Authors: Andrea Stuart
Ordinary people, then, had a vivid—if not entirely accurate—image of the New World to fuel their dreams of a different and better life. And so they went, hundreds upon hundreds, on ships with heroic names like the
. These emigrants were unrepresentative of the population of their various homelands in that they were overwhelmingly young, male and unmarried. While history has highlighted the stories of ambitious adventurers and the privileged second and third sons who made their reputations in the New World, the vast majority were, in fact, ordinary people. As the passenger manifests of the day attest, it is men of modest means who are listed page after page: rope-makers and butchers, masons and farmers. Their numbers were swelled by the streams of involuntary migrants who went to the Americas in chains: indentured servants who were tricked aboard ship by “spirits” (agents paid by the settlement companies to recruit labourers by any means necessary); political prisoners who were exiled as punishment; vagrants and orphans and criminals who had been deposited there like so much rubbish.
Whether travelling by choice or by compulsion, all of these individuals flooding into the New World were part of a historical epic that
had consequences its participants could not begin to foresee. Those who survived would become the hub of the British Empire and help Britain to become the dominant world power of the day. Along with their European counterparts, they would enrich the European subcontinent and extend the tentacles of its power virtually across the globe, westernizing the great bulk of humanity, imposing its institutions and beliefs, its languages and cultures across the world. Their collective migration would also precipitate the vast redistribution of life across the globe, most notably the millions of Africans who were forcibly transplanted to the Americas to work as slaves on their plantations. And it would transform the world’s entire ecosystem, destroying numerous species and moving innumerable others, to create a world that would be entirely different from what had been before.
Of my ancestor’s early life in England, I could find no historical trace, but the name Ashby was initially associated with the county of Leicestershire and has now spread throughout the Midlands. It is a combination of the Anglo-Saxon word
(ash tree) and the Danish word “
” (town) and has numerous spellings: Ashby, Ashbee, Ashbey, Ashbye. In an English context, the name goes back to the thirteenth century, when a Frenchman, Richard de Ashby, arrived from Normandy with William the Conqueror and settled in Leicestershire. The ancient castle of Ashby is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and was held by the Countess Judith, a niece of William’s. Nearby Quenby Hall, for many successive centuries the county seat of the Ashbys, is a Jacobean jewel set in 1,400 acres of rolling woods and hills. It was built in 1627 by another George Ashby, and its claim to fame is that it is the place where Stilton cheese was first made.
We cannot know exactly what motivated George Ashby’s departure, but if each migrant’s motives were singular—a complex web of religious, economic, political and personal incentives—the preparations for relocation usually followed a predictable pattern. It was a process that could take several months as the would-be wayfarer bounced backwards and forwards between shipping agents, grocers, hardware suppliers, lawyers and factors. The first act for many was to make a will in recognition of the hazards posed by the voyage. Another task was to
liquidate their estates. The well-to-do, who could afford to maintain property at home, rented it out or placed it in the care of relatives or agents. The less wealthy sold their homes, alongside virtually everything else, in order to fund the trip. But many were young men who didn’t own homes, or much of anything else, and it is a testament to their determination that they managed to make their passage to the New World. The only thing they held on to were the tools of their trades, since “plantation skills” were much prized in the Americas, and they counted on exploiting them to supplement their living. With virtually all their material possessions gone, reduced to a sum of ready money, the travellers entered a curiously vulnerable state—one that would be familiar to any migrant today. Everything that anchored them to their previous existence had gone and now they were in limbo, nowhere people, exiled from their old life but as yet unable to begin their new one.
Beyond their means of livelihood, migrants received variable levels of guidance about how to prepare for their new lives. One contemporary neatly summed up their new role:
The West Indian Colonist of the Seventeenth Century was at all times a fighting farmer … It is no figure of speech to say that he went to his daily toil with his sword at his side and with pistols at his belt. At any time he might be called to throw down the hoe and defend himself against the Caribees, the Buccaneers, the Spaniards, the French, the Dutch and the vindictive treachery of his Negro slaves.
