Never quite what they expected

This is my review of Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans by Malcolm Gaskill.

This is a detailed study of the colonisation of the Atlantic shores of North America by some 350,000 English migrants during the seventeenth century. With the Mayflower in mind, we may tend to think of them mainly as Puritan dissidents seeking religious freedom in Utopian communities, but many were adventurers and entrepreneurs lured by the prospect of developing fertile lands or the labouring poor hit by population pressure in England, who together with “reprieved felons, prisoners of war, kidnapped children and adolescents” often found themselves “pressed into indentured service” as a replacement of the old feudal system. Malcolm Gaskill presents the contrasts between the New England settlements creating a jumbled geography of English place names, the tobacco plantations of Virginia, and sugar plantations of the West Indies with their growing reliance on African slave labour.

I had not appreciated the extent to which settlers fought each other: those arriving to claim a grant of land might find it already being farmed by earlier arrivals. The subsequent brutal genocide of the native Indians may be understood, although clearly not condoned, as a response to the bloody raids in which bands of Indian, sometimes in league with the French, would creep out of the woods to wipe out a New England settlement. Clearly, the colonies suffered from the lack of realism of successive monarchs and establishment figures who supported ventures without supplying sufficient resources to give a reasonable chance of success. “Colonial news was old news” so that by the time a pioneer reached home with favourable reports, life back in say, Jamestown could have become very grim. Another aspect I had failed to consider was the extent to which different nonconformist groups carried their differences into the New World. Legislation against Catholics in England drove them to emigrate too, with the result that Maryland became feared as “too Catholic” by some Virginians, compounding the problem that it was regarded as encroaching on their rightful territory.

Malcolm Gaskill is clearly hugely knowledgeable on his subject, which he has chosen to explore through a tidal flow of specific examples, ordinary individuals and incidents, often quoting verbatim from original texts. He creates vivid snapshot impressions of pioneer life: images of euphoria turning to despair as the harsh, winters set in, or the unexpected short-lived paradise of gorging on Maine lobsters and swapping the heads for beaver skins with the initially well-disposed because yet to be abused Indians who rowed out to meet settlers.

My problem was the author's bombarding of the reader with a disjointed, indigestible switching between different characters, topics, regions, even in the same paragraph, with analysis which often seems either self-evident or somewhat woolly. I found myself trying to get round this by using the index to follow threads which intrigued me, such as the fate of one Mary Rowlandson who fired on Indian attackers to defend her home, only to be taken prisoner, yet survived to write a best-seller on her ordeal, mentored by the wonderfully named Increase Mather. Too much effort is needed to sift out a coherent grasp of, for instance, relations with the Indians or an analysis of the “witch trials” which seem so much more extreme than equivalent prejudice in C17 England.

I am also puzzled that the author did not extend his coverage up to the American War of Independence, nor include a little more background on the opponents of English colonisation, notably the French and specific Indian tribes.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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