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Why did people abandon a life they knew, to embark on a dangerous journey to a land where they would have to carve out a precarious existence from scratch?

The Mayflower was the first ship to carry the Pilgrims, a group of radical Puritans escaping persecution, to New England. On 21 November 1620, while still on board, they agreed the Mayflower Compact, a contract which said that they should elect their governor and assembly themselves. Not everyone who left England for America was so democratic.

People quit England in the 17th century, risking the hazardous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, for different reasons, depending on their place in society. Religious fundamentalists like the Puritans went to escape persecution; rich people went to make a profit; poor people to find work.

When Queen Elizabeth I reigned (1533-1603), the earliest pioneer leaders were risk-takers, not safety-conscious merchants. They were gamblers driven by visions of dazzling wealth – such men as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh made huge profits from overseas adventures.

Many came from the West Country and were devout patriots who worried about poverty in England. They were motivated not only by greed but also by the idea that England's idle poor could be taken to North America to work the land.

Some of the poorer volunteers for these expeditions went in search of honest work, others imagined an easy life in a Utopia where gold and other precious metals were easy to find. Such dreams were doomed to disappointment.

Where did they go?

In Elizabeth's day, England was just a small Protestant island on the edge of Europe, in a Western world dominated by the rival Catholic powers of Spain and France. The Spanish Empire was gigantic, covering South America and Mexico, the Caribbean and the Netherlands; the French were busy in northern America (now Canada). From the middle of Elizabeth's reign, as English pirates found riches in the Caribbean by looting Spanish ships, some entrepreneurs spotted an opportunity. The region between what are now Florida and New England was relatively untouched by Europeans – ripe for colonisation.

But colonies were expensive and risky investments. Settlers had to be transported nearly 5,000km (3,000 miles) across the sea. They needed utensils, clothing, seed, tools, building materials, livestock, arms and ammunition.



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