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Historical note, A Newfound Land

A Newfound Land by Anna Belfrage, cover

Historical note, A Newfound Land

Just like Matthew Graham, many of the early settlers in the American Colonies emigrated due to religious issues. In the combined realms of England and Scotland, the Church of England – and the government – was distrustful of all religious faiths outside the Anglican Church. Catholics were hounded, would continue to be hounded for decades. Puritans (and Presbyterians such as Matthew) were seen as dangerous dissenters and were forced, just like the papists, to flee in large numbers. Many of these unfortunates made for the colonies.

The young colonies were no more tolerant than England – but with different religious preferences. Virginia quickly became an Anglican stronghold, further reinforced during Sir William Berkley’s long tenure as governor. Massachusetts was firmly in Puritan hands – strong, capable and somewhat sombre hands –and then there was Maryland, where for the first time in history an Act of Toleration was implemented in 1649.

Maryland at the time was a private possession. It was owned by Lord Calvert, a Catholic peer, and as such it welcomed Catholic immigrants with open arms. Actually, the colony welcomed immigrants of any Christian denomination with open arms, and as a consequence the colony’s population very quickly came to be dominated by Puritans.

Calvert was set on creating some sort of safe haven for his co-religionists, and he quickly concluded that persecution of non-Catholics was not the right way to go about it – after all, Maryland was the colony of a Protestant country. Besides, Calvert seems to have been a wise man, who urged all his colonists to set their religious rivalries aside and concentrate on building a prosperous new country – which of course benefited Calvert financially.

Already in 1639, the colony passed an ordinance that had a generally worded comment as to the rights of man, but when the English Civil War broke out, the underlying religious differences surged to the surface, and for a couple of years Maryland was under Protestant dominion before the Calvert family regained  control. Worried by the violence that had erupted in his colony, Lord Calvert drafted an Act of Toleration, not only to protect the Catholics but also to assure the recent Puritan colonists in Providence (Annapolis) that they would have freedom of worship.

The Act of Toleration is in many ways a precursor to the First Amendment in the American Constitution. In a world full of religious strife, it was an innovative attempt to heal rather than breach. In many ways it was imperfect, granting freedom of worship only to Trinitarian Christians, but it was a step in the right direction.

In 1654, the Act of Toleration was repealed. Two years earlier, Calvert’s government had been overthrown, the colony seized by Protestant forces loyal to the new Parliamentarian Government in England. The Puritans went on a spree once the Act was repealed. Catholic churches were burnt, Catholics were persecuted and forbidden to practise their religion. All in all, not at all a godly behaviour…

Fortunately, Calvert regained control, and in 1658 the Act was once again passed by the colonial assembly. This is why Matthew chose Maryland as his destination when he was forced to leave his home in 1668. Virginia was never an option after the time he’d spent there as an indentured servant, and Alex would have been very uncomfortable in the strict environment of Massachusetts.

Abducting Indians and selling them as slaves was not an uncommon practise during the last few decades of the 17 th century. The growing economies of both Maryland and Virginia consumed a lot of labour, and Indian slaves had the benefit of being cheaper that the African slaves. As women were in short supply, Indian girls were sold as wives, and many settlers felt they were doing their Indian captives a favour by offering them the possibility of becoming Christians. Philip Burley and his brothers could therefore argue that they were but supplying to an ever growing demand.

In A Newfound Land, Matthew and Alex interact frequently with the Susquehannock Indians. Upon the arrival of white man, this tribe controlled most of the region round the upper parts of Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehannock welcomed the settlers and traded with them, but inevitably tension spread as the new arrivals claimed more and more land. Despite this, the relationship with the Susquehannock remained amicable – until the Indian wars of the 1670’s, when the Susquehannock were dragged into the conflict between the Powhatan and the Virginia settlers. The colonist militia made no difference between Susquehannock and Powhatan: an Indian was an Indian, full stop. On one occasion, a band of militia snuck upon a group of unsuspecting Susquehannock and murdered them all in their sleep, and after that the previously good relationship deteriorated into open war.

Today, the Susquehannock are no more. Decimated by epidemics and forced to flee their homelands in the conflicts of the 1670’s, many of them joined the Mohawk. A small group of Susquehannock Indians settled in Conestoga Town in Pennsylvania and survived into the 18 th century, but were brutally massacred in 1763 by the Paxton Boys in the aftermath of the French and Indian Wars. One of the little boys killed was called Qaachow, which is how my Susquehannock chief got his name.

Finally, a brief note about Providence, the settlement that is the closest thing to a town in Alex’s new life. The Providence in A Newfound Land is called Annapolis today. Despite long walks all over the historical centre of present day Annapolis, I didn’t find any buildings that have survived from the towns first years, which, all in all, is not surprising. Founded in the 1650’s by a group of puritans, the town later on acquired the official name of Anne Arundel’s Towne. I have chosen to stick with Providence, as I suspect the town’s founding fathers, as well as the majority of its Puritan congregation, would have resented having their town named after a Catholic lady.