If there’s fake news, there’s fake history and this might be the very reason every U.S. citizen should buy a copy of James Evans’s book, Emigrants: Why The English Sailed to the New World.
American folklore – which all too often passes for historical knowledge – suggests the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620, made friends with the natives, settling peacefully along the Massachusetts coastline while earlier settlements, Jamestown, Virginia and Newfoundland, Canada, receive little, if any, attention in U.S. classrooms and in the country’s culture.
And that’s the reason to buy this book. What Evans does so masterfully is dispel many myths Americans hold near and dear about the country’s founding and write it so that is neither accusatory nor presumptuous.
Nearly 400,000 English men, women and children sailed for the New World (which included the Caribbean) in the 17th century for any number of reasons – to find riches, to escape religious persecution, for safety because they were loyal to the executed English king, Charles I, or because the Old World’s economics provided so few opportunities that they were without a reason not to take what was, for many, a fatal voyage.
The Pilgrims, of course, are dominant in the story about American settlement. But as Evans, a BBC historian, suggests, “... religion was not the reason which prompted English men, women and children to emigrate ... Some went to fish – astonished at the teeming resource in the western Atlantic, at a time when European (fishing) stocks were much depleted, thinking that while many crossed and re-crossed the ocean to do so, there might be a benefit in staying to live.”
“In spite of all these reasons for emigrating, there is little doubt that the majority who went from England to America during the seventeenth century did so for none of them. They were, as it was said of one shipload, ‘mostly miserable poor people.’ They went because they were desperate, and because this was a course, perhaps the only course, which offered some hope ... England, then ... (with) ... Its rising population – what one Londoner called the ‘late unspeakable increases of people’ – ... made ... the majority of opinion (certainly of published opinion) backed a ‘diminution of the people’, by transplanting ‘no small number of them’ into some other soil,” Evans writes.
In other words, as English leaders saw it, the country needed to rid itself of its poor. If those leaving thrived in the New World, wonderful, that would benefit England. If they died, well, so be it, a point-of-view that seems all too similar to Mexico’s view of its citizens heading to the United States: They’re expendable and the home country is better off without them.
Why does any emigrant leave their country – to become an immigrant in a different one?
The same reason so many Latin American emigrants (as well as others from across the globe) leave their homes – hope that the new country will be better than the current one.
Seventeenth-century England was dangerous, especially during its Civil War, when pitched armed battles between those for Parliamentarian rights and those defending the government and the monarch of Charles I were fought in the 1640s, taking about 85,000 lives.[i] Charles would eventually be tried and beheaded and the country ruled by Parliament’s leader, Oliver Cromwell.
England’s economy and employment opportunities were also undergoing fundamental change, colliding with numerous years of crop failure and the “cloth industry, that bulwark of England’s economy, was sickly and collapsing,” leading one man to lament that everything was “‘in a heap of troubles and confusions.’”
But if political danger and economic troubles weren’t precarious enough, there was always the trouble of being part of a faith that wasn’t fully trusted. Much of the trauma suffered by those seeing profound problems with the Church of England, or having a different faith, whether it was Puritan, Catholic or Quaker, could suffer dearly at the hands of the authorities, as detailed not only by Dr. Evans but also in an earlier book, by John Barry, entitled, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty.
The first English settlement – more likely a seasonal fishing camp, say some historians – in the western Atlantic was St. John’s, in what is Canada’s Newfoundland, in the 1580s. It was a harbor for fishing ships and, in time, the English were joined there by many European fisherman, too.
The first versions of diversity are also seen in some 17th century English settlements in America. William Penn never wanted an exclusively Quaker community in Pennsylvania, telling those who followed him that liberty of consciousness (religious faith) was paramount, especially since he witnessed religious discrimination in England. In earlier decades, Roger Williams promoted religious tolerance in Rhode Island and the stock holders of some English colonies told their colonists, upset that there was a lack religious cohesion, that it was the least of their worries.
Of course, settlement in America was more than just about fishing, harvesting tobacco and an improved life. It was also about the century’s global politics. In other words, it was a chess match, with a series of moves and countermoves. In many ways, the St. John’s settlement and those that followed were checks against England’s significant European rivals, like Spain, which built a fort in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and the Dutch, who started settling New York in 1614.[ii]
Is any of this significant 400 years later? The great 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck thought so, Evans writes. When asked what he thought the pre-eminent fact of the modern world was, Bismarck said, it was that the United States spoke English, inheriting just enough English culture to keep it tied to Great Britain. Although Bismarck passed before they happened, he likely wouldn’t be surprised to know that this shared language and heritage weighed heavily in 20th century history, deciding the outcome of both World Wars, the Cold War and the post-war world. This combined language, culture and history will likely determine world events long into the future.
(For those readers curious to know what distinguishes an emigrant from an immigrant, see the following: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/immigrant-emigrant-emigre-refugee-how-to-tell-the-difference)
Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World, by James Evans, published Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2017, 303 pages, including endnotes and bibliography, price: £20.00
The book is currently available on Amazon.com’s UK website, amazon.co.uk., and the prices you pay will be in British pounds, converted into your local currency on your credit card bill. The book won’t be available in the United States – according to Barnes & Noble – until early March 2018.