Elementary school lessons teach us that Pilgrims came to this country for religious freedom and that holds true, however, Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans; explores the ties that continued to exist between England and those who sought to create entirely new lives in America. It is an important text for anyone who wished to enrich their understanding of how America developed.
At long last, an overview of America's colonial history from a British perspective. The author has unearthed resonant details from both sides of the Atlantic. Much of the material will not be new to those with a penchant for this era, but the work is invaluable for the odd bit of trivia that is missing in most American-written overviews. It is refreshing to read unsparing assessments of founding fathers -- such as John Winthrop -- instead of the usual veneration with which American historians have traditionally portrayed them. The book is so thorough, though, that reading it can be a bit slow-going, hence the four stars.
I found this book to be very interesting and informative. I have read different books on the early colonial period, but they usually dealt with New England or simply the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This book is different in that the author also describes the experiences of English settlers in places such as the Caribbean, Virginia, the Carolinas, as well as New England and up into Canada. He talks not only of the hardships of the early settlers, but also of the propaganda wars going on between the new world and the old. Many tried to keep hidden, how bad it could be so as not to discourage New emigrants. I recommend this book to any serious history readers. It definitely gave me new insight into that era.
History, according to what is revealed here is both "context" and "scenery." Using the author's interpretation to connect the dots between the two worlds is like decorating a freshly-cut Christmas tree: The story is not completely told until all the ornaments are precisely placed on the tree.
Is it possible that context alone can be made to tell its own separate story -- just as a discrete examination of the scenery itself can be made to do the same? The answer of course is yes. Unfortunately, conventional American history is just that: scenery standing alone as the full narrative -- self-contained fragments without a context, served-up as heroic and patriotic history.
But is it not equally true that history is an infinitely better narrative when told as a symphony rather than as a collection of virtuoso arias sung by solitary heroes? When context and scenery are melded together as they interplay into a single interpretative framework, and then are made to sing the same song, undoubtedly we get a fuller and a more honest history every time. I believe that most readers of this book would agree with me, that one such symphony is the one Mr. Gaskill has laboriously melded together, rehearsed, and told here.
Roughly, it is an interpretative narrative of what happened during the first century of the 285 "missing years" of colonial history -- between "first landing" and the "American Revolution." It is a deeply-researched interweaving of how people and events, both large and small, on both sides of the Atlantic, conspired with the context of European geopolitics of the 16th and 17th Centuries, to play their respective roles in redefining the economic and political cultures, identities and realities of two continents -- and arguably, also of the rest of the world.
The drama of the book opens with the two worlds colliding when the first British fleet landed in Newfoundland in 1583, nearly a full century after Spain had landed in the Bahamas. It was a time when feudal certainties were being challenged; Protestants were replacing Catholics; Shakespeare had just written the "Tempest;" and Charles-I, without Parliament's consent, had waged wars against Spain and France -- funding them out of his back pocket.
His despotic rule had led to an era of forced loans, unpopular taxes, arbitrary imprisonment, persecution of dissenters, a bankrupted treasury, and eventually his own beheading. His combination of religious and political effrontery along with economic opportunism, and inattention, had also left the backdoor open to his Puritan noblemen to engage in the mischief of entertaining various colonization schemes, of which Bermuda, Jamaica, Barbados, and America were the main ones.
When his daughter, Queen Elizabeth-I took over, just as Queen Isabella of Spain had done with Columbus a century earlier, she immediately granted a patent to George Popham's Virginia Company, to explore for gold and other valuables in the New World. But unlike Isabella, Elizabeth's patents were conditional: they relied entirely on private funding.
In making his case before her, Lord Chief Justice George Popham (an ideally situated major investor and founder of the Virginia Company), argued that colonizing America meant enlarging the glory of God and the Crown by finding gold, civilizing savages, and opening up a northwest passage to Asia. But most importantly, it also meant holding out the promise of ridding England of its festering sores of poverty, crime, political unrest and inequality.
Elizabeth died in 1603, replaced by James I, whose earlier experience colonizing Ireland meant he could immediately appreciate the worth of colonization: that it was not so much a business as a tool for subjugating peoples and promoting empire. So, with proper investments, he believed settlements in America could be used to tame the continent, challenge Spain's imperial dominance, and at the same time, provide a dumping ground for Britain's most troubling people -- and thus for its most pressing social problems, including the overcrowding of its cities and limited amounts of arable land.
On paper, Popham's case to Elizabeth was a strong one. However, what they both got in reality on the ground, was a lot less. Rather than finding gold, a Northwest passage, or civilizing savages, they got a loose collection of mean-spirited, narrow-minded, wild-eyed, deeply superstitious, religiously warring theocratic city-states, alone desperately fighting for their own survival against sicknesses, disasters, ignorance, against the Indians, and most of all, against each other.
