise. The promotional material included eight separate pamphlets and broadsides, three of which were translated into a foreign language, one into three languages. Each of the three images discussed was printed in tandem with text, and was integral rather than subordinate to it. Yet, in studies of Penn and Pennsylvania, these images typically serve as supplements to the better-studied accompanying and intervening texts.

The separation is particularly common in the case of Holme’s Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia, which was published in A Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London (1683). The Portraiture is often seen alone (as shown above), rather than as a crucial element of the Letter (as shown below). The effect is to obscure the link between the joint-stock company to which the letter is addressed – a company which still seems, as Gary B. Nash wrote in 1965, “almost lost to historical memory” – and the civic commitment represented in Holme’s grand, orderly, rational grid. Nash’s essay discusses the central role, often overlooked, that was reserved for the company in the economic development of Pennsylvania. The company may have proved troublesome and relatively short-lived (which explains why it is little studied), but Penn set out with faith in the model of the joint-stock as a mechanism for financing the construction of a colony, not least the construction of a commercial and social centre – “Philadelphia, the expectation of those that are concerned in this province”.

“A Short Advertisement upon the Scituation and Extent of the City of Philadelphia and the Ensuing Plat-Form thereof” in A Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London (1683)
“A Short Advertisement upon the Scituation and Extent of the City of Philadelphia and the Ensuing Plat-Form thereof” in A Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London (1683)

In this city, “like to be a great part of the settlement of this age”, the Free Society of Traders was to occupy “a whole street and one side of a street, from river to river”, that is, from the Delaware to the Schuylkill, between which the grid plan was designed to stretch. This land contained, according to Penn, “near one hundred acres, not easily valued”. The allocation of urban land was strategic, giving the company direct access to both navigable rivers and thus encouraging it in effect to build a backbone through the city, around which others would build. It is Penn’s vision for the role of the Free Society of Traders, regardless of its ultimate success (or rather failure), that deserves our attention in the context of corporate activities elsewhere. The grid plan drawn up by Holme, a military engineer and himself a member of the Free Society, has connections with English colonial town-building in America, Ireland and India, as well as the grand plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire in 1666. I’ll be rethinking these connections in a corporate context over the year ahead.

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