England’s migrant crisis

In the 17th century, a combination of war, famine and religious hatred drove almost one in 10 English men and women across the Atlantic to the Americas. But, asks James Evans, were the emigrants' dreams of a better life in the New World realised?

The Pilgrim Fathers leaving Delft Haven on their voyage to America, July 1620. Image dates from 1878. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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“All hands aloft!” came the “dismal alarm” from the deck, recalled Henry Norwood. Then, in the deep darkness before dawn, he heard the yell: “Breaches, breaches on both sides!”

When the sun had risen (behind a dark, angry bank of cloud) it became obvious how grim his situation was. An “enraged” sea reared. The bows were holed. The ship was trapped in a narrow channel, unable to avoid further collisions with the shore.

As the wind screamed, “all hopes of safety were laid aside”. That the ship escaped to the deeper sea was, wrote Norwood, a “miraculous mercy of God”, those on board hugging in disbelief.

But still the storm blew – and with such ferocity that the mast splintered and broke. Huge waves crashed over the forward deck, sweeping the forecastle away and taking those within it into the sea. Sailors desperately pumped water from the hold, but still the ship foundered, “her head underwater”. The wail of men, women and children bidding each other goodbye was audible even above the elements.

To Norwood’s astonishment, as the storm eased, the ship remained afloat, while a primitive sail was attached to the mast stump. But loss of provisions, and unfavourable winds, saw thirst and hunger become acute. “My dreams,” Norwood recalled, “were all of cellars, and taps running down my throat.” Rats sold for vastly inflated prices. But then finally, one calm evening, on Virginia’s eastern coast, they saw land, resolving to “try our fortunes amongst the Indians”.

Lucky to encounter a friendly tribe, Norwood and his fellow-survivors were led along forest tracks, into the region where the English lived. Many would remain there for the rest of their lives.

Swelling numbers

Henry Norwood and his companions were far from the only English men and women to make the perilous journey across the Atlantic in the second half of 1649. In fact, the final months of the 1640s saw the English colony in Virginia swelling rapidly, topped up, for the most part, by defeated royalists fleeing their homeland in the wake of Charles I’s execution and their impending defeat to the forces of Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War. (Norwood was himself a royalist captain, who had been wounded in the siege of Bristol in 1643.) “Surely,” wrote one royalist, “God Almighty is angry with England.”

As it became clear that the forces of parliament were heading for victory, those who had rallied to King Charles’s cause faced a difficult choice: to pay fines for their prior allegiance or to emigrate. Fearing a “general massacre of the royal party”, or simply refusing to breathe “the air of my own native soil, lest I should be tainted”, many chose the latter option.

In doing so, they were heading into the unknown. To the English, North America was as huge as it was mysterious. No one knew how far it extended inland from its eastern coast. Its inhabitants, some more aggressive than others, were dying in large numbers. The English interpreted this as a sign that God was making room for them. In reality, it was the work of deadly pathogens to which Native Americans had no resistance.

These pathogens had been introduced by the first waves of English colonists who had arrived at the turn of the 17th century. Best-known of these were the Puritans, some of whom sailed on the now famous Mayflower, which set off from Plymouth in 1620. Thousands followed, disgusted by “the vain ostentation” of the age under Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, who they regarded as a fierce opponent of the Puritan faith. “We do not forsake [our country],” declared one leader, “but are by it forsaken.” Puritans believed that they had been effectively expelled, by “most extreme laws”.

The clergy’s lack of education particularly disgusted them. “One of his horses,” a Puritan complained, “could preach as well as the curate.” Another claimed he might as well sit in an alehouse as at church, so ill-qualified was the minister. Further reformation, radicals concluded, was inconceivable. Departure was the only solution. Alone, or in groups that have been called ‘holy huddles’, they pored over their Bibles, reading and rereading God’s words to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house unto a land that I will show thee.”

The fact that warfare, unrest and disease seemed to be worsening in Europe foreshadowed apocalypse. “There is some judgment,” wrote the man who hired the Mayflower, “not far off.”