The disadvantage and dangers of settlements were always palpably clear to the English: Being too far away for day-to-day hands-on imperial management, England knew that overtime, distance and isolation alone would inexorably conspire to lead Americans to thinking about social and political autonomy. And sure enough, just as they had expected, a century later, seditious thoughts of political freedom would indeed inexorably grow into the crescendo of the American Revolution.
Fortuitously for America, in the aftermath of the French-Indian War, instead of England or one of its European geopolitical rivals inheriting the spoils, almost by fiat, the entire continent would rebound into the hands of the thirteen little warring theocratic city-states. They would become an empire even before they became a nation. But England's biggest mistake was to begin the process by assuming that colonization was just a business enterprise between privateers and the Crown. Indeed it was a lot more than just a business. It also was a dynamic process of political change and evolution.
While Spain had become rich stealing gold and silver from the New World, Popham's business schemes, from the outset, proved to be a total bust. Finding no gold, and after repeated failures in Virginia, he had nothing to show for his efforts. To keep his business schemes alive, he used PR tricks -- literally a tower of lies that kept growing.
There were lotteries and kidnappings, promises of land that came with houses and slaves. All were used to reel-in the dim-witted, the down-and-out, the criminal and generally unsavory emptied from the jails, as well as those with dreams of a new life. But after each failure, Popham just pulled another rabbit out of his hat. Eventually against all odds, two such schemes would succeed and save the colonization project, even though they would not be quite enough to save Popham's Virginia company itself.
The first was cultivation and trade of an Indian plant called tobacco, a plant that Spain had already turned into a global trading success. The King of England hated it because at the time, tobacco was a hallucinogen, an unsavory drug equivalent to today's marijuana. However, since all strata of Europeans loved it, and trade in it from America undermined Spanish tobacco trade, and gave the colonies a new leash on life, the king's attempt to ban it, failed.
The second scheme came about as the Virginia Company was being forced to sell off its land holdings to avoid bankruptcy. Paradoxically, selling off its land in 50-acre plots-per-immigrant, called the "head right system," proved to be the winning formula. It killed two birds with one stone: providing a much needed injection of capital, while enticing new "sweat equity" investors to come to America. And as a result, Virginia's population exploded. Most of our founding fathers acquire their land through some variation of the "head-right" scheme.
Both schemes had their drawbacks though. Over-planting tobacco stripped the land of vital nutrients, while the influx of disparate immigrants only dramatized the endless differences that existed in the old country. Problems with Indians, or negotiating the difficulties of an unknown land, paled in compared to Englishmen having to deal with each other's own ideas about identity, modalities of survival, politics, and most of all, religion.
These differences only served to further accentuate the fact that colonization was not just a business, but at its best, a political "free for all," one that the monarchy thought desperately needed top-down attention and management; and at its worst, a staging ground for rebel-rousing. The settlers, on the other hand, thought that with "God's helping hand" and a strong back, they could handle matters quite well without London's intervention or its imposition of more taxes and more rules.
James I married off his daughter, Elizabeth to Frederick V of the Rhineland, forming one of the first important unions between Protestants. John Rolfe also married Pocahontas, an Indian princess, as they sailed to London to be feted by royalty. But lavish weddings were not sufficient to change the dynamics of the messy reality on the ground in either England or Virginia. Dreams and fantasies had to finally give way to a more sober and a more nuanced reality: The American settlers were coming to understand that to discover something was not to change it, but to be changed by it! The marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe was not the only example of how the two cultures had began to rub off on each other, Englishmen in America were beginning to lose their sense of englishness.
After two decades worth of failures in Virginia, the Mayflower, arriving from England by way of Holland, landed at New Plymouth Massachusetts. In Holland, it had picked up a contingent of Puritans plus an even larger contingent of New York bound vagabonds and adventurers. American history rarely reports that the Puritans on that ship, were mostly wild-eyed religious fanatics ejected from England both for their fanatical beliefs, their superstitions, their bigotry against Catholics, and for being too close to the just beheaded King Charles. After a decade of exile in Holland, they simply had found Holland much too religiously tolerant for their tastes -- especially of Catholics -- and thus moved on to America. In New England they faced the same challenges as those faced by Virginians. But thanks to being better organized, more discipled, better able to get along with Indians, being better managers, and owing to the success of their engagement in the fur and slave trade, New England colonies, by comparison, made Virginia looked like a basket case.
