Authors: Andrea Stuart
The English weren’t the only nation on the move. The Spanish were the pioneers of colonization of the Americas, and the Portuguese, French and Dutch swiftly became essential players in the region. But just over a century after Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World (which the historian Germán Arciniegas described as being “
so momentous a development in human history that it was like the passing from the third to the fourth day in the first chapter of Genesis”), it was the small nation of England that emerged as Europe’s greatest colonizing power. This was particularly surprising for a people who were “
wedded to their native Soile like a Snaile to his shell.” What motivated these patriotic and insular people to abandon the world as they knew it and move halfway across the globe?
The why of George Ashby’s departure is something I will never know; my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was most likely typical of the men who settled much of the New World, a man of action, not reflection, who did not take time out to write letters or keep journals; nor was he important enough for others to write about him. But certainly some of the wider reasons that stirred migrants to risk the New World would have applied to him. Historians have summarized Europe’s motivation for the conquest of the Americas with the pithy phrase “God, gold and glory.” This formula is slightly reductive—and certainly doesn’t allow for the large number of migrants who had no say in their transfer—but it does convey the positive pull of the opportunities represented by the New World.
It was not only the much-persecuted Puritans who went to settle New England for whom God was important. The vast majority of those who migrated to colonies south of Maryland were what the historian Carl Bridenbaugh has dubbed “
non-separating puritans.” They may not have moved together as a religious community led by a minister, but they did share the Puritans’ profound unease with the old ways of worship and were questioning of the ancient, ceremonial doctrines of the established church. They too had looked on at the risible spectacle of “
the typical Sunday service in England, where parishioners stared dumbly at a minister mumbling incomprehensible phrases from the Book of Common Prayer” and recognized “how far most people were from a true engagement with the word of God.” So while they had not been impassioned enough to make their faith the prime motivation for their migration, their religious leanings meant that they were that bit more likely to be disillusioned—and therefore to contemplate migration—than their fellow Englishmen.
The Bible was, in fact, a potent recruiter for colonization. In an age where the scriptures permeated everyday life, there were numerous passages that would have resonated with those tempted by the “Western Star.” Great orators such as the Anglican priest Robert Gray, or John Donne, the Dean of St. Paul’s, or the Puritan preachers Thomas Hooker and John Cotton thundered from Genesis: “
Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation,” or from II Samuel 7:10: “I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more: neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime.”
The dream of building a City on the Hill for the perfection of the human spirit, so inspirational to the Puritans, was also an attractive one for many other migrants, as was the entire project of spreading the word. Captain John Smith, the era’s most famous adventurer turned planter, declared:
If hee have any graine of faith or zeale in Religion, what can he doe less hurtfull to any, or more agreeable to God, then to seeke to convert those poore Savages to know Christ and humanity, whose labours with discretion will triple requite thy charge and paine; what so truly sutes
with honour and honesty, as the discovering things unknowne, erecting Townes, peopling Countries, informing the ignorant, reforming things unjust, teaching vertue and gaine to our native mother Country a Kingdome to attend her.
But rhetoric about taking Christianity and civilization to the heathen (so lavishly exploited by the Spanish conquistadors), or giving European creativity and imagination space to grow, was a smokescreen for the economic imperatives that drove the majority of migrants. They hungered for gold; or at least the chance to acquire land, their own little piece of paradise.
Most seventeenth-century English émigrés were in flight from terrible poverty. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, rapid population growth and periodic agricultural depression, culminating in a series of terrible famines, caused genuine hardship. In the countryside large numbers of people had been deprived of their ancient rural security. The lack of land to cultivate frustrated many, while unemployment threatened agricultural labourers as well as village artisans. The rise in the cost of living and the simultaneous fall in the value of wages meant that many people were surviving on the very margins of existence. Housing was inadequate at best; in cold or wet weather fuel was scarce and expensive. Health scares were frequent, with regular outbreaks of tuberculosis and plague. Effective medical treatment was almost non-existent and so the mortality rate—already high—rose even higher.
Resentment against these conditions focused and crystallized on a lavish, self-indulgent monarch: Charles I. His resistance to parliamentary challenge meant that, from 1629, the people had been governed by arbitrary monarchical rule. His decision to levy various taxes to obtain revenue and his exploitation of press-gangs who forced unwilling souls into the navy, meant greater financial strain for his already beleaguered subjects and generated a real sense of bitterness. (“
Thus was the king’s coffers filled with oppression,” concluded one pamphlet in 1649.) His popularity was eroded further by his religious affiliations: not only had he displayed a preference for the High Anglican worship that would so alienate the Puritans and others of that ilk, he had also married a Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, and allowed her to observe her faith publicly.
The wider political situation also contributed to the depressed mood of the country and the general suffering endured during this period. The Thirty Years War (1618–48), which had seen warring Protestant and Catholic forces reduce much of Europe to a corpse-strewn battleground, further depleted the nation and contributed to profound collective dissatisfaction with the status quo. The decades from the 1630s through to the end of the 1650s were, according to the historian Peter Bowden, “
probably amongst the most terrible years through which the country had ever passed.” He goes on: “It is probably no coincidence that the first real beginnings of the colonisation of America dated from this period.” Facing poverty, hunger and actual starvation at home, the populace were more than usually attentive to the pedlars of tales told in taverns of the lands across the sea, where everyone could have a full belly and their own property.