Because the Caribbean was the most popular American destination in the early decades of the seventeenth century, there were fewer pamphlets “selling” life in the region, so the migrants planning to move there tended to be far less well informed than those destined for the American mainland. New England, in particular, offered its prospective residents more detailed guidance:
Before you come be careful to be strongly instructed on what things are fittest to bring with you for your more comfortable passage at sea, also for your husbanding occasions when you come to the land. For when you are once parted with England you shall meet neither with … butchers nor grocers nor apothecaries shops or markets or
fairs to help [provide] what things you need, in the midst of the great ocean, nor when you come to land … Therefore be sure to furnish yourself with things fitting to be had before you come.
Even for those without such sensible admonishments, certain purchases were unavoidable for any migrant. One of the most expensive of these was the ticket, which averaged the astronomical sum of five pounds (almost two years’ wages for the average labourer) for berth and victuals. Many travellers, aware of the unreliable quality of ship food, carried their own provisions: oil, peas, oatmeal, vinegar, spices, butter, bread, beef, cheese, codfish, beer, wine and mustard seed. They also took bedding, kitchen equipment, clothing and tools such as hatchets, axes and hammers. Men were also advised to bring a musket, sword or bandolier, and a purse that they could affix directly to the body to keep their money safe. Once the cost of these goods was added up, the exorbitant rates for storing them on board had to be factored in: this alone could double the price of passage.
There were other expenses to deplete the migrant’s nest egg, beginning with the journey from home to the dockside. Then there were the costs precipitated by the almost inevitable delays that occurred with seventeenth-century sea travel, such as contrary winds that confined their ship to the harbour long after they should have been at sea. In these cases, every shilling spent on lodging or food was that much less to spend in the New World. By the time the travellers boarded ship they were often frazzled, tired and substantially poorer than they had hoped to be.
And so, finally, the enormous ship carrying George Ashby and his fellows manoeuvred itself, inch by steady inch, away from the wharf; and the cacophony of departure gave way to a new sound—the rhythmic slapping of water against the sides of the ship. Some of the passengers drifted away from the rails. Others stayed on deck, their eyes glued to the horizon as the coastline faded from view. This sometimes occurred a few hours after the ship left the dock, but it could take up to a couple of days, depending on the caprices of the wind. Then, as one traveller remarked, “
having tasted much of God’s mercy in England and lamenting
the loss of our native country when we took our last view of it, one and all betook them to the protection of the Lord on the wide ocean.” When all that they had known was out of sight and there was nothing to measure themselves against but the endless expanse of water, they realized that they were no longer just passengers but migrants, cut adrift from the past, and set forth into an unknown future.
The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
THE ROUTE THAT
my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s ship would almost certainly have taken to the Caribbean was the one that Columbus had pioneered a century and a half before: working south past Portugal, Madeira and the Canaries, picking up the trade winds and heading west across the Atlantic. Despite the proximity to England at the start of the voyage, it was still an anxious time, since the Channel was menaced by men-of-war from hostile nations. The captain’s first task therefore was usually the appointment of men to watches, then assessing the number of men who were fit to fight and assigning them their place on deck in the event of a struggle.
In the first days of the passage, George Ashby had a lot to get used to. Most migrants were astonished and intimidated by the scale of the ship on which they were now confined. It was an epic sight: huge masts towered high overhead against the sky, yards and yards of undulating sails and shrouds whipped into the wind, the shifting deck was be-snaked with tangles of ropes used to train and check the sails. Passengers had to creep over these lines warily as they rose and sank and jerked across the wood. Indeed, the entire network of cloth, mast and rope that made up the sailing apparatus was a hazard: a giant spider’s web in which the passenger was in perpetual danger of being ensnared.
