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Migration and the British Empire: an Empire of White Settlement, an Empire of The Conquered.

The role and importance of migration within the British Empire throughout the 19th century cannot be overstated. Migration during this period fell into two major categories: white settlement and tropical migration. Emigration from the British Isles sustained and powered the expansion of settler colonies, from Canada to Australia and New Zealand. Whilst, tropical migration allowed the Empire to maintain and expand its plantation colonies after the abolition of the slave trade in 1834. Both forms of migration informed British engagement with the world and helped to shape Imperial policy. In the Oxford History of the British Empire, Andrew Porter argued that the British Empire could be divided into three categories; the Empire of White Settlement, the Empire of India and the Empire of the Conquered. The category of Empire that a colony fell under determined the form of government that London imposed or accepted, somewhere between responsible self-government and autocracy, and these categories were determined in part by patterns of migration, dependent in turn on a variety of factors. Contingent on a wide range of influences; geography, technology, economics, politics and ideological platforms migration within the British Empire was rarely a directly state-sponsored program. However, migration patterns informed Imperial policy throughout the 19th century on a range of fronts and constituted a powerful shaping force in world affairs.

Between `1815 and 1914, emigration from the British Isles totalled 22.6 million individuals, the vast majority of which relocated to North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Prior to this period, the Thirteen Colonies had been an important sight of British migration, but with Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence there was a concerted effort to discourage immigration to the United States and enlarge the population of Canada, both to secure it’s ‘British’ character visa-vie French Quebec and to ensure its own defence in light of the War of 1812. Thus, in this case migration served to bolster Britain’s geopolitical engagements. However, these pull-factors, political and strategic, coincided with push-factors in the British Isles. The end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) lead to mass demobilisations, which added to fears of overpopulation, and furthermore contributed to the rise of Malthusian efforts to export surplus-populations to alleviate economic woes that continued throughout the Victorian era.
From the periphery of the empire, these efforts to reduce pauperism were viewed negatively, as the exportation of recalcitrant individuals that added little to the economic development of the colonies. While colonies required certain skill sets, migrants often misrepresented their skills to gain assisted passage overseas. Before the introduction of steamships in the 1850s, voyages to Canada took weeks and tickets cost the equivalent of two weeks of average wages. This cost was exacerbated by loss of potential wages and the cost of feeding oneself during the voyage. The incentive to misrepresent skill-sets was great, both for emigrants and migration agents, to counteract this problem the six Australian colonies instituted a ‘double-bounty’ scheme whereby payment for skilled migrants was dependent on qualified individuals arriving at their destination. Given the cost of migration, individuals from the British Isles often relied on various forms of assisted migration to reach the colonies.
In the case of Canada, immigration from the British Isles served well defined political and strategic goals and engendered shifts in British policy towards the colonies. In terms of Andrew Porter’s categorization of the British Empire, Canada is defined as part of the Empire of White Settlement. Therefore, migration patterns informed the form of government that the British developed in Canada, along with the lessons learned from the Thirteen Colonies, and successive acts of parliament over the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries established a representative government in Canada. However, despite the importance of migration for Imperial policy, direct state-sponsorship of migration was rare and colonies instituted campaigns to attract migrants. With the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 British migration shifted to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa until a successful public relations campaign in 1890 re-established Canada as the foremost site of migration from the British Isles.
The cost of migration to Australia and New Zealand was substantially greater than migration to Canada, while voyages to Canada took weeks prior to the introduction to steam powered vessels, journeys to the ‘antipodes’ took months and migration was beyond the means of many. But, with the efforts and support of the six colonies and various philanthropic associations, migration to Australia momentarily spiked in 1838 due to the Canadian Rebellion and dramatically increased with the discovery of gold in the 1850s and 1860s. Prior to this however, migration of free settlers was hindered by New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land’s history as convict settlements. From 1788 to 1853, roughly 123,000 male and 25,000 female convicts transported to these settlements and outnumbered free settlers two to one before the 1830s, when the situation began to reverse. The status of Australia as a former convict settlement hindered the introduction of self-government and representative assemblies into this segment of the Empire of White Settlement.
Migration of free settlers to Australia presented problems for the administration of the six colonies. Free settlers often had economic interests contrary to those of landlord and free settlers relocated beyond the Blue Mountains as ‘squatter farmers’ and raised stocks of sheep. This, it was feared by E.G. Wakefield an influential theorist of colonization and those influenced by his notions , would lead to inefficient farming practices as landlord would be left without an adequate supply of labour. Based in Sydney, the Governors’ of New South Wales attempted to check this westward expansion. However, given the importance of the textile industry for the British economy these practices continued and by the 1830s wool was Australia’s leading export and by the mid-century it came to control half of all imports to Britain. Though profitable in Australia’s case, in South Africa the actions of free settlers lead to expansion of colonies away from Cape Town and embroiled Britain in military conflicts with natives and European populations alike. The indirect influence of migration on British engagement with the world is the interests that settlers pursued once they had reached their destination, which constituted an independent variable not necessarily accounted for in London. Alongside migration from the British Isles, Australia attracted tropical migration from Hong Kong and the Pacific Islands which provided an important source of labour for sugar cane plantations in Queensland.
The growth of tropical migration was an important development after the abolition of the slave trade in 1834 eliminated a cheap source of labour that had previously sustained the work-force in the British West Indies. Initially there were concerns that tropical migration was merely a milder form of the slave trade and there were efforts to ensure measures were emplaced to ensure proper treatment of migrant labourers. Tropical migration was conducted by two means, free migration and indentured migration whereby migrants signed work contracts for definite periods to pay for passage. Levels of migration within the empire were quite high, every decade between 1841 and 1910 saw in excess 150,000 indentured migrants relocated during the period. The largest source of tropical migrants was India, but starting in the 1840s African migrants from Sierra Leone and then in the 1850s Chinese migrants from Hong Kong provided significant portions of tropical migration and the biggest destinations of tropical migration were Burma, British Malay and Ceylon, but reached as far as the West Indies.
In Ceylon, tropical migration from south east India was employed in the development of coffee plantations in the 1830s and 1840s and later in the development of tea plantation in the aftermath of coffee rush which almost wiped out the Arabica bean in the 1870s. Typically, tropical migration in Ceylon was directed by plantation owners, so-classed ‘career migrants’ and though tropical migration was not state-sponsored it did ensure the financial viability of the Ceylon colony after the decline of the cinnamon trade. The financial importance of tropical migration in Ceylon could also be stated of Britain’s colonies in the West Indies. Moreover, given the population demographics and pattern of migration to these colonies and their status in Andrew Porter’s nomenclature as Empire of the Conquered there administrative structure tended toward autocracy. In the case of Ceylon, the Governor while constrained by judicial review in the coastal provinces had absolute power within the interior of the country, which contained the vast majority of plantations and was the destination for the majority of tropical migrants. It is evident, that migration patterns were a determining influence on British engagement with the world.
Migration patterns, both directly and indirectly affected the course of British engagement with the world during the 19th century. The population demographics were in large part the determinate of their institutional structure. In Andrew Porter’s demarcations, the British Empire could be divided into three categories or spheres; The Empire of White Settlement, The Empire of India and the Empire of the Conquered. Migration from the British Isles transformed a colony from conquered territory into the Empire of White Settlement and that meant a gradual movement to towards self-government and economic development. Whereas, tropical migration provided labour for plantations and other British economic activities, but rights were not transferred to those populations. Migration was therefore, a key shaping influence on Britain’s engagement with the world over the course of the 19th Century. 

Written by Mathew Toll.


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