One such economic migrant was Richard Ligon. A cultured, educated gentleman of “above sixty years” who had served at Charles I’s court, he sailed for Barbados in 1647. Ligon was untypical of most migrants to the Caribbean by virtue of his age and class. But his reasons for migrating—essentially economic—would have resonated with most of his contemporaries. Though in the “
last scene of my life,” he had “lost (by a Barbarous Riot) all I had gotten by the painful travels and cares of my youth … and left destitute of a subsistence.” In this desperate condition he looked about for friends to support him, found none, and therefore considered himself “a stranger in my own Countrey.” As a result, he “resolv’d to lay on the first opportunity that might convey me to any other part of the World, how far distant soever, rather than abide here.”
But the impetus towards the west was also a romantic one. Though the 1600s were still primarily a “listening age,” England, by virtue of its high literacy rates (over half the males in London could read by 1640), had a great many subjects who were able to disseminate the seductive mythology of the New World. This story, which had been evolving ever since Columbus, was a dream of Shangri-La, a completely inviolate and untouched world. In Richard Eden’s
A Treatyse of the Newe India
(1553), one of the first books about the Americas, the author writes about the new lands, beautiful and rich, where there was much
gold and a mountain whose sand sparkled with “
pearls and other such riches.” He also talks of “strange new peoples, some antagonistic, some friendly, all essentially rude and barbarous,” “beastly and fierce.” This frightening yet bewitching fiction was heightened in the sixteenth century by the widely read tales of Spanish conquistadors like Antonio de Berrio and the English adventurers Walter Raleigh and John Hawkins, who swashbuckled their way across the “torrid zone” in search of El Dorado. If these heroic quests came to naught, it did not dent the public appetite for images of America as a place where an adventurous man could fulfil his destiny.
From the publication of the
in 1553 until the departure of Newport’s ships for Virginia in 1606, there were literally scores of books published about the New World. In subsequent years Eden’s book was thrice reprinted and was joined by Peter Martyr’s
Decades of the Newe Worlde
(1530), Richard Hakluyt’s seminal
Principal Navigations of the English Nation
(1598–1600) and Samuel Purchas’s
(1625). Over time the information in these works was supplemented by first-hand accounts of European voyages to the New World (many of which were published in English) as well as the numerous catalogues of people and fauna that had been generated from journeys that swept from Newfoundland to the Amazon. Maps of the Americas (including the one that Shakespeare refers to in
) also enhanced geographical knowledge of the region. The curios that sailors brought home to England were acquired by shopkeepers, who titillated their customers with displays of American treasures, genuine as well as fake. The fascination with the New World was even evident in popular entertainment: the public could now go and see curiosities from the region in the form of artefacts and real humans, such as men dressed as “savages,” at places like London’s annual Bartholomew Fair.
Many great writers of the age depicted the Americas in gendered terms as “
a succulent maiden to be seduced, deflowered, and plundered by a virile Europe, which shall bask in her treasures.” John Donne, who was closely connected to many of those in the Virginia Company and at one point planned to go to America as the company’s official recorder, thoroughly eroticized the colonial conquest:
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Myne of precious stones, My Emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Emigrants” celebrated the bravery and fortitude of those who had followed the “Western Star,” while Shakespeare—whose two patrons, the successive Earls of Pembroke, were great colonizers and adventurers—was fascinated by those daring enough to chase the dreams associated with the New World. In
Two Gentlemen of Verona
, he declaimed:
He wondered that your lordship
Would suffer him to spend his youth at home
While other men, of slender reputation,
Put forth their sons to seek preferment out—
Some to the wars, to try their fortune there,
Some to discover islands far away.
The message was clear. There was no longer any room for noble endeavours in the Old World; the future lay in places of danger and profit, delight and possibilities—the Americas.
Henry Colt, a young ex-soldier turned gentleman adventurer who arrived in the Caribbean in 1631, was typical of such men. He clearly saw himself and his fellows as the descendants of heroes like Raleigh and Hawkins: “they could not rest” until they too had “done some thinges worthy of ourselves, or dye in the attempt.” These men’s decision to go to the West Indies was not as surprising as it now seems. The Caribbean was, according to the historian Richard Dunn, “
the Wild West of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, promising far more in the way of excitement, quick profit and constant peril, than the prosaic settlements along the North American coast.” It was in these “
provinces of El Dorado” that the more romantic yarns had been spun, it was here that the gold and pearls could be found, it was here that English pirates made their base, it was here that Hawkins and Raleigh had flirted with glory.
Migration to the New World was also actively promoted by those who stood to profit from it. The shipping companies that transported people to the west had a vested interest in selling this dream, as did the companies that financed the early settlements across the region. These groups took it upon themselves “
to educate the public in the wonders of the New World and the possibilities there for a new and better life.” Many of these promotional tracts played on the sense of disillusion that already existed among ordinary Britons. One, written in 1624 to promote migration to Newfoundland, implored: “
Bee not too much in love with that countrie, wherein you were borne … which bearing you, yet cannot breed you, but seemth and is indeed, weary of you.” These tracts were supplemented by excited letters home from the recently departed, as well as sermons, broadsides and ballads. Depictions of the New World tended towards the hyperbolic. One critic described the company, which had disseminated a tract designed to promote Virginia, as “varnishing their owne actions with colourable schemes and Cozzening ballads,” filled with “we know not what imaginarie success of plenty and prosperitie.”