How England's Plague Freed America

How England's Plague Freed America

In 1665, England was struck by the Great Plague, by far the greatest outbreak of bubonic plague since the Black Death in the 14th century. England's population at the onset of the epidemic was about 460,000; by the time it was under control at least 70,000 persons were known to have died from the disease. The toll was probably much higher, as records were poorly and infrequently kept.

So many Londoners died that special arrangements had to be made for burying them. They were collected by paid corpse bearers and hurriedly interred, most still fully clothed, in great pits. The victims were left in front of their houses for the corpse collectors, just as people today leave garbage in front of their houses for collection by sanitation engineers. Londoners fled the city in droves and of course took the contagion with them, so the entire country was devastated. Eventually a great fire destroyed large populations of rats and rat fleas, and the Great Plague ended.

The Great Plague of 1665 changed the attitude of English decision—makers about emigration to the North American colonies. Before the plague, the English had perceived that the country was vastly overpopulated; there were just too many English people. The authorities' elementary but decisive solution for disposing of the surplus population was simply to ship the undesirables to America, so they began by cleaning out their prisons. Some of the first American settlers had not wanted to leave England at all, and many were marched aboard ship in handcuffs for the voyage. A few still wore handcuffs as they came ashore in the New World! The government had shipped them over to promote the formation of colonies and the foundation of new settlements.

"Undesirables" who went more willingly included religious groups such as the Puritans and purveyors of doom who saw an apparent connection between large assemblies of people and outbreaks of plague. The way these groups saw it, people who gathered to watch bear—baiting contests, theater, or other profane events were being judged by a Higher Authority when the plague descended on them. The Puritans struggled during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to get theaters and shows closed. However, each arena or playhouse that closed for a time would eventually reopen, and many Puritans decided that relocating to the New World promised a bright new beginning.

After the Great Plague subsided, interest in relocating people to the colonies declined. Logically, since thousands of people had died in London alone, England could not possibly still be overpopulated. The shipping of English citizens to the colonies was halted, and the newly founded American colonies were virtually left to grow by themselves. As they grew, they developed into individual units where local ideas of self—government began to take shape. By the turn of the 18th century, the colonies were experimenting with the concept of freedom. The English colonies in America were ripe for independence—thanks to the Great Plague!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth