Malcolm Gaskill tells, extremely well, one of the great human stories. The 17th-century English colonisation of America, so epic in its long-term consequences, is no less striking as a tale of endeavour and achievement. It belongs, admittedly, to a larger surge of European overseas expansion. In drama and spectacle, or as a feat of organisation, it does not equal the preceding Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru. It is not quite as unexpected or intrepid as the still-earlier Portuguese voyages of discovery. Even so, the themes of Gaskill’s elegant and vivacious narrative are an inexhaustible invitation to imaginative recovery: the perilous transatlantic crossings; the early terrors of cold and hunger and the ventures into an unknown landscape; the creation, from raw prospects, of vibrant societies down the eastern coast and in the Caribbean; the intermingling pursuits of riches and religious idealism; the establishment of vast trade routes and economic systems; the engagement, alternately amicable and bellicose, with native communities; the gradual, sometimes imperceptible shifts of identity that would turn English settlers into Americans; the prophetic tussles between the crown and restless colonists. Gaskill, who has dug deep in the primary sources and specialist commentaries, imposes order on an extraordinary range of material. Yet he never allows the demands of analysis to dim his wonder at the daring, enterprise and – the noun that peppers his text – courage of the colonists.
His subject is strangely under-known. At school or university you can study 17th-century England and rarely, if ever, encounter the colonisation movement. Public awareness extends to the Pilgrim Fathers and Puritan hats but not far beyond them. In the academic world, too, the emigration is a marginal subject. It is