Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Love-Hate Relationship with Experts in the Early Modern Atlantic

Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Love-Hate Relationship with Experts in the Early Modern Atlantic

Article excerpt

Lion Gardiner was an engineer, which meant that he knew, or claimed to know, how to build effective fortifications. Skilled workers - engineers, gunners, metallurgists, but also silk masters, tobacco experts, carpenters, bricklayers, apothecaries, and vignerons - were the only people in the early English colonies who were able to command salaries and special terms of employment. Their skills were in such great demand because England lagged far behind Continental Europe in technical knowledge.

Thus, for the English skilled knowledge was foreign knowledge. It could be gained only by importing knowledgeable people from abroad or when English people like Lion Gardiner sought skills by crossing boundaries. For the insular English it was galling to be dependent on outsiders, but dependent they surely were. They resented the huge salaries these people were paid. And they always had a sneaking suspicion that the vaunted knowledge might be illusory. In the case of engineers and gunners they were literally entrusting their lives to expertise that they could not fully trust. When things went wrong, they turned on the experts.

In the later sixteenth century English leaders resumed efforts that dated back to medieval times to drain the fens (wetlands) in the east of England. Earlier plans had failed, "the world not being then so skilfull."1 Promoters employed much the same set of arguments as those who advocated American colonization. They alleged that rich agricultural land could not be utilized as it should because of the annual flooding; moreover, the swampy land and the diseases it harbored threatened the health of those who lived near it. Application of modern technology would allow the land to reach its full potential and would enhance the lives of natives and investors alike. Promoters compared the English fens to a wilderness.2

Draining the fens, like cultivating American lands, required new expertise. Dutch engineers were imported into England, bringing with them the knowledge acquired in their own country's drainage projects. Some skeptics said that the English living in the fens of East Anglia were too backward to be able to cope with newly drained lands, but the Dutch engineer John Lien promised that instructors would come from the Netherlands to teach "the natives of these parts [who] (being very apprehensive of any thing they either see done or are instructed in) would become better artists then their instructors." Only the ignorant or selfish would reject the plans for draining the fens; once the projects were completed, he argued, everyone would be happier and healthier, and he pointed to the Netherlands and "that great wealth and prosperity, which they now enjoy." Lien himself oversaw several drainage projects in England.3

Reliance on foreign experts also came in more humble pursuits. When the fashion for wearing ruffs came to England in the later sixteenth century, the English had to import from the Netherlands not only the fine linen lawn of which they were made, but also skilled Dutch workers to make the starch that gave the ruffs their shape. Even Queen Elizabeth herself employed the wife of her Dutch coachman to make the starch for her ruffs. And it was Dutch experts who brought hops and beer making to England in the sixteenth century. Previously, the English had had only ale, which kept for just a short time, whereas beer made with hops could be brewed in quantity and transported from place to place.4

Dependence was pronounced as relatively poor England sought to learn to compete on the international stage. For example, those planning to modernize the tin mining industry in Cornwall in the later sixteenth century imported expert mineralogists from eastern Europe to supervise the work and train local people in up-to-date methods. Europe's turn to the Atlantic meant that England moved from the extreme margins to a position in the forefront of activity, and promoters scrambled to take advantage of this position. …

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