Emigrants: Why the English sailed to the New World by James Evans

24 November 2017

Lyle Dennen on those who braved the ocean

© Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Archbishop William Laud, sailing a ship to hell: it was the Puritans who took to the sea because they hated what the author of Emigrants calls Laud’s “ecclesiastical ceremonies and beautifications” in the 1630s. An emblem reproduced in James Evans’s book from Thomas Stirry’s A Rot Amongst the Bishops, 1641

Archbishop William Laud, sailing a ship to hell: it was the Puritans who took to the sea because they hated what the author of Emigrants calls Laud&rs...


JAMES EVANS’s new historical book Emigrants has the revealing subtitle Why the English sailed to the New World. During the period from the late 16th century to the first half of the 17th century, nearly 400,000 left Britain for the Americas, mostly from England. In a lucid, well-written, and solidly researched analysis, he teases out the mixed and complicated reasons that so many people were compelled to make the risky sea voyage to a perilous wilderness.

In the first sentence of the introduction, Evans contrasts the talk in Britain today about those who are eager to come here, “immigrants”, with those who, 400 years ago, desperately wanted to get out: “emigrants”. Evans is too good a historian to make facile comparisons between Stuart England and post-Brexit Britain, but the reader is gripped by the extraordinary similarities of motivation.

Many of us have been taught in school the foundational American myth of how the Pilgrim Fathers fled England to escape religious persecution; and certainly this was the main motivation of most of the grim Puritans. But the majority of emigrants to North America had other motivations. What becomes clear in Evans’s careful and detailed research is that they were mostly economic migrants.

The situation of the poor in England during the 17th century was desperate and brutal. Whatever the hardships that had to be faced, the hope of a better life was compelling. It sounds familiar. From the first days of the lucrative fishing trade off Newfoundland, then the madcap, failed quest for gold in Virginia, followed by the growth and lucrative sale of tobacco and profitable fur trade, the hunger for financial gain dominated motivation.

The economic reasons were complemented by the political horror of the Civil War, and then the Royalists’ hatred of the idea of having to live under the Commonwealth. Then, also, there were those noble souls who were motivated by a belief and a commitment to equality and liberty.

Why this book is such a gripping and enjoyable read is that Evans does not focus on the great and the good of history, but on the ordinary men, women, and children who migrated, with their hopes, fears, and desperation. Through primary sources of diaries, court hearings, and letters, Evans tells their stories, which sometimes inspire you with their heroism, and sometimes make you weep over their tragedies.


The Ven. Dr Lyle Dennen is Archdeacon Emeritus of Hackney.


Emigrants: Why the English sailed to the New World
James Evans
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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