Adult migration in British Empire 1600-1960

Migration was an integral part of the political process through which British identity, the British state and the British Empire were constructed. Although the notion of imperial Britain may not have been well received in Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was greater common ground in the idea of imperial Britain existing overseas. British settlement in the American colonies became the basis for Britain’s notion of empire and emigration, at least until the late eighteenth century, was an expression of the movement of British energies from east to west in Ireland and then further west to the American colonies. Attitudes to emigration were, however, ambivalent and Parliament banned the emigration of groups such as artisans who were seen as central to Britain’s economic expansion. Adam Smith suggested that colonial wealth could impoverish countries rather than enrich them and implied that emigration reduced the energies of the country when population was needed for the transformation of Britain itself. Colonies could be populated by slaves and by Protestants from northern Europe rather than British emigrants and Britain could still expand its empire.

During the nineteenth century, retaining Britain’s population was increasingly viewed not as the basis for economic and commercial growth but as a cancer that threatened the basis of British society. Emigration provided a solution that allowed the poor to escape from the impoverished rural and urban slums to the expanding colonies, themselves a source of wealth for Britain’s continuing prosperity and greatness. Emigration to the British colonies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was openly encouraged by the government and charities and by individuals and parishes. Whether this was the British state ‘shovelling out the poor’ as some colonial commentators believed, its aim was to populate the empire with British citizens as well as alleviating social distress in Britain and Ireland. [1] Rising levels of literacy meant that pamphlets calling for emigration proved popular among working- and middle-class audiences. For instance, John A. Etzler published Emigration to the tropical world for the melioration of all classes of the people of all nations in 1844, while J. Boyd wrote State directed emigration in 1883 and P. J. Andrews The coming race?: some reflections on the inherent dangers of mass civilisation in Britain and the opportunities for balanced spiritual development by peopling the dominions in 1929. The Empire Parliamentary Association issued pamphlets on emigration to Canada and Australia and the Salvation Army Organised Empire migration and settlement in 1930. There were also publications from other organisations such as the Imperial Immigration League, the Landholders and Commercial Association of British India, the London Compositors’ Emigration Aid Society, the Fund for Promoting Female Emancipation and the Clerkenwell Emigration Society. Books, children’s literature, souvenirs, paintings, public monuments and lectures all transmitted narratives of martial heroism from the mid-nineteenth century reinforcing the notion that emigration was not only practical but also, in some ways, heroic. [2] Foreign missionary representatives canvassed working-class Sunday schools and chapels and middle-class philanthropists for subscriptions but the missionary presence at local level extended far beyond this. [3] The effectiveness of missionary organisations was such that contemporaries could justifiably claim that ‘many a small tradesman or rustic knows more of African or Polynesian life than London journalists’. [4] Popular culture was saturated by imperial images from films and plays to sauce bottles and biscuit tins. This was populist propaganda on an industrial scale. [5]

Scottish and especially Irish emigration were far greater than that of the English in proportion to the size of their respective populations. Emigration from proved particularly successful. [6] Sir Charles Dilke, writing in 1869, remarked:

In British settlements, from Canada to Ceylon, from Dunedin to Bombay, for every Englishman that you meet who has worked himself up to wealth from small beginnings without external aid, you find ten Scotchmen. [7]

The Scots grasped the opportunities afforded by union in 1707 and there were large outflows of men and women looking for a new life and a new beginning, initially in North America. Between 1763 and 1777, 50,000 Scots largely from the west of Scotland settled in North America. [8] They quickly dominated the tobacco trade and other areas of economic life, such as fur-trapping in Canada. Education and religion were other areas of cultural life where the Scottish influence was dominant. Such was the strength of the Scottish presence in America that 19 of the 56 delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence came from Scotland or Ulster. The Scottish presence was also strongly present in India. Henry Dundas became President of the Board of Control in 1784 and with his support Scots came to dominate the activities of the East India Company. By 1792, they made up one in nine Company officials, one in eleven common soldiers and one in three officers. The first three Governor-Generals of India were Scots. Scottish scholars and scientists made important contributions to Indian culture and society: for instance, Colin Campbell completed the first geographical survey of India; Alexander Kydd created the Botanic gardens in Calcutta while others developed the infrastructure of India. Even after the dissolution of the East India Company in 1857 and the introduction of competitive entry into the British administration, they still played an important part in the running of India. Scots were important to the development of the Empire in diverse ways: as businessmen, as educators, as missionaries, as imperial administrators and soldiers. Whether this made the empire a ‘Scottish empire’, as some historians have argued is debatable. [9] Whatever the importance of Scots as emigrants or administrators of empire, decisions about the direction of empire and the policies through which it was ruled were made in London. It was the British state that dominated the empire.

