Somewhere else

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction by Bernard Bailyn
    Tauris, 177 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 1 85043 037 3
  • 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, ISBN 1 85043 038 1
  • Migration and Society in Early Modern England edited by Peter Clark and David Souden
    Hutchinson, 355 pp, £25.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 09 173220 4
  • Gypsy-Travellers in 19th-Century Society by David Mayall
    Cambridge, 261 pp, £25.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 521 32397 5

‘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.

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