Friday, November 21, 2014

Malcolm Gaskill's "Between Two Worlds"

Malcolm Gaskill is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. His books include Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Gaskill lives near Cambridge, England.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans, and reported the following:
Given the size and sophistication of the USA, it’s hard to conceive how precarious were its beginnings. Trace Virginia’s history, say, and a sort of inevitability emerges – like it was always bound to succeed. But leap straight back 400 years and you find the original settlement, Jamestown, in big trouble. Too little of everything: food, shelter, law, government, peace. It’s amazing it survived; so many colonies did not. But what is really amazing is that speculators threw good money after bad to keep ailing colonies going and start new ones.

By page 99, where we reach the 1620s, a lot has already gone wrong since Jamestown’s foundation in 1607. The Pilgrim Fathers are ensconced at Plymouth, but life is far from easy, and they are a long way off satisfying their financial backers. North of there, the plantation at Wessagusset is doomed, settlers having tried “to build castles in the air”, to quote one contemporary. Life was hard in the wilderness, and the challenges of building a new society manifold. The deeper problem, however, was always that English monarchs insisted on granting permission for colonial enterprises, but refused to bankroll them. This meant reliance on private investors, and persuading them that colonies were a reasonable bet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Earnest entreaties were made, but America remained a hard sell:
The usual suspicions dogged colonial enterprise, pushing projects back into the realms of fantasy. In 1623, James I encouraged the city of Exeter to invest using the Council for New England’s proposals. The arguments were conventional: plantations enlarge the nation, advance religion, stimulate navigation, and supply commodities. The benefits to the depressed western counties would be huge, provided enough shares were sold.
By then the English imperial heart was beating, and the crown urged to see colonies as a way to expand trade and subordinate foreign rivals. Furthermore, as the Council for New England suggested, colonization could improve domestic conditions:
The key to victory [against Spain and Holland], it was proposed, was not just ruling the waves but sending paupers to plantations: as the northern fishing industry contracted, for example, workers should go to Newfoundland. Mass emigration – 10,000 people a year – would not only solve England’s begging problem, but also create export markets and customs revenue. A venture to unlock America’s potential could be funded by taxing alehouses.
Yet still monarchs were reticent and investors either sceptical or interested in a way that benefited the nation only incidentally. The citizens of Exeter were unmoved by noble sentiments. They decided that the best land had already gone, and declined to be anyone’s tenants in the New World. Most of those who did invest did so not from pious altruism, or because they believed the adventurers’ propaganda, but because, like all serious gamblers, they saw in high risk only glittering prizes. Greed, like hope, springs eternal.
Visit Malcolm Gaskill's website.

--Marshal Zeringue