The defeat of the Spanish armada smashed the last important barrier to England’s overseas expansion. Within two decades she had established her first permanent colony in Virginia ‘earth’s only paradise’, in the words of a gentleman adventurer who left London on that pioneering mission late in 1606. The consequences of England’s bold leap westward were vital to the future of the British Empire. Before the Armada, King Philip II of Spain ruled all the permanent European settlements in the New World. A century later England dominated the North Atlantic coast from Maine to the Carolinas. Had the story been otherwise, the history not only of North America, but of the empire and the world might have been significantly different.
Those still asleep at dawn aboard the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, were roused by excited shouts. Land had been sighted - Virginia! It was May 6th 1607, they had reached at last ‘earths only paradise’. But they had not come for the soil, the earth, the grapes or even the copper, they were not farmers with families. Most were gentleman adventurers with their servants, they were here for gold. Heady as they were with thoughts of precious metals they could not help being awed by the natural wonders as the ship stood into Chesapeake bay.
That day they also tasted some of the bitterness America held in store for them and other Englishmen to follow. Indians creeping on all fours , attacked the landing party and wounded one of the men. Proceeding up the James River, they found a site on which to make a settlement and built a fort naming it after King James. They began their search for gold. They would find none. Within a single year nearly two thirds of the men would be dead. But they had founded the first English foothold in North America.
The Jamestown settlers were adventurers but they could not have known the magnitude of the great adventure they had initiated. In the wake of Susan Constant, there followed a great movement of humanity. An island nation off the coast of Europe, stretched itself across an ocean and despite appalling difficulties peopled a giant continent, a whole new English-speaking world that would be rich and populous and powerful.
There were to be in fact two Americas, whose economic, social and political differences endured long after they were in theory united. One took root here at Jamestown, the other was planted 13 years later far to the north.
On November 11th 1620, the ship Mayflower made a landfall on the low sandy shore of Cape Cod. Of the 101 passengers, 51 were Pilgrims who fell their knees and thanked God for bringing them to this safe haven. The others were not so grateful, for they had bargained to go to Virginia, but found themselves confronted instead, by the coast of New England, a land of hostile climate and infertile soil, and suspected, correctly that this was no accident but by design, the work of the pilgrims.
These Puritans rejected the established English church as being tainted by Catholicism. They fled England years before to avoid imprisonment. Tolerated but unhappy in Holland they now came to America to establish a new Zion of their own. The colonists landed at a harbour and began building a town which they named Plymouth, but work soon slowed as they began to die. Sometimes two or three a day. During their first winter there were times when only half a dozen were well enough to care for the others. By April 1621 more than half the original company were dead. Almost immediately settlers began falling to malarial fever and Indian arrows. Had not so many been killed it was likely all would have starved. Although there was fish and game, the settlers lacked the skill of hunting and fishing.
He introduced into the colony an Indian princess who became its benefactor. Powhatan, chief of all the Virginian Indians had captured Smith and was about to execute him when his 12 year old daughter Pocahontas intervened and saved Smith. Pocahontas became the instrument for the preservation of the colony, bringing the settlers food and teaching them how to grow native crops. In 1609 some 500 new settlers arrived at Jamestown . These were not adventurers but true colonists including around 100 women and children.
Given the hardships and privations of the New World, why did settlers chose to go? A feeling of nationalism was a factor, after defeating the Armada, Britain wanted to beat the old rivals at their own game of colonisation and stake their claim to the New . The spreading of Christianity was also a motive, one that was given a prominent place in the Virginian Charter.
England subscribed to mercantilism as a way to build a wealthy and self-sufficient nation. This meant she must sell more abroad than she bought, so the balance of payments could be accumulated in gold and silver in London’s coffers. The colonies were integral to this system, since they sold to the mother country raw materials she would otherwise have to buy from rivals. The colonies also, would serve as a captive market for manufactured goods from the motherland.
Historians therefore have ample cause for saying that the nations wealth and her ambitions to be yet wealthier, were of prime importance in the settling and their development. In reality this was far from the case. Britain had prospered and with prosperity came a huge rise in the standard of living , and as a consequence, a comparable rise in the cost of living. Unfortunately the wages of the working classes, which were controlled and fixed largely by the landed gentry, remained low and poverty was widespread. This was a main motive for the peasant class to seek a better way in
As they struggled to survive the New England winters, pilgrims must have often recalled with mixed feelings the city on the Thames they had left behind in 1620. The comforts might indeed be missed, but not the fleshpots of ‘Merrie London’ that lively town with more than 200,000 citizens was the most formidable social, political intellectual and mercantile unit in England. Rich, vibrant and rapidly outgrowing the ancient city boundaries, London attracted then as it does now , a host of visitors.
The spirited citizens of 16th century London delighted in a wide range of pastimes. The brutal spectacles provided by bear-baiting and dog-fighting were popular, despite the humane protests beginning to be heard. Music there was in plenty, for England was then the land of glorious song and magnificent theatre though Shakespeare had been dead for over 4 years when the pilgrims left for America. His moving dramas and witty comedies still brought perceptive audiences to the theatres across the river. Sober merchants and their wives, skylarking apprentices and their sweethearts strolled over London Bridge. Highly placed men from Whitehall and clever young lawyers from the Inns of Court came, more fashionably by boat.
All day long the city’s twisting streets echoed to the noise of active people going about their business. Many of them brought food, apples and cherries from Kent, already called the Garden of England wheat and rye from all the south east. To this hubbub was added the sound of cattle and sheep on their way to Smithfield Market, and the clatter of horses bearing self-important King’s Messengers, impatient travellers and prosaic farm produce. A continuous pageant was played on the narrow pavements, shadowed by overhanging gables that brought the top stories of houses across a road close enough to touch. Although the town was spreading rapidly, outside its own walls there were still many open spaces within the heart of the city and houses with courtyards gardens and stables.
Three years ago on the windswept island of Roanoake, North Carolina, was celebrated the birth of the first colonial baby. Since then, she and 100 other souls of this sorry little community have vanished leaving no signs of violence and only one clue as to what happened, the word Croatoan - the name of an Indian tribe - carved on a post at the entrance to the empty palisade. The macabre disappearance of the Roanoake colony was discovered on 17th August, when John White, the Governor returned with two ships. The baby - named Virginia, after the infant colony - was his grand-daughter!
Disease has spread among the Indian population like ripples in a giant pond. Epidemics of disease such as smallpox, measles, dysentery, typhoid, tuberculosis and other European maladies are initiated at contact points along the coast of the continent and then spread inland by trade and warfare, destroying millions of native inhabitants, sometimes before they have as much as set eyes on the white man. Initial calculations regarding Indian populations failed to take this fact into consideration, so figures were probably considerably lower than they should have been. In addition to disease, slave catchers and fur traders have introduced alcohol, and that alone has disrupted and in many cases destroyed many entire societies. Population losses among some areas of Indians is believed to be as high as 90%.
In the year and a half before April 1608, 197 men had left England for Virginia, 53 remained alive. The only natural leader one John Smith bullied and cajoled the colonists into working, those who did not work did not eat.
More followed and by 1611, 900 had journeyed to Virginia but only 150 of them remained alive. During the great migration of 1630 to 1643, some 65000 left their homeland to seek their fortune in America and the west Indies.