[Click on image to enlarge] "I like a plantation in a pure soil; that is, where people are not displanted to the end to plant in others. For else it is rather an extirpation than a plantation." In his essay "Of Plantations," Francis Bacon imagines an ideal colonial project, one without the possibility of conflict, and without victims. Such colonies were, of course, never more than a philosopher's pipe-dream. By 1600, there was very little "pure soil" left anywhere on the globe, excepting the forbidding polar regions. The territories which proved the main targets of English settlement in the seventeenth century were the neighboring island of Ireland and the eastern coast of North America, both home to sizeable native populations. In both cases, "plantation" often went hand in hand with "extirpation."

We might call Bacon's dream of victimless colonization "Utopian," were it not that Thomas More in his Utopia is considerably more hard-headed. When the population of Utopia exceeds the ideal number, More writes:

they choose out of every city certain citizens, and build up a town under their own laws in the next land where the inhabitants have much waste and unoccupied ground . . . [I]f the inhabitants of that land will not dwell with them to be ordered by their laws, then they drive them out. . . . And if they resist and rebel, then they make war against them. For they count this the most just cause of war, when any people holdeth a piece of ground void and vacant to no good nor profitable use, keeping other from the use and possession of it, which notwithstanding by the law of nature ought thereof to be nourished and relieved.

The supposed law of nature that justified the use of force in expelling peoples from their lands would be cited constantly by colonial theorists in the seventeenth century. John Donne stresses this very argument in his Sermon to the Virginia Company (1622), ranking the "law of nature" alongside the "power rooted in grace" as justifications for settlement in inhabited lands. One of the few to question this logic was the radical Roger Williams, who infuriated the New England authorities by arguing "That we have not our land by patent from the king, but that the natives are the true owners of it, and that we ought to repent of such a receiving it by patent."

In spite of controversies over how, if at all, to respect the rights of the prior inhabitants, perhaps the most startling feature of much of what was written in or about the New World is the slight notice given to Native Americans. They are never mentioned, for instance, by the Massachusetts poet Anne Bradstreet, who concentrates instead on the relationship between Old England and New. Like many Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic, Bradstreet believed that settlements like the Massachusetts Bay Colony were blazing a trail of godly government that the mother country might eventually follow. Roger Williams, too, while rejecting Puritan intolerance, believed that the English had much to learn from the experience, good and bad, of the New England settlers.

Simply ignoring the existence of the native inhabitants was less possible for the English writing in or about Ireland. A long history of cultural and military conflict had given the English an almost paranoid awareness of the intractable threat posed by the native Irish. The seemingly intractable problem of Ireland was addressed by some of the greatest literary figures of the period, from Edmund Spenser in his View of the Present State of Ireland to John Milton in his Observations Upon the Articles of Peace (1649), as well as by countless others. Could the Irish, as some writers hoped, be weaned from their "savagery" and trained up in civilized manners? Or must they, as the settler Thomas Blenerhasset chillingly proposed, be hunted like animals for English sport? Blenerhasset's proposal dates from the early years of the Ulster Plantation, in which the English aimed to solve their Irish problem once and for all through a program of land seizures and mass settlement by English and Scottish Protestants. The historical impact of the Ulster Plantation can be seen today in Northern Ireland, the one part of the island still under British rule.

[Click on image to enlarge]Even as she sent her children forth to settle beyond the seas, England played host to immigrants from abroad. These included a handful of natives of the New World (including, for a brief period, Pocahontas), and larger numbers of Europeans. Among the latter were some so-called marranos — Spanish Jews who had, officially at least, converted to Christianity. Jews had in fact been banned from English soil since their expulsion in the thirteenth century. Under Protector Cromwell's regime, however, the anti-Semitic laws were eased, and Jews began to return openly to England. Even as the English confronted alien cultures in their new settlements abroad, England itself was becoming an ever more multicultural society.

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page