As concerns over ‘surplus population’ grew, there was an increase in landless peasants from the Highlands and unemployed craftsmen, labourers and small farmers from the Lowlands willing to emigrate. Most were aged between 16 and 29 and men rather than women. Whatever the cause, Scotland lost between 10 and 47% of its natural population increase every decade between 1830 and 1940; a rate exceeded only in Ireland and Norway. However, even these countries were dwarfed by emigration from Scotland in the years 1904-1913 and again in 1921-1930, when over half a million people emigrated exceeding the entire natural increase and constituted one-fifth of the total working population. [10]

Until about 1855, a number of the emigrants from the Highlands were actually forced to leave the land because of mass evictions. The Emigration Act in 1851 made emigration more freely available to the poorest with the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society established to manage the process of resettlement. Under the scheme a landlord could secure a passage to Australia for a nominee at the cost of £1 and between 1846 and 1857, over 16,000 people, largely poor young men, were assisted to emigrate. Many settled in Canada in places such as Ontario and Nova Scotia, where they could continue to farm and maintain their style of life and ethnic identity. In Nova Scotia in the first half of the nineteenth century, 59% of settlers from Britain were Scots-born. In the Lowlands, the decision to move abroad was nearly always the outcome of the desire to improve living standards because they experienced low wages, poor housing conditions and unemployment and, unlike in the Highlands, was voluntary. Emigration was seen by trades unions and other voluntary groups as a practical solution to unemployment and economic depression. The high points in emigration corresponded with years of severe economic depression in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the mid-1880s and between 1906 and 1913. Emigration was so heavy in the period 1871-1931 but it more than offset the increase in the population due to new births. This trend was brought to a halt in the 1930s as the global depression saw emigrants returning home and the numbers leaving Scotland were at their lowest for a century. [11]

Canada was the most important destination of emigrants during the first half of the nineteenth century and between 1825 and 1835, over 70% of emigrants from Scotland settled there. [12] However, this changed substantially after 1860 and especially 1900 as skilled urban workers became the most important emigrants. In 1912 and 1913, 47% of adult male emigrants from Scotland described themselves as skilled, compared with 36% of those from England and Wales. Only 29% classed themselves as labourers. It seems also that in the late-nineteenth century wore on and emigration, individuals’ social standing determining the country where they settled. Unskilled labourers tended to opt for Canada and Australia, while skilled workers preferred South Africa and the USA. [13] The middle-classes strongly preferred South Africa. Emigration acted as a safety valve for modern Scotland and although the British Empire was the main beneficiary of this process, Scotland also benefited in terms of wealth and profit. The great commercial mansions of Edinburgh and Glasgow were built from the profits of the colonial trade. In addition, substantial areas of employment were dependent on Empire providing the economic mortar that held the Union together. The collapse of the Empire after 1945 forced Scotland to make a painful transition from an economy based on heavy industry to one dependent on services and electronics. It also led to a redrawing of the political map as the Unionist vote evaporated. In 1955, Scottish Conservative Party took 50.1% of the popular vote and held half of Scotland’s 72 parliamentary seats. This high-point was followed by a gradual decline from 1964 until in 1997, with 17.5% of the popular vote, it took no seats at all and only one seat in the 2001, 2005 and 2010 general elections [14]

The adult experience of emigration in England and Wales paralleled that in Scotland. The bulk of the migrant population went to the United States in the eighteenth century, although Canada and Australia were popular destinations after 1815. After 1900, America fell behind Canada and Australia in attracting large groups of emigrants and South Africa was beginning to attract emigrant in significant numbers. In 1911, of the more than 450,000 Britons who left the United Kingdom, almost half settled in Canada, nearly a quarter in Australia and approximately one tenth in South Africa. Subsided emigration made it possible for certain sections of the population to be sent abroad, most to North America and Australia. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 secured the passage of more than 25, 000 ‘paupers’ by 1860 and the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners helped 370,000 people move to Australia between 1840 and 1869. Young men tended to make up the vast majority of migrants, although couples and family units were also prominent. Migrants came from many different types of occupations. For instance, most Welsh emigrants were miners or worked in the iron, steel, copper and tin industries. However, general labourers and worker of the building trades and textile workers, engineers, farmers, clerical and commercial workers were also represented. In the 1880s, when emigration had reached massive proportions, the most important group among the immigrants was urban unskilled workers. This suggests that, by the 1880s, the occupations of British emigrants reflected closely those of the population as a whole. [15]

