Between Two Worlds: How the English became Americans by Malcolm Gaskill, book review


Rachel Trethewey
Thursday 27 November 2014 18:50 GMT

In 1613, King james I celebrated the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to Frederick V, elector palatine of the Rhineland, with a masque. Spectators watched as baboon-faced boys spilled out of a golden mountain. The masquers at the summit were dressed as feathered pagans from Virginia who celebrated the royal wedding by converting to Christianity.

This was the idealised colonial vision but the reality was very different. As Malcolm Gaskill's book Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans shows, utopia could degenerate into a dystopia.

In this epic which takes us from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, New England back to England, Professor Gaskill tells the story of the early settlers in America from a new perspective. He argues that rather than embracing fresh identities, English migrants tried to preserve Englishness. Disputes and social problems were exported from the old world to the new.

The colonists tried to recreate an imagined England from the past; landowners wanted feudal estates, farmers small-holdings and Puritans the early church. However, the experience of surviving in the wilderness changed them and discovering the new world also turned out to be a journey of self-discovery.

In the 17th century, 350,000 English people crossed the Atlantic to America. Few realised what they were letting themselves in for. They had to be brave to survive; facing extreme weather and threats from native Indians, many of the first settlements failed. By 1610 Jamestown was in ruins. Faced with starvation, some even turned to cannibalism.

However, the mission to trade and spread their religion drove the colonists on. Virginia became famous for its tobacco. Although King James described it as a "vile and stinking custom" it became popular and by 1615, tobacco was available in coin-operated vending boxes in London taverns. Equally alluring were the exotic imports from the Caribbean. When bananas arrived in London they were treated as art. James I speculated that pineapples must be what Eve had used to tempt Adam. However, what made the West Indies really wealthy was sugar and slaves. Ignoring Christian values, slaves were treated as a commodity.

The treatment of Indians displayed a similar hypocrisy. What began as a mission to convert was corrupted by the desire to expand. From the start, culture clashes and lack of communication were problematic. When Thomas Harriot gave the Indians his Bible, he recorded his frustration as they rubbed themselves with it. He was unable to explain that its power lay in the words, not the paper and bindings.

A high point was John Rolfe's marriage to the Indian Princess Pocahontas. Pocahontas was baptised and became Rebecca and in 1615 the birth of their son Thomas brought the two worlds closer together. However, following colonial expansion relationships between the different races deteriorated. In King Philip's War of 1675, there were massacres and torture on both sides.

Equally challenging were relationships among the colonists. In New England Puritans had crossed the Atlantic to escape religious persecution. However, rather than creating their Biblical vision of a New Jerusalem they replicated the intolerance of the old world. The persecuted had become the persecutors.

Gaskill has written a work of extraordinary scholarship. It captures the spirit of adventure and courage of the first settlers but it also shows how high ideals were transformed by the harsh realities of life. Rather than the masque of 1613 which promoted an idyllic version, a more accurate representation was provided by Shakespeare's The Tempest. Performed two years earlier, its exploration of exile, discovery and identity reflected what it was really like to cross frontiers.

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