Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World

Written by James Evans
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

Why did almost 400,000 people leave English shores for a daunting trip across the Atlantic to North American settlements throughout the 17th century? James Evans sets out to describe this so-called ‘swarming of the English’ in his new book Emigrants and to explain why the English, rather than their French or Spanish competitors, took over America and Canada. These English colonialists ranged from Puritans seeking religious freedom, Royalists escaping Cromwell, opportunists seeking to exploit natural resources like the cod fishery and most of all, desperate people prepared to endure the brutality of indentured servitude for a better life in the longer term.

Emigrants covers these broad themes using contemporary maps, official letters and court records to provide fascinating insights into ultimately why North American opportunities outweighed the considerable dangers. The pillars in the author’s narrative though are the personal diaries and letters that reveal the personalities of the emigrants themselves, from lesser-known people like Christopher Newport and Anne Bradstreet to the more famous Humphrey Gilbert and John Smith. Evans ties these disparate subjects together to produce an engaging and vivid narrative that will enthral both those with an interest in the 17th century as well as the general reader.