Gaskill makes comprehensive use of personal testimony and primary records to show the relationship between north American settler and the English mother country during the period of early colonisation in the 17th century. This is not a story of independently minded Puritans heading off across the Atlantic to leave early Stuart tyranny behind and build a new world amongst the forests of New England. Rather, Gaskill presents a much more complex situation where not only settlement and economic exploitation but also political and cultural development remained very much dependent on England, an England that was also bound to the life-experiences of the early settlers and increasingly to the business model the new colonies produced.
The book looks at colonies in their broadest sense. There is a focus on Virginia and New England, paying tribute to the earlier English conquest and settlement of Ireland which offered the earliest (flawed) model for colony building, but the sweep takes in the Caribbean and later spread to the Carolinas and up the Appalachians. Here was embedded English society, given an opportunity to farm and trade through a series of Royal Company Patents, not self governing but administering themselves locally under the umbrella of the English crown, much as an English town or County might have done at the time. The settlements of new England with a higher (but not overwhelming) proportion of Puritan households saw these oligarchic assemblies dominated by those who considered themselves the elect. Further south in Virginia and in the Caribbean, it was the rapidly growing large estate owners who held sway. Just as the 17th century upheavals in England of Civil War, Restoration and 1688 revolution affect attitudes to power at home, Gaskill shows this being tightly followed and reflected in the Americas. Only after 1688 does the divergence which is to lead to revolution in the next century begin to become evident. England becomes more imperialist, more focused on the economic gains of overseas possessions, less inclined to consider the interests and protection of the colonists as a priority.
Apart from the social and political there are other themes running through the work. The siezure of Indian land is a given, the inevitable Indian wars which do so much to foster the "frontier mentality" of the American are reported by contemporaries in the same violent manner in which Irish rebels were described in the 1640's. Some settlers go native, others try and convert "praying" Indians but for the majority they were a population to be feared, exploited and pushed back for their land. The reality of colonial life in mid century is well treated in Chapter 14.
One of the chapters looks at the cultural isolation felt by many of the settlers (not uncommon even today as expatriates with internet, skype will agree with). England is always "home", many attempted to create their idea of an English idyll in an alien environment, with mutant twists. Where estate owners in the south could not get landless labourers to help achieve this as they might have done on an English estate, they ship in Africans in ever increasing numbers.
Gsskill is a specialist on 17th century witchcraft, so it may not be a surprise that the climax of the work is the Salem witch trials of 1692-3. For Gaskill the almost immediate reversal of the trials and discrediting of the Puritan testimonies represents the collapse of the Puritan stranglehold on the mood of the northern colonies. Dominant in setting the initial culture of New England, like their counterparts in England the latter part of the century sees this being discredited and replaced by particularist pragmatism. It is this change he argues that does so much to force a parting of ways between London and the northern colonies.
Apparently the work is based on a course presented by the author. It may be easier for the more general reader if chapter headings were less literary and obscure and perhaps given titles more immediately relevant to their content akin to seminar meetings. This would allow for easier selection of reading for students unable to read all the book. The wealth of contemporary evidence whilst clearly forming the structure of the argument can be overwhelming and the point in hand (as well as attention) can easily be lost to the multitude of characters and places presented to the reader.
Between Two Worlds is a worthwhile read. Students of the period perhaps will use it best with careful reading of the excellent Epilogue to help search out key themes and then make judicious use of the Index to follow their development.
linked casahistoria site: Imperialism