Otto von Bismarck was once asked to identify the pre-eminent fact in modern world history. That America spoke English, he replied. In Emigrants, James Evans attempts to explain how and why that happened.
For much of the 17th century, England was something of a failed state. In mid-century it collapsed into a brutal and protracted civil war, but extensive persecution of religious minorities was rife throughout. Widespread enclosures drove people off the land. Prices rose. Wages fell in real terms. Harvest after harvest failed. Famine and plague killed thousands. Begging children were so numerous they were like “the lice of Egypt”, it was said.
It is hardly surprising then that people looked for deliverance from what looked, to a religious-minded people, very much like the wrath of God.
But America? At the beginning of the century it was a far from obvious choice. Sir Walter Ralegh had tried and failed to establish a colony in the 1580s. Jamestown in Virginia was founded in 1607, largely in the illusory belief that gold would be found nearby. Further north, in Newfoundland, settlement began in 1610, primarily to support the extensive fisheries offshore.
This did not sound like the promised land, but it is a measure of England’s failure that it seemed like such to so many people. Close to 400,000 emigrated over the course of the century, roughly half of them to North America, out of a total population of some 5.5million.
We think of the early colonists, especially in New England, as Puritans and many of them were. But they came seeking the freedom to be themselves, not to allow others a similar freedom; Evans reminds us that the Puritans were hanging Quakers in Boston in the 1660s.
During the Interregnum, however, many disillusioned royalists came here too, and in particular to Virginia where the governor, William Berkeley, was loyal to the Stuart cause. It took four ships from by Cromwell to dislodge him.
Between the English settlements in Virginia and New England lay New Amsterdam, Dutch in theory but even in its earliest days a melting pot. By the 1640s, although there were just 500 people in the settlement, they spoke more than 20 different languages. Its leader, Peter Stuyvesant was more clear sighted than most – or perhaps merely more cynical. He dismissed those who sought “an imaginary liberty in a new and, as some pretend, a free country” with contempt.
But still they came. In the case of New Amsterdam, the principal economic draw was beaver pelt. Thanks to changing fashions in Europe, four beaver skins could buy enough grain to feed a family for a year. And it wasn’t just their fur that was in demand: eating their tails was said to help men maintain an erection. “If some of our ladies knew the benefit thereof,” one colonist wrote, “they would desire to have ships sent to trade for the tail alone.”
Many who came were far from the pioneers we imagine them to be. Soon, the slave trade would fulfil the need for cheap labour, but for much of the 17th century indenture that answered that want. The starving and desperate of England sold themselves to the colonies for fixed terms – usually five years for an adult – in exchange for the promise of land and a house thereafter. Nearly half of the 200,000 who sailed to North America were indentured. But fewer than one in ten of them lived to claim their reward.
Some 8,500 poor children were simply taken from the London streets between 1619 and 1625. Often parents never knew what happened. Poignant letters home from one such boy, Richard Frethorne, form one of the more moving passages in the book.
The attrition rates for all were extraordinary, however. Often, 50% of those onboard died before they even made shore. Likewise almost half of those who reached America were dead within a few years of arrival; in some areas, the death rate was as high as 80%. Virginia was particularly deadly.
Why did so many English men and women emigrate? The same reasons people emigrate now: freedom from persecution; freedom from poverty; political exile; religious liberty; the pursuit of wealth.
But Evans’ book is eloquent testimony to the fact that the commodity America has always traded in, above all others, is hope.
This review first appeared in the Financial Times.