Virginia continued to go from bad to worst: people starved in large numbers, even as they continued arriving from Europe. During one period, relations with the Indians got so bad that the settlers were forced to steal food from each other. When there was still no relief, they then turned to cannibalism, eating each other and finally digging up the bodies of Indians they had killed and eating them too. The blame for this situation, including the security problems that led to it, was placed squarely on the shoulders of the Virginia Company, which had been given a charter to rule, but did so badly. And then things got infinitely worse, as the Indians they trusted, whom they had repeatedly turned to for food, and boasted of having Christianized, launched a devastating sneak attack across the whole Virginia colonial landscape, killing 347 people and injuring many more. A similar event would befall the settlers in New England a couple of decades later in King Phillip's War.
These setbacks shocked the colonies into a new realization and a new strategy: The residency period with the Indians was over; the gloves would come off, and previous niceties would be pushed aside. There would be no more negotiations about who owned what lands, or about how to fight wars against the Indians. The best lands would now be seized by "rights of war," and all Indian villages would be burned to the ground, including the "praying towns" created by the Puritans themselves. These Christians would go on the warpath themselves in a scorched-earth campaign against all Indians, leaving no live animals, crops or survivors. It thus followed, in both the north and the south, that every minor Indian action was swiftly followed by a massive and brutal scorched-earth retaliatory settler counter-action, attacks that usually occurred during the middle of the night and in the middle of the winter, attacks that invariably involved killing mostly women, children and the elderly, with men being captured and sold into slavery.
The pious Christian colonists, rejoiced in their own mindless brutality and shameful mutilation and desecration of Indian bodies. And then there was Nathaniel Bacon's rebellion, that pitted slaves of all races against the gentry. London became alarmed. But as the Puritans moved to occupy Indian lands, they were unmoved by London's complaints. Their attitude was that, "since the time of David, sometimes under God's direction a people must be exterminated." After the Christian massacres, those Indians who had previously converted to Christianity, were poisoned by their own tribes.
While the Indian rebellion had, on the one hand, turned Virginia into a cause celebre back in England and opened up a round of brainstorming on what else needed to be done about the Indians. On the other hand, it was clear that the English's worst enemy was not Indians but still other Englishmen. And in the aftermath of the rebellions, came a round of acrimonious blaming and finger-pointing about lack of security, and being too trusting of Indians. Inexorably, these squabbles always led back to questions about the need for more protection from the Crown, and then, the colonies' own loyalties to the King.
London was now searching for new handles to reel its wayward colonies back into the British fold. They wondered aloud, especially with the triangular trade in rum, sugar and slaves in the North providing stiff competition to the Crown, whether a treasury was needed to see that the bounties of colonialism were properly divided-up between the public, the planters, the investors and the Crown. Their bottom line was that the land belonged to England and thus "free property" did not equal "political freedom." So at least in the early decades of colonialism when the security needs of survival trumped political autonomy, the loyalty of the settlers nominally remained with the Crown.
The failures in Virginia served to dramatize several other important lessons: Settlers had to be screened to "weed out" the "weaker and more rebellious sorts," retaining only the determined; dynamic, and adventurous. Those in the New World had to recognize that the Atlantic was a broad highway not a ditch, and that survival in the New World depended on trade with the Old World. Colonization was much more than just a business, it was also contested sites of commercial opportunity, of imperial expansion, of religious freedom, and of social reconstruction, all of which were drenched deeply in Puritan religious hypocrisy and witchcraft, in rebellion, disasters, and most of all in Indian, African and European blood.
As a result of its many failures and the new realities of the colonial enterprise, the Virginia Company's charter was annulled. When it went out of business, 1700 shareholders lost their investments and 12,000 people had lost their lives. When King James took over the colonization project, through many trials and tribulations, the American colonies were slowly coming of age. Five stars
Full of astonishing information about the British settlement of the "colonies," both in the West Indies and on the southern and northern coasts the New World. The writer brings to life the harrowing experiences of these early settlers, the men who bought the patents, the men who ruled them, the journeys by sea, the religious conflicts, the battles over property, the extension of the English Civil War to the American colonies, the sad plight of the indigenous peoples whose land was thoughtlessly wrenched from them, with much destruction wreaked on both sides. Malcolm Gaskill has provided a fantastic overview with much detail.
Valuable contribution to "colonial American History." A solid attempt to try to dissect the nuanced process by which one poeple gradually become another. This is the stuff of history, tot dates, not "facts," not "names," but people of varying station trying to deal with a changed physical environment. The cultural and political sense which emerges after three generations explains the path toward "Revolution" as directly as references to John Locke and other names of the""Enlightenment."