Adult emigration, whatever its motivation in Britain, was determined by the economic needs of the colonies that were different at different times. The majority of New Zealand’s English, at least until 1920, were largely from the rural, working-class. Unlike the United States, which attracted unskilled labourers and industrial workers, NZ recruited agricultural labourers and pre-industrial craftsmen among the men and domestic servants among the women. NZ needed labourers and tradesmen for its farms, ports, mines and towns and artisans to meet the needs of its growing population. Builders were in especial demand and emigrated in large numbers helped by the introduction of assisted migration in 1871. Migration from England tailed off in the late-1880s and 1890s because of depression in the NZ economy. [16] This also corresponded with a change the regional origins and occupations of the English arrivals. The numbers engaged in agricultural work declined, while those working in industry and mining increased. These trends continued in the twentieth century and became even more marked after 1945. The post-1900 development of coal mining in New Zealand was aided by the arrival of miners from northern England. Industry expanded with the influx of skilled industrial workers from Yorkshire and Lancashire. The rapid growth of trade unions after 1890 was associated with the migration of English workers in the textile, clothing, footwear, mining and marine transport industries. Over 80,000 assisted British migrants arrived in NZ between 1947 and 1975, selected for the contribution that they could make to industry, education and health. [17] As NZ became less focused on England and ended all forms of assisted migration, and as England turned its attention to Europe rather than to the Commonwealth, so the appeal of migrating to New Zealand began to fade.[18]

[1] See, for example, Moran, Gerard. ‘‘Shovelling out the poor’: assisted emigration from Ireland from the great famine to the fall of Parnell’, in ibid, Duffy, Patrick J., and Moran, Gerard, (eds.), To and from Ireland: planned migration schemes c.1600-2000, (Geography Publications), 2004, pp. 137-154.

[2] MacKenzie, J. M., ‘Heroic myths of empire,’ in MacKenzie, J. M., (ed.), Popular Imperialism and the Military, (Manchester University Press), 1992, pp. 10-38, considers the heroic reputation of Henry Haverlock, David Livingstone, Charles Gordon and T. E. Lawrence.

[3] Thorne, Susan, ‘‘The Conversion of Englishmen and the Conversion of the World Inseparable’: Missionary Imperialism and the Language of Class in Early Industrial Britain’, in Cooper, Frederick, and Stoler, Laura Ann, (eds.), Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, (University of California Press), 1997, pp. 238-262.

[4] London Quarterly Review, Vol. 7, (1856), p. 238.

[5] Porter, Bernard, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain, (Oxford University Press), 2004, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, insists that popular culture promoting the imperial ideal had no effect on the general public.

[6] Gray, M., ‘The Course of Scottish Emigration 1750-1914: Enduring Influences and Changing Circumstances’, in Devine, T. M., (ed.), Scottish Emigration and Scottish Society, (John Donald), 1992), pp. 16-36, provides a good summary.

[7] Dilke, Charles W., Greater Britain: A record of travel in English-speaking countries during 1866 and 1867, (Harper & Brothers), 1969, p. 511.

[8] Dobson, D., Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785, (University of Georgia Press), 2004, and Landsman, Ned C., ‘Nation, Migration and the Province in the First British Empire: Scotland and the Americas 1600-1800’, American Historical Review, Vol. 104, (1999), pp. 463-475.

[9] On this issue see, Devine, T M, Scotland’s Empire, (Penguin), 2003, and Fry, M, The Scottish Empire, (Tuckwell Press), 2001.

[10] Richards, E., ‘Varieties of Scottish emigration in the nineteenth century, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 21, (1985), pp. 473-494.

[11] Harper, M, Emigration from Scotland between the wars: opportunity or exile?, (Manchester University Press), 1998.

[12] Hornsby, Stephen J., ‘Patterns of Scottish emigration to Canada, 1750-1870’, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 18, (1992), pp. 397-416. See also, Campey, Lucille H., The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and beyond, (Dundurn Press), 2005, and An Unstoppable Force: The Scottish Exodus to Canada, (Dundurn Press), 2008. On Canadian immigration policy, see Kelley, Ninette, and Trebilcock, M. J., The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy, (University of Toronto Press), 1999.

[13] Macmillan, D. S., Scotland and Australia, 1788-1850: emigration, commerce and investment, (Oxford University Press), 1967, ‘The Scots’, in Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people: an Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, (Cambridge University Press), 2001, pp. 644-665, and Prentice, Malcolm D., The Scots in Australia: A Study of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland 1788-1900, (University of Sydney Press), 1983, provide the context.

[14] Devine, T. M., ‘The Break-up of Britain?: Scotland and the end of Empire: The Prothero Lecture’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, Vol. 16, (2006), pp. 163-180.

[15] Erickson, Charlotte, Leaving England: Essays on British Emigration in the Nineteenth Century, (Cornell University Press), 1994.

[16] Simpson, Tony, The immigrants: the great migration from Britain to New Zealand, 1830-1890, (Godwit), 1997.

[17] Hutching, Megan, Long Journey for Sevenpence: Assisted Immigration to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, 1947-1975, (Victoria University Press), 1999..

[18] Phillips, Jock, & Hearn, Terry, Settlers: New Zealand Immigrants from England, Ireland & Scotland 1800-1945, (Auckland University Press), 2008: see

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