What made 17th-century England so unbearable that thousands risked the voyage to America?

Tim Smith-Laing in The Telegraph:

HellWith all the political focus on immigration to these shores, it is easy to forget that anyone ever leaves Britain. But they do. Last year the Office for National Statistics recorded the emigration of 128,000 British citizens. Of course, that needs to be seen in context: out of a total population of 65 million, 128,000 is not even a fifth of a per cent. Which goes some way to showing how much of a decision it is to leave one’s country and live elsewhere; even in the 21st century it tends to take a certain kind of person and a certain kind of impetus to do so. The International Passenger Survey records reasons for leaving the UK under the four bland categories of “work-related” (50 per cent), “accompanying others” (just under 10 per cent), “formal study” (just under 5 per cent), and “other/not stated” (everyone else). A more imaginative officialdom might rename the same categories as “money”, “love”, “knowledge” and “mystery”. That would hardly fly as a set of boarding-card labels, but – having been in the first and third categories, and as a beneficiary of the second category – I think it gets closer to the truth of things. We are talking about human motives, after all.

It is worth bearing in mind what it takes to emigrate nowadays when reading Emigrants, James Evans’s engaging account of English emigration to America in the 17th century. If so few people are willing to leave Britain when most of the world is a few hours’ flight away, what possessed them to risk it when a transatlantic voyage could take anything from five weeks up to eternity? They did leave, though, and in droves. As Evans points out, figures are harder to come by for the 17th century, as no one was keeping track, especially not of those who counted among “the offals of our people”, as one writer put it. But historians estimate that across the century an average of 38,000 people left England for America each year, from a population of around five and a half million. That is a smaller percentage than today’s figures, but it is, Evans notes, “a colossal number” in a European context. The so-called “swarming of the English” was twice as large as contemporary emigration from Spain, and 40 times that from France. In an era when England had no significant means of competing on the imperial front with France or Spain, we became instead “the pioneer of mass migration” – a move that cemented the “Anglo-Saxon” character of North America.

More here.