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Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World - Family Tree book review

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Almost 380,000 people left England during the 17th century to emigrate to America – twice the number from Spain and 40 times more than France – but what drove them in such unprecedented numbers to embark on perilous journeys across the Atlantic to a land they knew barely anything about? Out of a population of just 5.5 million it was, says historian and broadcaster James Evans, ‘a colossal number’ of people.

 

But why the English, more than any other nation on earth? In this, Evans’s second book (after the fascinating 'Merchant Adventurers' in 2013), we learn that religion was often not the biggest motive for England’s ‘Great Migration’, which helped to shape the United States of America – and the world – we know today. Puritans certainly left England’s shores seeking religious freedom, but others were escaping the ‘mundane chaos’ of the 1640s, poverty and the plague, and were attracted by the promise of America’s valuable commodities.

 

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With great vigour, Evans transports us back to this time of America’s earliest immigrants. Many had already migrated across England, before landing in London and then heading off in search of a fresh start across the ocean.

 

Many immigrants didn’t survive long – attempts at establishing colonies in the late 16th century were doomed to failure (in two unnerving instances, the colonists simply vanished), but the English persisted and, remarkably, pioneered mass migration. Only later did Scotland and Ireland see ‘significant emigration’ to the land of the free. In fact, England had higher emigration in the 17th century than in the 18th century, so it’s unsurprising to learn that, on a census taken 30 years ago, at least 40 million US citizens claimed ancestry from an English migrant; with many in Canada similarly declaring English roots.

 

Emigrants took with them the English language, laws and culture and it’s worth noting that American English can sometimes be ‘more English, historically, than English’.

In this thought-provoking book, Evans uses contemporary sources, such as diaries, court records and letters, to cast vivid new light on a historic population shift, bringing to life the stories of English emigrants and their colonisation of the New World. All proving, perhaps, that mass migration is nothing new.

ISBN: 9780297866909. RRP £20 hardback, Kindle edition £9.99. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of The Orion Publishing Group.

 

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