Mayflower 400: Tide and time at Cotehele

A frosty crane on Cotehele Quay, Cotehele, Cornwall

Cotehele and its collections at first glance might seem ‘quintessentially English,’ but a closer look reveals that the furnishings and collections have come from all over the world.

A Tudor house with global connections

From 18th century wassail cups made from exotic woods imported from the Caribbean and a native American birch box made for the tourist market, to 17th century woodwork and pewter made by Devon craftspeople who later emigrated and made their careers in New England, Cotehele has been at the centre of transatlantic voyage for centuries.

On the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, we can reflect on English relations with America throughout history and the impact of British colonialism on ‘life at home’. Trans-Atlantic trade and influence saw the influx of new, seemingly exotic, materials, objects, plants and food to English homes.

The Edgcumbe family’s wealth, their privileged status and their connections gave them the opportunity and the ability to collect the items you see at Cotehele today. Conversely, many of the collection items represent English goods or crafts that were exported to America.

Transatlantic trade 

From the 16th century, voyages of ‘discovery’ were made to the Americas, aiming to tap into trade and the natural resources available there. Voyages were made by the adventurous few who managed to secure royal backing – south west seafarers such as Grenville, Drake and Ralegh amongst these. From the 17th century and the establishment of English colonies, trade grew. The Navigation Acts ensured that the English colonies could only trade with England and English ships, retaining tight control of their colonies and ensuring a monopoly on trade and reliance of America on England. During this time, settlements in the Caribbean (Barbados 1612 and Jamaica 1655) were also made for trading purposes.  The ferocious English appetite for sugar, cotton and tobacco (as well as other luxury goods from Asia involved in the triangular trade) fuelled and sustained trade into the 18th century. Production of these commodities relied heavily on enslaved labour and the dispossession of indigenous populations.

What was exported to the Americas? 

In the 17th century, English exports to the colonies included raw materials as well as commodities: brass, copper, ironware, silk, linen, glass, earthenware, leather as well as the skills of hat making, tailoring, woodworking. The protected market (as a result of the Navigation Acts) ensured a monopoly, nor was there any native competition.

What was imported from the Americas? 

Mainly valuable natural resources including timber (at first for practical building (incl boats) and later for furniture making), fur, fish and whale products. The Hudson Bay company imported skins and furs (seal, beaver etc) from the North of the country (now Canada). From Virginia, tobacco was a huge export. The Caribbean colonies provided the perfect growing conditions for cotton and sugar, the appetite for which prompted and fed the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and England’s dominance of it. The taste for the ‘exotic’ in England that opened up as a result of global trade, meant that more unusual products from the South Americas were also in demand; from exotic woods for furniture inlay to turtles for feasting on.

The Edgcumbes

The majority of the collections seen in the house today came to Cotehele from the 1750s. These were older family possessions (which had until then furnished Mount Edgcumbe) supplemented with late 18th century collecting, with the aim of presenting Cotehele as if from the “olden times.” Many collection items exemplify the trans-Atlantic context.

The American connections of Richard, 1st Baron Edgcumbe (1680-1758)

Richard was a Whig and supporter of Robert Walpole. The Whigs generally drew support from emerging industrialists and wealthy merchants (rather than the Tories who drew from landed interest and royalty.) Therefore, Richard would have had many connections to trade and opportunities to buy from merchants. The Whigs generally supported the American Revolutionary cause and it is possibly because of Edgcumbe’s role (as Lord of the Treasury) and the Whig’s support of the Revolutionary effort that Edgcombe County, North Carolina was named for him.