Captain  Cook claims Australia, 11th June 1770


The British Empire

Joseph Chamberlain who had risen from being Mayor of Birmingham to the cabinet of Lord Salisbury, chose the Colonial Office when offered any position  in cabinet he wanted  -the first publicly declared imperialist politician. As interest in the empire increased in the last quarter of the century, so did levels of migration with a record 2.3 million leaving in the ten years between 1901 and 1910.

It has been estimated that between 1815  and 1914, 22.6 million people left the shores of Britain to settle somewhere abroad. Of these 62% travelled to  America, 19% to Canada, 10.5% to Australia and New Zealand and 3.5% to South Africa. Of those who emigrated between 1861 and 1900, between a third and  a half returned to Britain. Given these figures it is no  surprise to learn that the British when they thought of their empire thought of the white settler dominions and spared hardly a thought for  India and even less for the numerous colonies scatted all over the world especially in  Africa and the east.

Migration, regardless of the attitude of  the British at home in the late c19th towards their empire, was an absolute essential pre-requisite of a successful empire. The creation and maintenance of the British Empire was arguably the greatest achievement of the British and the migration of its people to conquer, administer, maintain control, farm and develop the colonies was essential to it success. There had always been in the empire those colonies that attracted settlers who established their own farms and businesses and which had a degree of self government and those colonies, particularly in  Asia and Africa where British migrants went  to govern and administer the local population. Whatever the colony migrants wee essential to the future success of the colony and its integration in a world trading system.

Already by 1815 migration was an established part of colonisation. As early as the c16th migrants were being encouraged to settle in Ireland as part of the government's plan to control its oldest colony. By 1640 100,000 had settled in Ireland and by that time large numbers of British were travelling to the Americas to make a new life for themselves. By 1700 400,000 had crossed the Atlantic and over the next one hundred years another million had left Britain's shores. They went because of the political, economic   and religious instability within Britain during the c17th. Migrants may not always have intended to stay. Virginia - the first successful colony in America- was intended as a trading colony but once the success of tobacco and sugar had been established and colonies in the Americas flourished, migrants travelled with the intention of settling down to a new life and making their fortune. After 1700 economic conditions improved in Britain and the level of people leaving for a new life abroad fell. Numbers increased after 1760: with a depressed economy in Britain and the success of Britain in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) 125,000 migrants, mainly Scottish and Protestant Irish.

After 1815, with Britain controlling the world's seas numbers leaving Britain continued to climb with 100,000 leaving Britain in 1832. The 1830s were years of agricultural depression and the link between economic depression and migration was to be a familiar theme throughout the century. The 1840s were dominated by famine in Ireland and saw 1.7 million leaving Britain's shores for a better life abroad. After 1860 the numbers increased with just under two million leaving between 1861 and 1870. With economic depression a constant factor 1880 and 1900, over 200,000 a year were leaving . After 1900 the numbers shot up with three million leaving. The preferred destination for much of the c19th for British migrants was the USA for reasons of distance and also Irish migrants preferred the USA to a British dominion but in the ten years before WW 1, migrants chose to go to the colonies of the empire, particularly Canada where nearly 800,000 settled. Despite the tales of the difficult climate, the draw of free land on the Prairies pulled many towards Canada.

Economic depression was the most important factor leading people to migrate but the ideology of free trade adopted by 1850 was also an important factor in the second part of the c19th. The implementation of the ideas of Adam Smith as laid  out in his book, 'The Wealth of Nations' persuaded politicians and industrialisations of the 1840s to dismantle the remaining laws regarding mercantilism and embrace free trade. Britain at that time was the dominant economic power having industrialised before anyone else and there was little competition for British industrialists producing manufactured in huge factories such as were not to appear in other European countries for another twenty years. With free trade, food became cheap and industrialists could pay low wages thus maximising their profits which were often invested abroad. With the workhouse system in operation from 1834, workers had little option but to accept low wages. Migration was accepted by politicians as the answer to poverty especially in Ireland where the consolidation of land could  take place once tenant farmers had been thrown off their land. There was a movement that idealised the idea of a just wage and skilled work but this had little support apart from in the emigration schemes of Wakefield.

