I became interested in colonial America, not because it’s my field as a historian, but because America was populated by people who were in my field, namely seventeenth-century England. Simply by arriving in America, migrants – 350,000 of them – are often claimed as proto-Americans and so the exclusive property of the USA and its early history. But they were nothing of the sort. They were English, called themselves that, and clung to English ways. Many came home, everyone was homesick. Their family and friends were still at home. Their identities did change, gradually, but not because the wilderness magically transformed them, but because they tried restlessly, first, to rebuild a new improved England in the New World, and, secondly, to defend English rights, albeit abroad, in a turbulent era of English history. It was all this industry and innovation that turned them into a new breed.
The book has this idea at its heart, but basically it’s a narrative covering all sorts of adventures in America, from the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, right through to the Glorious Revolution in the early 1690s. There are pirates and buccaneers, fires and floods, disasters and miracles, visionaries and witches, murderers and cannibals, heretics and rebels, and many skirmishes, battles and terrible wars. It tells many incredible stories, such as the Bermuda shipwreck (which inspired The Tempest), the Virginia massacre of 1622, the cultural metamorphosis of Pocahontas, the battle between crown and parliament on Barbados in 1652, the extraordinary Indian war of the mid-1670s, the apocalyptic Jamaican earthquake of 1692, and of course the tragedy of the Salem witch-trials.