The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction 
by Bernard Bailyn.
Tauris, 177 pp., £12.95, April 1987, 1 85043 037 3
Show More
Voyagers to the West: Emigration from Britain to America on the Eve of the Revolution 
by Bernard Bailyn.
Tauris, 668 pp., £29.50, April 1987, 1 85043 038 1
Show More
Migration and Society in Early Modern England 
edited by Peter Clark and David Souden.
Hutchinson, 355 pp., £25, February 1988, 0 09 173220 4
Show More
Gypsy-Travellers in 19th-Century Society 
by David Mayall.
Cambridge, 261 pp., £25, February 1988, 0 521 32397 5
Show More
Show More

‘The great thing to be determined was whether there was a Call from God or not.’ So wrote a missionary about his move to Australia in the 1880s. It is not a view expressed in that mysterious body of argument, migration theory, and this fact is a useful reminder of the limitations of that doctrine, which ranges from the fatuous to the sophisticated, but holds entirely to secular motivation. God is not one of its hypotheses.

These books bring out the problems involved in the study of the mechanisms and motives which brought together work opportunities and young people, new lands and their settlers, advertising techniques and land speculators, penology and the need for a labour force. They also show that in the task of laboriously finding out who went where, and why, migration theory has little to offer to the historian. One of the first problems is whether there is such a thing as a common pattern of migration. Are the motives of a teenager off to apprenticeship two counties away from home in any way similar to those of an adult craftsman making himself available for sale as indentured labour on the other side of the Atlantic? We know that in Early Modern British society almost every young person left home before puberty to enter service: this was the mechanism bringing together the need for labour and the need for sustenance. But is the move across the Atlantic merely an enlarged form of this pattern? Is Professor Bailyn right when he speaks of the Atlantic crossing as having drawn ‘thousands of ordinary Britons’ year after year? Or is the migrant a particular type of person, propelled by ambition or failure, discontent or aspiration? Can we speak of ‘the migrant’? Bailyn shows that even in what looks like a surge of mass movement there are clearly identifiable strands – the differences lying in occupational background and skills, family set-up, age and destination. Even if we remove the totally unwilling migrants, the convicts, the kidnapped, those forced to move by the Law of Settlement, there remain important differences.

Professor Bailyn recognises the blend of typical and distinctive in the ‘propositions’ which form the basic structure of The Peopling of British North America. This book serves notice of a vast research intent. In ‘Proposition One’ Bailyn claims that his peopling ‘was an extension outward and an expansion in scale of domestic mobility in the lands of the immigrants’ origins’, but adds that it introduced ‘a new dynamic force in European population history’. Certainly, for English people, moving to London was a decision similar to that of moving to Maryland: similar in respect of the acceptance of a high, even if not understood, risk of early death as the ante for a chance of material prosperity. But Bailyn’s ‘Proposition Three’ shows the difference in the basic elements dictating mobility: ‘the major stimulus’ to population recruitment and settlement was, ‘first, the continuing need for labour, and, second, land speculation’. It is entirely appropriate that the United States should have chosen as its first President a man who had spent some time surveying virgin land for speculators. Of Bailyn’s other propositions, the second shows the highly differentiated labour needs of different parts of the Americas, facts well-known in Britain, and the fourth claims that migration made Eastern America ‘a marchland of the metropolitan culture system’, an area of the ‘intermingling of savagery and developing civilisation’. European civilisation already had its marchlands in the Balkans, the Pripet marshes and the Scottish Highlands. All that was new was a march to the west.

Bailyn’s Peopling lays great emphasis on the mechanisms of long-distance land grab, the means by which men with political clout were able to get big chunks of estate in profitable valleys or by useful waterways, and then tempt out the settlers whose work would make these valuable. He sees that, with a fluid frontier, tenancy agreements were unlikely to be permanent: settlers would move westward to the prospect of owning land. Tenancy was a temporary mechanism to unite grab and labour. The Americas, east of the Divide, gave a generous opportunity to the farmer – if he could survive the first few years.

The driving force behind Bailyn’s work is the opportunity provided by the official British enquiry into emigration from the end of 1773 to 1776. These were the years in which the relationship between Westminster and the 13 colonies deteriorated from the tea duty to the Declaration of Independence. They were also years of sharp economic fluctuation, particularly in Scotland, where the Ayr bank crash and niggardly harvests created insecurity among the better-off and sheer hunger among the poor.