The accommodation too was daunting. It was divided roughly into three categories. The best cabins were reserved for the “gentlemen” (there were few or no ladies) who could “finish” them as they pleased: with their own bedding, linen, wax lights, even their own beds. The worst were assigned to the servants for whom the cost of the passage
was exchanged for their commitment to labour on arrival. These people endured terrible conditions. As the transportee John Coad recounted, they were taken aboard ship and immediately confined below deck “
in a very small room where we could not lay ourselves down without lying upon one another.” The crew gave them no water, provided no heat, and placed only one receptacle in the middle of the room for the use of them all. They were only allowed on deck after the halfway mark of the journey was passed. The captain, eager to save money, kept them on short rations during the entire trip. Inevitably disease broke out: smallpox, calentures, plagues and ailments accompanied by “Frightful Blotches.” Others, according to Coad, “were devoured with lice till they were almost at death’s door.” One-fifth of these pitiable souls died on the crossing.
Situated between the hold and the top deck were the berths for what today we would call steerage passengers. They were not as abject as those allocated to the servants but they were still wretched. The first thing to assail those who descended “ ’tween decks” would have been the smell: a horrible commingling of old food, sweaty bodies and salt. Then there was the curious quality of light: because of its position on the ship, life here was carried on in a perpetual twilight. The only source of direct light and fresh air was a hatch that was opened and closed at the whim of the sailors.
In this dank, airless space, as many as one hundred passengers—mainly young men like George—lived cheek by jowl. They tried to claim their own bit of territory by looping blankets over ropes or piling trunks and boxes atop one another to create makeshift cabins. They arranged their meagre possessions—casks of food, bedding, cooking pans and chamber pots—in as homely a manner as they could. Since steerage passengers were only allowed on deck at the captain’s discretion, these men spent most of their time here, preparing food to supplement the ship’s limited rations, talking to their fellow passengers, trying to sleep, counting down the hours until arrival. It was no wonder that Samuel Johnson famously remarked that “Being on a ship is like being in jail, with the attendant chance of being drowned.”
It took some time to become accustomed to being at sea. Richard Ligon wrote about the perils of the ocean, its “
operation and the several faces
that watery Element puts on, and the changes and chances that happen there, from Smooth to Rough, from Rough to Raging Seas, and High going Billows (which are killing to some Constitutions).” In the early days of Ligon’s journey the ship suffered from “scant” and “slack” winds, “the weather being very calm and almost no wind at all.” But later on there were storms so severe that he and his shipmates feared for their safety. In contrast, Henry Colt found that in the first few days of his trip the ship was carried along by “
a prosperous gale” only to have the winds diminish to so “niggardly” a degree that “the breath the ayre gives us, is noe other butt like the languishinge motions of a dyinge man.” For both men, the unpredictability of the weather only added to the
of the journey. The voyage could be completed in six weeks but often stretched to months. Tales of terribly protracted Atlantic crossings reached the status of legend: the
, for example, took twenty-two tempest-tossed weeks to arrive at its destination in Virginia in 1649. When its food supplies were exhausted the passengers had started eating rats, and when those ran out they turned to cannibalism. “
The living fed upon the dead,” declared one lurid narrative.
There were other trials. Seasickness affected almost everyone at the beginning of the journey, until they found their sea legs. My ancestor was unlikely to have escaped its symptoms: dry mouth, headache, vomiting and dizziness. There were no effective remedies against it, despite the myriad quack potions sold by apothecaries. The tossing and turning of the ship also caused injuries: bruises and broken bones were frequent as unwitting passengers were thrown against the hull of the ship. Deaths on board were common. There were plenty of accidents: one unfortunate passenger bound for New England, attempting to fish for mackerel, managed to get tangled in the ship’s rigging and fell overboard to his death. There were frequent outbreaks of smallpox and “ship fever.” And the longer the journey, the greater the risk of scurvy. In the seventeenth century its cause was unknown, and it was often ascribed to bad air, thickening of the blood or melancholy. The ships carrying servants to the Chesapeake and the West Indian colonies provided the poorest accommodation, so they often had the worst health problems. One passenger on such a voyage wrote: “
Our ship was so pestered with people and foodes that were so full of infection that after a while, we saw little but throwing folks over board.” Many also went
hungry as unscrupulous suppliers maximized their profits by delivering second-rate goods to ships: musty oatmeal, rotten cheese and rancid butter, the state of which would only be discovered after departure.