Moving en masse

The numbers who followed in the Mayflower’s wake are astonishing. Around 400,000 English men and women crossed the Atlantic during the 17th century – half of them heading to North America – from a population of only about 5 million. It was the equivalent of the entire populations of Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool emigrating today, twice as many as the number of Spaniards who emigrated to South America, and 40 times those who made the journey to North America from France – an Atlantic power with a far larger population.

As the political situation in England changed, so too did the people seeking to carve out new lives in the New World. The outbreak of the Civil War in the 1640s largely ended the departure of Puritans, most feeling that they should remain, to assist in this divine punishment upon English wickedness. They were soon replaced by further waves of migrants: first, Henry Norwood and his fellow royalists, and then – following the restoration of the monarchy  in 1660 – the Quakers. Appalled by what they viewed as the intolerance of Charles II’s new regime, the Quakers championed ‘liberty of conscience’ in defiance of overbearing state power. Many of them concluded that this could only be attained in a brave new world across the Atlantic.

Not everyone who emigrated to the Americas was driven there by their faith or conscience. Some went to fish in waters remarkably rich by comparison with those off coastal Europe. Others because they hoped to find precious metals in American soil, or a navigable route to the orient.

But most people left simply because life in England was impossibly bleak, offering only starvation, disease and oppression. In fact, by far the largest number of emigrants went as indentured servants, promising to work as slaves for a limited period (usually between four and seven years), in return for basic food, clothing, shelter and their transportation. Fewer than 10 per cent lived to see the experience out.

These people often hailed from dank, impoverished places in east London, with evocative names like ‘Dark Entry’, ‘Cat’s Hole’ or ‘Shovel Alley’. They were lured aboard migrant ships at fairs, public gatherings or taverns by smooth-talking agents known as ‘spirits’, who – as William Bullock recalled in Virginia Impartially Examined (1649) – brandished promises that, once in America, food would “drop into their mouths”, while “any laborious honest man” would become rich. “Being thus deluded,” those down on their luck “take courage, and are transported”, hoping “to patch up their decay’d fortunes”.

A desperate search

The reason that so many people found the spirits’ sales pitches so persuasive was that they had fallen foul of a series of deep structural changes transforming the English economy. Increased enclosure of woods, fields and waste ground, and a rising population, robbed thousands of their homes and possessions. Prices rose. Wages plummeted. Travelling to America, while a major step, was only an extension of the mass movement of desperate people seeking work and shelter within England.

But it was a journey that was fraught with peril. While nowhere in England is far from the coast, many migrants had never set eyes on the sea, and few had been in a boat. Hardly anyone could swim. Many Atlantic crossings fell foul of shipwrecks, piracy and enemy vessels. And then, of course, there was the weather, which made it impossible to predict how long a voyage might last. If the migrants were lucky, it would be only five weeks. Henry Norwood reckoned that his journey had taken almost four months.

Sickness – and not just seasickness – was a real danger. Contagion was near-impossible to contain in the confines of a ship, and those that succumbed were often thrown overboard.

Life didn’t get any easier for migrants once they’d reached the American seaboard. Some of the earliest residents of Jamestown in Virginia experienced famine so severe that the period became known as the ‘starving time’, aggravated by Native American attacks that prevented foraging in the woods. Subsequent arrivals found a place “full of misery”, the fort’s gates hanging at an angle, houses half-pulled down for firewood, wretched, bedraggled survivors. In hotter colonies such as Virginia, a period of acclimatisation – of ‘seasoning’ – left migrants ill and incapacitated for much of the first year.

Early settlers in New England reported finding the colony there “in a sad and unexpected condition”, many inhabitants having died, many more weak and sick, food “hardly sufficient to feed them a fortnight”. One warned emigrants not to expect taverns, butchers’ shops, grocers’ or apothecaries’ to provide “what things you need”.

Many died in their first year, wrote one witness, because of “the want of warm lodging”. The “first brunts” of an empty, unwelcoming land still needed to be borne. Those who came had better feel sure they were divinely chosen. Others were “not yet fitted for this business”.

Over the century, the emigrant experience grew easier, as the numbers of new arrivals – and the stability of their settlements and their resistance to assault – increased. But that’s not to say that life in the colonies was easy. In fact, it only appealed to many because what they’d left behind in the Old World was so unremittingly tough.