There was a sharp change in the patterns of movement. People who, ten years before, might have migrated from Ulster, the Scottish Highlands or Yorkshire to the cities went instead to America, and did so on a scale that frightened landowners. The alarm was raised by Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State and owner of a large chunk of County Down, and Thomas Miller, Lord Justice Clerk and a custodian of the vast Sutherland estates. Both realised the reverse of the speculative impulses in the Americas: land without labour would produce no income. If people fled from rent-paying in Sutherland to rent-paying in the Carolinas, the incomes of landowners were going to suffer. A fact-finding investigation was set up: customs officials were to enquire of all emigrants who they were in terms of occupation, age and sex, where they were going and why. The result was the Register of Emigrants covering two years of movement and over nine thousand people, laboriously accumulated in the Treasury in London. With a combination of modern computer facilities and old-fashioned historical enthusiasm, Bailyn has set to work to find out what was happening.

Voyagers to the West is an enthralling book, a work which the reader must enter totally and live within. Bailyn comes to this study from intellectual history: he has picked up the topic of immigration, which for some periods has already been explored inch by inch, and transformed it. The computer makes it possible for him to separate off the varying streams which united to pour across the Atlantic like a reversed Gulf Stream. He has studied the economies and societies from which the migrants came: for instance, he gives a sympathetic picture of the group of Methodist farming families from northern Yorkshire who sailed in the Duke of York for Nova Scotia, and notes how the wetland techniques necessary near the Yorkshire Derwent served them well in the marshlands of the Bay of Fundy. He makes mistakes, particularly on the Scottish setting. He is one of many historians who have obviously never been there, who insist on describing Caithness as highland, and indeed he specifically labels it as ‘barren’, which is an extraordinary adjective to use for a grain-exporting county. He passes on, with no critique, a bogus 19th-century ‘recollection’ of the arrival of the Hector at Pictou in 1773, with the voyagers in kilts, garments not yet invented, with broadswords and pipes at a time when these items were still proscribed. He does not realise that the Register deals not with ports but with customs precincts, so that emigrants from ‘Kirkwall’ all actually sailed from Stromness. But these slips do not detract from the vitality and richness of the account. He understands the importance of the timing of arrival for shiploads of indentured servants: these would not fetch a good price once harvest had begun. Emigration meant placing yourself and family in conditions which would be condemned outright today as hazardous to health, and were, from the deaths recorded, a real menace even on a smooth crossing. It was not in practice possible to prevent the sailing of people still infectious from smallpox, and other diseases also ravaged the narrow and squalid space between decks. People from remote areas, such as the outer isles of Scotland, might be dangerously lacking in immunity even to the most common viruses, still most dangerously to tuberculosis, and even those inured to tuberculosis might experience a revival of it from culture shock.

The main achievement of the book, in terms of discovery, is the totally different nature of emigration from the south of England, particularly London, and from Yorkshire and points north. The London emigrant may well have started his wanderings elsewhere: he is a classic case of the fact that people become migrants in mind before they decide on their actual destination. These economic refugees, mostly men, went out in small numbers on ships doing miscellaneous trading. They were usually young, single, skilled and so poor that they went as indentured labour – selling themselves for several years, that is, in return for their passage. They were auctioned, in the same way as slaves, once they could be made to look respectable, at the other end. In some cases, the analogy with slavery continued, and they ran away from their masters, even wearing iron collars. The book includes pages of advertisements for these breakers of contracts, and the descriptions remind us how common then were visible physical defects, pock marks, scars, stiff joints, brand marks, ill-healed fractures. In the middle colonies, where most of these went, there was a constant demand for building and carpenter skills, as well as for rarer specialisations, but indentured servants ran away, even in the wilds of Florida, where there were no alternative jobs and sources of food to go to.

It was a terrible experience to be part of a new settlement in undeveloped lands. The promoters of settlement had rarely any experience of the climatic and soil conditions, they were usually under-capitalised, lacked reserve stores, and insistence on well-muscled male labour meant that few women were available as servants. The labour force, even if it did not run away, might well have seen no prospect of a tolerable life, and become ‘insolent’, and refused to work.

The stream of migration from Yorkshire and Scotland was a movement of whole families, usually well enough off to purchase transport, travelling in ships specialising in this work. Early in the year, for instance, three hundred-odd migrants, many of them children, drawn from the southern Highlands, set out on a ship anchored off Gigha: this minute island provided a convenient place for the shippers, since not rounding the Mull of Kintyre and entering the Clyde would save a week or two. But of course, as with other relatively remote collecting points, such a migration stood a big chance of not being entered in the Register. It is these large movements from open roadsteads that make it certain that the near ten thousand migrants noted is not a full count.

