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Trading with the wider world

It is not the first time Britain has looked past Europe for its opportunities

By Richard Graham  

© Ben Cawthra/Rex/Shutterstock

Find Prospect’s full report, “Brexit Britain: the trade challenge,” here

Our new prime minister likes to lead by example, and so prepares to bring alive Global Britain by taking a major business delegation to India. In the wake of our decision to leave the European Union, Ministers from the Department for International Trade and Trade Envoys (like me) have been out around the world, knocking on doors, re-assuring partners and securing deals (whether exports, or outward and inward investment). The symbolism of Theresa May emphasising business opportunities beyond the EU by heading for India has echoes of an earlier Elizabethan era.

For it was in Elizabeth I’s reign that English sailors first landed at Surat, the port town for Gujarat in the west of India. It was just one small part of a strategic re-alignment by the Queen to develop strong relations (and export markets) beyond the continent of Europe.

To some extent she had no option after her excommunication from Catholic Europe by Pope Pius V in 1570. If the Catholic European club, led by Spain, found her Protestantism too much to bear then Elizabeth determined to reach beyond them, and develop trade with the wider world at full speed.

“Dallam was rewarded with a brace of concubines and a sack of gold. No doubt he amended his tax return accordingly”

For men of energy, the late Elizabethan period offered great opportunities. Elizabeth’s Ambassador to the Ottomans, Great Yarmouth’s William Harborne, successfully persuaded the Ottomans that England was the right partner. Harborne was also able to appeal successfully to Hasan Aga, Treasurer of Algiers, for him to release Christians. It may have helped that Hasan Aga, a Muslim convert and eunuch, had been born Samson Rowlie, in Great Yarmouth. Modern residents of Great Yarmouth, where Brexit feelings ran strong, might be surprised by their contribution to late-16th century Elizabethan-Islamic relations.

Alongside the Great Yarmouth duet of Harborne and Rowlie was another colourful figure of the first late Elizabethan era: 24-year-old Thomas Dallam from Warrington. Dallam, a blacksmith and musician, schmoozed Ottoman Emperor Sultan Mehmet III (arguably the most powerful man in the world at that time) with a clockwork organ. The Emperor was so charmed that Dallam was rewarded with a brace of concubines and a sack of gold. No doubt he amended his tax return accordingly.

The Queen’s successful diplomatic pitch to the Turkish and Persian empires was as the “most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all idolatries.” Their enemy’s enemy became their friend: while Catholic Europe fought their Islamic neighbours, England traded with them.

Elizabeth I’s method was to enfranchise joint stock trading companies financed by the City of London because then, as now, the state was short of cash. The Turkey Company, the Barbary Company and the Muscovy Company arranged preferential trade deals, predecessors of today’s Free Trade Agreements. They were backed by commercial consuls across North Africa and the Levant. Men like Anthony Jenkinson, who traded textiles in Aleppo, then the key arrival point for merchants from China via the Silk Road, paved the way for relations with Persia.

The second half of the first Elizabethan era saw a sharp rise in commercial diplomacy beyond Continental Europe. Pragmatism ruled: we sold cloth and silk for sugar and carpets, but also arms and munitions—including metal taken from churches after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It worked: by the time Elizabeth died her network of trading agreements and merchant adventurers covered 4,300 miles, from Marrakesh to Isfahan.

Jerry Brotton, author of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, concludes that during Elizabeth I’s reign, Protestant England “came closer to Islam than at any other time in its history until today.”

The analogy between the trading strategies of two late-Elizabethan periods going through changes of relationship with Continental Europe is tempting. But the story has a twist. On his accession James I opted for change, seeking good access to our closest markets: and in 1604 he signed a treaty with Spain. Meanwhile the focus abroad shifted to South Asia and the Americas, and the new Virginia and East India Companies were indeed the beginning of a New World, leading eventually to May’s India visit.

Today’s DIT and Trade Envoys market our capabilities in different products—cyberspace, fintech, energy, creative media and aerospace (to name a few)—and across a much wider world. But while the nature of our business, the structure of modern FTAs and the regulatory and legal obligations on business have changed out of all recognition, the need for government to create relationships and trust that help generate business still matters.

Global Britain, reaching out to new opportunities, is every bit as important for the second late Elizabethan era as it was for the first. And while we do so we mustn’t lose sight of Europe.



On the 17th of January 2017, Prospect hosted a roundtable discussion with the contributors to: Brexit Britain: the trade challenge. This report is designed to act as a guide for parliamentarians, officials and businesses with a stake in the UK’s changing relationship with the world following Brexit. The discussion was chaired by Tom Clark, Editor of Prospect. Participants included Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP, Miriam González and Vicky Pryce.  

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