Modern sailors are driven by the challenge of crossing big waters, to see what is on the other side of the horizon. But back in the 16th century, the men crossing the Atlantic Ocean wanted only one thing: profits. New World, Inc. summarizes the major ventures that set out to do business with the new world.

But not at first. The merchants and investors spent a lot of the first part of the 16th century trying to get around that inconvenient continent that was in the way to get to China (“Cathay”) and the Spice Islands. They tried going around Europe — both south around Cape Horn, along the Silk Road, and north of Siberia — where they gave up and began trading with Moscow instead. Then they sought the Northwest Passage. One of the first big enterprises was called the Mysterie — the name not coming from something Agatha Christie might write, but from ministerium, meaning art or calling. The whole idea behind all these excursions was to trade metal tools, decorative items, and especially wool cloth (sheep were big in England) for something that could be sold in Europe at a profit — wood, tobacco, sassafras, or animal pelts. (Although there was all kinds of excitement when Frobisher found a peculiar black rock in the northwest that was thought to contain gold and silver.)

This book is dense history. Expedition after expedition is planned, financed, and sets out, usually to fail (return no profit, or sometimes not return at all). Butman and Targett describe all of them, and include brief biographies of 75 individuals who participated in these enterprises.

The most interesting part of the book is the last section. Here is a chronology that summarizes all this sailing, a discussion of the “Founding Fathers” and why we hear mostly about them (until reading I did not realize that the Pilgrims and the Puritans were two different groups), and a very interesting discussion about the difficulties of writing history of this time.

There are eight pages of pictures, mostly portraits of the main players, and the flyleaves have a Mercator projection marked with locations mentioned in the text.

New World, Inc. makes the case that the people who made America possible were guys on the hustle, looking for a big opportunity. When you think about it, that is pretty much how we came out.

New World, Inc. by John Butman and Simon Targett (Little, Brown & Co., 2018; 405 pages)