But the special value of the Register is not simply numbers. It contains information about the types of people going, and, most valuable of all, motives. These were mainly economic. Men went either from the ‘push’ of rents they thought too high, a subjective judgment since it was offered by farmers even from notoriously under-rented Ulster, or they fled ‘tyranny’, which means their landowners’ insistence on traditional labour services. Some fled sheer poverty and hunger. Anti-landlord feeling usually showed the obverse of the improvement movement. As landowners re-organised their estates and pushed the tenantry into new farming methods, they were both getting more revenue for themselves and putting pressure on traditional ways of life. The English, when they were not indentured servants, mostly give ‘pull’ reasons for leaving – to better oneself, to have land; and the Scottish, more sloppily collected than the English, stress the ‘push’, hardship and poverty: from the Highlands they complain of their landowners, from the Clyde of unemployment.

One particular story, given in great detail, was the disastrous voyage of the Bachelor from Caithness in 1773, and the motives of its chief organiser, James Hogg, a Lothian man. Hogg, already a migrant, had tried to farm in Caithness, and had failed to adjust to the local society, still under the domination of the surname system, and also inclined to traditional forms of thievery from strangers. The families which joined him in his venture complained of escalating rents, and the persistence of the system of ‘services’ which had been general everywhere a generation earlier. In other words, they wanted more control over their time and a less traditional society. One of these farming families, a large one, paid £35 for passages of dangerous discomfort to get to that poor man’s country, North Carolina, rather than pay a rent which had risen to a little over £3 a year: in this case the assertion of high rents seems to lie in the future prospects, not the actuality. We know a lot about these people because the failure of the voyage led to massive litigation: they provide one of the micro-studies of departure and settlement with which the book ends.

The other books are no match in point of readability and excitement. The essays, mostly for the 17th century, edited by Peter Clark and David Souden are not all new work They include an important reprinted article on age-specific mobility in England by Roger Schofield, the well-known study of Cardington in the 1780s. They also include an article of Peter Clark’s from 1979. The value of the book is that it ranges beyond the English scene and has an article on migration within the Chesapeake area, as well as one on indentured labour. The Chesapeake study brings out the imbalance of the sexes produced by specific labour demands.

The most significant essay is one by Dr Souden using the much-maligned Parish Register Abstracts of 1801 to establish migration flows across the span of the 18th century. The idea, simple and original, is to compare sex ratios at baptism and burial. The world has to be peopled and eventually these people have to be got underground, and even the dimmest parish official can tell men from women, so this basic idea produces remarkably firm evidence of sex-selective migration streams, and hence of the varying patterns of demand for labour. Women moved to London and Middlesex for service jobs, particularly from neighbouring counties, which therefore had high ratios for male deaths. By contrast, men left the south-west in large numbers, and less dramatically the north. Of course, all this is the story of net migration, and conceals a lot of two-way wandering. The study as a whole has been the means of setting figures for national emigration at different periods.

Mayall on gypsy-travellers brings us back to the question of whether migrants, in this case continuing migrants, are ‘ordinary’ people. In one sense, the decision to have only a mobile home is a rational cost-cutting exercise, which became even more rational with the development of modern methods of taxation. If an interlocked group of families decide to live in this way, the main disadvantage of mobility, lack of contact with kin and friends, is mitigated. It still means a limitation on the material features of culture which can be possessed, but these were pretty strictly limited anyhow, for the bulk of the population, before the late 19th century. Mayall wishes to discount any idea of specific culture in the gypsy population, so presumably his thesis is that gypsies are ‘ordinary’ people, who made this rational decision about their way of life. In taking this line, he has to play down or ignore the remnants of gypsy language, the rituals and taboos which are not a part of ordinary working-class life: but he is able to be rude to those who have romanticised the gypsies.

He draws a picture of increasing hostility to gypsies, and harassment. This is based on some selectivity of evidence and uses techniques of guilt by association. In the 18th century it is probable that those who chose to live by wandering experienced no more trouble with local authorities than those moving to find work did when they came up against the Law of Settlement. But certainly in the 19th century hostility to gypsies increased. There was less unused land for camping on, there was a more open association of social conformity with perceived Christianity. As financial burdens were laid on local communities to support schemes for education and the maintenance of health, those who evaded payment and also left a lot of mess about were more and more unpopular. It is an interesting point, though underplayed by Dr Mayall, that the organs of central government in the 19th century were unco-operative when local units tried to get more drastic restrictive legislation. In our own day, faced with local outrage at a few hundred hippy vehicles filled with advocates of newly-invented religions, the centre of power has been quick to move.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences