Friday, February 27, 2009

Migration and the Origin of the English Atlantic World (A Review)

Homogeneity of nationality and ethnicity do not necessarily signify a unified culture. By contrast, the English colonies of North America and the Caribbean were a veritable melting pot as regional and religious differences collided everywhere from Massachusetts to Barbados. Alison Games, an Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University who specializes in Early America, has aptly demonstrated through port records how Puritans, traveling merchants, ambitious planters, and masses of indentured servants clashed and coalesced into the seventeenth century English Atlantic world. Of the 7,507 passengers who left England through London in 1635, almost 5,000 were bound for Virginia, New England, Barbados, St. Kitts, Bermuda, and Providence, where they later reappeared in colonial records. The resulting book, Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World (Harvard University Press: 1999) chronicles both the lives of individual colonists and the greater exodus in which they took part as they roamed the known globe seeking fortune and freedom.

The New World was only the latest option in the English tradition of relocation as part of the personal life cycle, whether for employment in agricultural or domestic service, to take up an apprenticeship, or to plunge into the busy metropolis of London in search of financial success. Beginning in 1607, Virginia was introduced as another destination for the adventurous and ambitious as the plantation system began to take root following the adoption of tobacco and the subsequent escalation of the “acquisitive and predatory drive for commodities.” Religion too became a motivating factor in 1633 as William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, began to overhaul the liturgy and doctrine of the Church of England in a manner that struck many as suspiciously Catholic – a sentiment that only deepened when Laud also started to crack down on nonconformists. In 1634 he instituted a decree that all English subjects bound for the colonies were to present proof that they did not owe taxes; all passengers below the rank of subsidy men were required to present letters from the justices of their parishes attesting their loyalty to the Church. To that end, clerks were to document the names, ages, and occupations of everyone who passed through the port of London, the busiest port in all of England. Though the goal was to prevent the escape of religious dissidents, it was mostly young male indentured servants who ventured to the New World, primarily to work at the plantations in Virginia, Bermuda, Barbados, and St. Kitts (where they composed almost 70% of the population). New England, however, more closely resembled old England as Puritans seeking to establish their “City on the Hill” and escape Laud left for the American frontier with their families.

These varying motives for leaving, as well as homegrown regional distinctions, produced an extraordinarily diverse Atlantic culture that further diverged after encounters with Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and neighboring Spanish, Dutch, and French settlements. “Indeed,” says David H. Fisher of both Puritan New England and rapacious, secular Virginia, “it would be difficult to imagine how any two fragments of the same metropolitan culture could have been any more different.” Different colonies, for example, held different standards of colonial success that plainly demonstrate the social diversity that developed in the Atlantic setting. Virginians fought for land, commodities, slaves, economic sufficiency, and the political power that accompanied such accouterments, while those on Barbados reached new heights of plutocracy, voracity, and labor exploitation. Overcrowding in the temperate Puritan Bermuda, on the other hand, drove colonists to acquire additional property elsewhere, though they did manage to come closest to replicating the Old World society they had left behind. Perhaps religious conformity would have been the ultimate triumph in New England, yet a creed unused to social and political dominance motivated myriad challenges to its authority, some serious (the Antinomian Controversy) and others relatively innocuous (internal migration other towns and other congregations). For all their dissimilarities, however, continuous movement within the Atlantic world from one colony to another meant that none of these subcultures would persist in isolation.

Driving these trends and developments, of course, were the countless individual pioneers who passed through the port of London on their way to America and the Caribbean. Reliance on primary sources is a mainstay of the historian profession, but Alison Games – who notes, interestingly, that Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World started out as her doctoral dissertation – makes extensive use of records and archives from Virginia, Barbados, Bermuda, New England, and all over old England. For example, Games cites an original register located in the Kew Public Office, as well as the Mercers’ Company Port Records of Mercer’s Hall, London. Either she was able to access these electronically (though Migration was published in 1999, still the early years of the Internet) or she definitely did some traveling. Just looking in the footnotes at the number of contemporary books and articles, already on top of the wide range of historical documents, I clearly got the impression that Games’ final product was the end result of a great deal of dedication.

That being said, however, Games is still a terribad writer. Her word use is annoyingly repetitive and her overall tone is dry. Consider the following:
Geographic mobility was not part of a conscious effort to ensure conformity in the colonies to a broader English culture. Indeed, such an effort was futile: although English people brought with them a multitude of English ways, colonial exigencies forced other patterns upon them. But frequent movement did enable colonial residents and visitors to retain contact with old England and other colonies, and for all their geographic distance, this contact enabled them to remain a part of England even as England itself was ultimately altered by its colonial holdings. In their repeated journeys from one colony to another and from the colonies to England, many of these voyagers signaled an understanding of a large and varied colonial world. . .
Merely glance at that passage and the words “England” and “colony/colonial” instantly pop out all over the place. I am sure there was a better way to rephrase it. We know, for instance, that the people she is discussing are English so she should not have to keep reminding us; likewise, synonyms for “colony” include “outpost,” “settlement,” “dependency,” “protectorate,” “territory,” and “satellite,” as well as (in this context) “frontier,” “New World,” “(North) America,” “Caribbean,” and “English Atlantic world/realm/sphere.” Luckily much of the material itself was fascinating enough to maintain the momentum, albeit rather sluggishly at times.

That being said, Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World comes recommended for the sheer volume of historically significant information contained therein. Games does a fine job illuminating her findings and connecting them to the bigger picture but, though a committed scholar, she is not at all an engaging writer. For someone seeking a good but dense read, I would point instead to Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which I thoroughly enjoyed, not only because it was fascinating but also due to Mann’s pleasing sense of humor. Migration is, in other words, a book for the historian and the student of history, not the lay bibliophile with an amateur interest in Early America or England in the seventeenth century.


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