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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Growth

emigrant ship from Europe
emigrant ship from Europe
Coming to America
- Europeans' journeys

Christopher Sauer from Germany, 1724 (PDF)

Gottlieb Mittelberger from Germany, 1750

John Harrower from Scotland, 1774

Emigrate or stay? writings from Ireland, mid to late 1700s (PDF)

- Africans' journeys

Olaudah Equiano from Benin, ca. 1756

Boyrereau Brinch from Bow-Woo [Mali], ca. 1759 (PDF)

The Atlantic Ocean was a much busier place in the 1700s than in the previous century. The number of ships crossing each year from Britain tripled from 500 in the 1670s to 1500 by the late 1730s. More people could afford the trip as the cost dropped by half between 1720 and 1770. And more Europeans were recruited to emigrate by their relatives in America and by the British government, striving to increase its colonies' population without depleting its home labor supply.1 Between 1700 and 1775, over 250,000 people emigrated from Europe to the mainland British colonies.2 And many people, of course, arrived from Africa. "Contrary to popular myth," writes historian Alan Taylor, "most eighteenth-century emigrants did not come to America of their own free will in search of liberty. Nor were they Europeans. . . . During the eighteenth century, the British colonies imported 1.5 million slaves—more than three times the number of free immigrants." Most were transported to the British Caribbean islands, and about 250,000 were sold in the mainland colonies.3

Here we will focus on the experience of the transatlantic journey, for those traveling freely or forcibly, and the arrival in America. In the next two sections we will follow several new settlers as they restructure their lives in the colonies.

  • Europeans' journeys. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the colonial period was a gruesome, life-threatening endeavor for all travelers, regardless of wealth or seamanship. Deciding whether to make the journey may have been harder. Here we read three Europeans' descriptions of their journeys—an optimistic letter by the German farmer Christopher Sauer, a book discouraging emigration published by the German teacher Gottlieb Mittelberger, and the diary of Scotsman John Harrower, who earned his voyage as an indentured servant. The final text pairs two Irish writings—a farmer's letter to a cousin in Pennsylvania, describing how he will "pluck up my spirits and make Redie for the Journey," and a poem written by a returned emigrant after giving "The New Island" a try. Compare the positions for and against emigration with those expressed by seventeenth-century emigrants in the toolbox American Beginnings.
    • - Christopher Sauer, (Sower), Germantown, Pennsylvania, Letter to "brothers and friends" in Germany, 1 December 1724, excerpt.
    • - Gottlieb Mittelberger, Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750 and Return to Germany in the Year 1754, 1756, excerpts.
    • - John Harrower, Journal (1774-1776), selection of 1774 entries.
    • - Anonymous, "An tOileán Úr" ("The New Island"), poem/folksong, mid to late 1700s.
    • - David Lindsey, Northern Ireland, Letter to Thomas or Andrew Fleming, Pennsylvania, 19 March 1758.

  • Africans' journeys. The horrific transatlantic journey of captured Africans, known as the Middle Passage and described by many Europeans, is recounted by few of the enslaved themselves. Two of the rare published accounts are by men with similar experiences—captured as children in west Africa, transported to the British Caribbean island of Barbados, forced to fight for the British during the French and Indian War, sold to mainland Americans, and gaining their freedom through purchase or military service. They are Olaudah Equiano and Boyrereau Brinch. In their narratives (published in 1789 and 1810), they describe the "abominable degradation" of the months-long ocean crossings and the misery of arrival and immediate sale in America. (Although Equiano may have been born in South Carolina, scholars assure us that his description of the Middle Passage reflects valid eyewitness accounts.)
    • - Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, London, 1789, excerpts.
    • - Boyrereau Brinch, The Blind African Slave, or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace, Vermont, 1810, excerpts.

Compare these "coming to America" experiences with those of the earliest settlers in North America in the toolbox American Beginnings, Theme III: SETTLEMENT, and in the toolbox The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865, FREEDOM #6: Capture. (25 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How do the Europeans encourage or discourage emigration? What factors carry the most emotional force in their arguments?
  2. What aspects of the ocean journey are most distressing to the Europeans? to the Africans?
  3. Compare the eighteenth-century transatlantic journeys with those of the previous century (see supplemental links below). What has changed? What remains the same?
  4. What provides comfort or protection during the voyages?
  5. How do Equiano and Brinch respond to their first experiences with white men? to their arrival in Barbados?
  6. How do they apply Christian principles to admonish (and appeal to) the slavers?
  7. Based on the accounts of John Harrower and Gottlieb Mittelberger, describe the experience of an indentured servant from his or her departure from Europe to being "sold" in America.
  8. Compare the slaves' and indentured servants' experiences of arrival and sale in America. What aspects are similar? different? Why?
  9. Compare the seven readings by audience and genre—a personal journal, a traditional poem, two private letters, and three published works. What does the reader learn through the different texts?
  10. Argue for and against the proposition that a private letter provides more authentic and accurate evidence than a published work.
  11. If you were a European immigrant, would you have chosen to live permanently in America, like Christopher Sauer, or would you have returned to your home country, like Gottlieb Mittelberger and the anonymous Irish poet? Why?
  12. If you were a freed slave, would you have remained in America, like Olaudah Equiano and Boyrereau Brinch, or would you have returned to Africa as many did in the 1800s? Why?

Framing Questions
  •  What factors fostered or hindered the growth of the British Atlantic colonies (that later became the United States of America) from 1690 to 1763?
  •  How did the European colonists respond to the growing diversity among them—by religion, ethnicity, economic status, and country of origin?
  •  How did the colonies’ growth affect Native Americans and enslaved Africans?
  •  How were the inhabitants’ concepts of liberty and rights affected by the colonies’ growth?
  •  List the power relationships that influenced the colonies in this period, e.g., between the colonies and England, the colonies and the French and Spanish on their borders, the settlers and the Native Americans, the clergy and their congregants, the southern planters and their servants and slaves, etc. How did the totality of these power relationships affect the colonies’ growth and self-perception?

Sauer:  4
Mittelberger:  5
Harrower:  5
Emigrate or stay?:  2
Equiano:  4
Brinch:  5
TOTAL 25 pages
Supplemental Sites

Descriptions of transatlantic crossings in the 1600s, in History Matters The Middle Passage, in In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, from The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library)

Where was Olaudah Equiano born? by Brycchan Carey, Kingston University, Surrey, United Kingdom

1 Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2001), p. 302.

2 T. H. Breen & Timothy Hall, Colonial America in an Atlantic World: A Story of Creative Interaction (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004), p. 283.

3 Taylor, pp. 323-4.

- Ship from Europe. Philip George Friedrich von Reck, painting depicting the ships London Merchant and the Simonds passing the Isle of Wight in the English Channel as the Salzburgers sailed to Georgia in the fall of 1735; detail. Collections of the Royal Library (Det Kongelige Bibliotek), Copenhagen, Denmark. Reproduced by permission.
- Ship from Africa. Krydseren kommer! illustration in Daniel Bruun, Afrika; dets opdagelse, erobring og kolonisation. Populaert frematillet, 1901, detail. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Digital ID 1242108. Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. The Colonies: 1690-1715   2. Cities & Towns   3. Coming to America
4. New Settlers   5. Servants & Slaves   6. New Colonies
7. Indian Lands   8. The Land   9. The Colonies: 1720-1763

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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