Early Years and Success as a Merchant
Smythe was born about 1558, one of twelve surviving children of Thomas Smythe and his wife, Alice Judde Smythe. The elder Smythe was a prominent haberdasher and merchant whose primary property was Ostenhanger (later Westenhanger) in the county Kent. He was known as “Mr. Customer Smythe” for his position as collector of the petty custom at the port of London. Alice Smythe’s father, Sir Andrew Judde, was the lord mayor of London in 1550 and a founding member of one of England’s first joint-stock companies, the Muscovy Company, chartered in 1555 to trade with Russia.
Smythe might have been educated at Oxford. Like his father, he worked as a haberdasher, or a seller of men’s clothing. He quickly became a wealthy and successful merchant, and historians are sometimes unclear which Thomas Smythe, the elder or the younger, is referred to in Elizabethan-era records. (The elder Smythe died on June 7, 1591.) By 1580, the younger Smythe was a member of the Skinners’ Company and the Haberdashers’ Company, the latter of which he led from 1599 to 1600. In 1581, either father or son helped to found the Merchants of Levant (sometimes called the Turkey Company), which traded in the Mediterranean and in India. In 1588, the younger Smythe may have lent the queen £31,000 toward her effort to meet the threat of the Spanish Armada. A few years earlier he also invested in Sir Walter Raleigh‘s efforts to establish the Virginia colony at Roanoke. He received a share of Raleigh’s profit in 1589. During the decade that followed he provided food for English troops in Ireland.
In June 1596, according to the historian Alexander Brown, Smythe and his brother Simon Smythe joined Raleigh on his daring raid against the Spanish port city of Cádiz. Simon Smythe was killed, but Thomas Smythe and another future Virginia Company member, Thomas Gates, were both knighted for gallantry by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (a honor that, for Gates, at least, was later royally confirmed). Other histories do not connect Smythe and Cádiz, however. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Essex’s secretary was also named Thomas Smith, although he is not known to have traveled to Cádiz.
In 1597 Smythe was elected to represent Aylesbury in Parliament, as had his father and older brother, John Smythe, before him. In 1596 and 1598 he served as a commissioner negotiating trade with the Dutch. He succeeded his father as the collector of customs for London, and also served as auditor (1597–1598) and alderman (1599–1601). He became sheriff of London on November 6, 1600.
By 1600 Smythe had become one of London’s most powerful merchants. Already a member of the Company of Merchant Adventurers and a governor of the Muscovy and Levant companies, he became the first governor of the East India Company, which received its royal charter on December 31, 1600. Except for a short break (1605–1607), he retained the title until 1621.
In 1601, Essex led a failed uprising against Queen Elizabeth, and Smythe, while not implicated, was, in the words of one historian, “compromised.” Writing in volume 53 of the National Dictionary of Biography (1898), the British naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton sketched the scene with great drama. On February 8, the night before Essex’s attempted revolt, Laughton wrote, the earl rode to Smythe’s house on Gracechurch Street in London in hopes that Smythe, who served as captain of the city’s militia, would raise the troops on his behalf: “Smythe went out to him, laid his hand on his horse’s bridle, and advised him to yield himself to the lord mayor. As Essex refused to do this and insisted on coming into the house, Smythe made his escape by the back door.”
At first Queen Elizabeth expressed her gratitude to Smythe, but suspicions arose about his connections to Essex. First, the queen relieved Smythe of his position as sheriff. And then, on February 14 she ordered him taken into the archbishop of Canterbury’s custody. On March 2 Smythe was transferred to the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned for more than a year. After paying a large fine, he was released. Essex was beheaded on February 25, 1601.
Smythe married three times. His first and second wives, Judith Culverwell and Joan Hobbs, died childless. His third was Sarah Blount. They were married by 1600 and produced one daughter and three sons.
East India Company and Virginia Company
On May 13, 1603, James I knighted Smythe, and in March 1604 appointed him ambassador to Russia. Smythe traveled there in 1604 and negotiated new trading privileges for the Muscovy Company. After his return, Smythe immersed himself in the activities of the various companies he ran. The historian Basil Morgan wrote:
For two decades Smythe’s house in Philpot Lane was the centre of the [East India] company’s activities: its general assemblies were held in the great hall, which was hung with an Inuit canoe, and one room was specially fitted as a strongroom [for the storage of money and valuables]. The building was often thronged with sailors seeking recruitment or pay arrears and, when fleets were at sea, with their wives, often to Smythe’s great discomfort.
The company controlled a monopoly on British trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope (near the southern tip of Africa) and west of the Straits of Magellan (near the southern tip of South America). The company struggled largely because of competition with the Dutch East India Company, although some investors blamed Smythe for involving himself in too many enterprises.
Smythe also invested in the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company chartered to plant a colony in the Chesapeake Bay. Smythe’s cousin, Mary Goldinge, was married to one of the venture’s primary recruiters, Bartholomew Gosnold. Other investors included former followers of the earl of Essex, including Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers, both of whom had fought with Essex in Ireland. The king appointed Smythe to His Majesty’s Council for Virginia, the company’s governing board, and in 1609, on the occasion of a second charter, the council elected him the company’s first treasurer.
Smythe’s tenure was a tumultuous one, reflecting the fortunes of the Virginia colony. Raising funds became difficult as the English public learned about the wreck of the Sea Venture, which had been transporting the colony’s first governor to Virginia, and the horrors of the Starving Time. In 1612, the company abandoned the joint-stock financial model in favor of a series of lotteries; and then, in 1618, the company instituted the headright system, which induced settlers to pay their own way to Virginia with the reward of land. Smythe also helped reform the company, democratizing its governance and opening its books to scrutiny, but his reputation, especially among colonists in Virginia, was in tatters. Too many settlers were dying and profits were scarce. In the meantime, Smythe was serving as governor of the East India Company, the North-West Passage Company (beginning in 1612), and the Somers Isles Company (beginning in 1615). Some Virginia Company investors worried he was overextended and suggested the possibility of conflicts of interest. In 1618, the company prohibited its treasurer from holding the same position in another company. (The Somers Isles Company, which governed the Bermuda Islands, was excepted from this rule.)
The company was riven by factions, and in 1619 Sir Edwin Sandys led an alliance of investors that unseated Smythe. But Sandys encountered his own problems, and in 1623, the Privy Council launched an investigation into the company’s management. The king revoked its charter a year later.
In addition to his election in 1597, Smythe sat in three more Parliaments, representing Dunwich in 1604, Sandwich in 1614, and Saltash in 1621. He was appointed commissioner of the navy in 1618 and took charge of British attempts to defeat the Barbary pirates. In 1619, he was appointed to serve on the treasury commission, acting as an important liaison between the Crown and merchants.
Smythe died on September 4, 1625, at Sutton-at-Hone, in Kent, probably of the plague. He is buried in the Church of Saint John the Baptist at Sutton-at-Hone, in Kent.