The English stay put

By the end of the 17th century, the English language and culture had become firmly established in North America – with enormous consequences for the modern world. But then the number of English migrants began to fall sharply. The question is, why?

One explanation is provided by the beginning of the ‘agricultural revolution’, which resulted in the increased use of crop rotation, and a reduction in land left ‘fallow’ and unproductive, enabling food crops to sustain a larger population. Meanwhile, improved transportation, by road and by water, reduced localised shortfalls. The incidence of famine declined significantly and the pressure on an impoverished segment of the population to emigrate declined.

Then, as England became more tolerant in the wake of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, religious minorities such as the Quakers felt increasingly comfortable practising their beliefs in their homeland.

During the same period, there was a significant cultural shift. The belief that too large a population was detrimental to national wellbeing ceded to a mercantilist view of a reservoir of poor, unemployed labour being good for the country as a whole, if not for the individuals concerned.

“No country can be truly accounted great and powerful by the extent of its territory,” or the “fertility of its climate”, wrote a typical late-century work, but only “by the multitude of its inhabitants.” Emigration, once promoted, was now actively discouraged.

Demand for cheap labour in the colonies was increasingly being met by other now-infamous sources. Convict transportation – the practice of “emptying their jails into our settlements”, which Benjamin Franklin would condemn as “the cruellest, [insult] that ever one people offered to another” – grew during the second half of the century, undercutting the cost of indentured labour.

Another, yet crueller labour source was provided by the burgeoning slave trade. During the final third of the century, black men and women began to be sold not only as slaves for life but with their status inheritable: something that was justified by growing racial prejudice. As the system became ingrained in the culture of southern North America, the practice of indentured servitude, and the demand for labour from England, declined.

All of these factors saw the outflow of English emigrants slump – just as it accelerated from other nations. But the huge numbers soon heading to North America from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Africa, were moving to a part of the world fundamentally English in its language and its culture. What the German statesman Otto von Bismarck would call the “most important fact” in the modern world – that North Americans speak English – had been established.

James Evans is a historian and television producer. His latest book, Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in July.

The migrant’s travel guide

What English colonists could expect as they set out for the New World…

How much would you have had to pay for your passage? 

Five or six pounds in 17th‑century money, roughly equivalent to £750 today. Most emigrants had little money and so agents known as ‘spirits’ persuaded them to work as indentured servants to pay off the cost of the voyage.

What would you take with you? 

Indentured servants had few possessions. Prior to sailing, they were given ‘sweeteners’ (beer, tobacco, actual sweets) and basic clothing. Servants were advised to retain their portion of the ‘indenture’ – the legal document, torn in two – to prove their contract. Wealthier passengers might take wooden chests containing blankets and clothes. A tiny minority had cabins; most were pressed onto the deck.

Which part of the Americas would you have gone to?

This depended upon the ‘spirit’ (see page 43). Few migrants had a particular destination in mind – all most of them were concerned with was escaping England. One country boy, for example, was removed (on the complaint of his cousin) from a ship bound for Barbados, only to then board another bound for Virginia (this time accompanied by his cousin).

When would you have gone?

The safest time to set sail from England was early spring. Hurricanes – like that experienced by Henry Norwood – became more common in the North Atlantic during the summer and autumn when the region was prone to a great “violency of storms”.

What route did the ships take? 

Ships crossing the Atlantic from England sailed either a direct, northerly route towards Newfoundland, or a southerly one, which involved heading down the coast of Europe, visiting the Canary Islands, crossing the Atlantic towards the Caribbean, then turning northwards. The latter route was longer but benefited from favourable prevailing winds.

How long would the voyage have lasted? 

As sailing ships are dependent on the wind, it was impossible to say. There weren’t reliable weather forecasts. It could take anything between one and four months to reach North America, though six to nine weeks was the norm. Uncertainty made provisioning very difficult.

What could you do to ward off disease? 

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People used folk remedies and wisdom gleaned from experience. William Penn (the founder of Philadelphia) believed the key to preserving health was to keep rosemary and other sweet-smelling herbs, to burn pitch, and to sprinkle vinegar. Passengers should, he wrote, “keep as much upon deck” as possible. He feared “offensive smells”. In terms of infection, he was right. Cabins, he recommended – for those who had them – should be cleaned regularly, including under the beds.