In the most famous depiction of emigration, Ford Madox Brown's painting 'The Last of England' shows a young couple leaving England with sad faces showing a reluctance that they had little option but to pursue their dreams abroad. They have a young baby wrapped up against the cold winter Channel wind and are clearly apprehensive about what faces then in the future.

Most migrants like the young couple in the Ford Madox Brown painting, left because of economic circumstances but there were migrants who were drawn by the possibilities of making a more prosperous new life. There were a number of gold and diamond strikes around the world in the c19th and these attracted numerous potential miners from Britain. Gold rushes in Australia and New Zealand and South Africa attracted thousands. The lure of cheap or even free land attracted migrants to Canada whilst the myriad emigration schemes encouraged many to believe the difficulties of creating a life in a faraway place were not insuperable. In 1749 and in the years after 1815, particularly in the 1830s,  government schemes helped to send migrants to Nova Scotia and whilst in 1820 the government asked for prospective migrant to apply for an emigration scheme to settle the eastern border of the Cape Colony to help secure it against the Xhosa. 80,000 applied to go to South Africa for 5,000 places although once there many found the land they were allocated too remote and dangerous and left for safety in Grahamstown. Migrants  to Australia in the c19th were helped by the Colonial  Land and Emigration Commission, founded in 1840 to help organise the passage and settlement of migrants in Australia.  AS well as the state there were many private companies established to organise emigration., including the Canada Company, the British America Company and the New Zealand Company. All these companies acquired land cheaply, gained land grants or acquired investment. They were helped by shipping companies advertising faraway places in a way that made them appear enticing to those suffering economic depression in Britain's grimy industrial cities.

Although these companies sometimes offered subsidised travel and cheap land, migration was not cheap. c1850 the cost of an Atlantic crossing for a family was £3-4, a year's pay  for many families. In the c18th one way to meet the  cost of migration was to accept an indenture which was taken out by the ship's captain and auctioned upon arrival. The migrant (and this usually applied to single men) worked for a number of years for little if any money and then once his time was served he was free. By the c19th migrants often relied on their families for help. The family would club together to send one member out to a colony or to the USA who would then establish himself and send for the rest of the family once established.

Of all the migrants who emigrated in the c19th, about a half returned. Arriving at the destination after a rough crossing was just the beginning of a life fraught with difficulties. There were many thing  that could go wrong. Often land was bought without first seeing it - it might be miles from the nearest community and have little water or wood. In the early days of settlement in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand there might be local people who resisted white settlement and one's home and land had to be defended. The climate was likely to be severe and inhospitable. Establishing a staple crop for export was not easy and there were many false starts with numerous potential crops tried only to fail due to lack of demand or to severe a climate.

As more and more migrants arrived in the colonies, more land had to be acquired from the local people and bargains had to be struck. In Australia the native people were ignored whilst in New Zealand land was bought (often through dubious means using chicanery) from the local Maori. In South Africa there were a series of wars against the Xhosa before sufficient land could be acquired by conquest or cession but the severe climatic conditions and the longevity of the struggle against the Xhosa meant that the colony was never able to attract sufficient migrants.

The white settler colonies were influenced greatly by the process of settlement. Native peoples saw their land and culture taken away from them and an alien way of life and the laws associated with that new culture imposed on them. This often led to resistance which sometimes led  to war whilst the white settlers themselves adapted to the conditions of settlement and acquired a character of their own. Migrants had to be self reliant and resilient. Being so far away from home they wanted control over their way of life and wanted to determine relations with native people. Self government was granted to all the settler colonies in the c19th and this led to a fierce independence. When the call from Britain to the settler colonies came for help in the war against the Boers in 1899, that call was met with thousands volunteering to fight but any idea that the colonies would subject themselves to more control from  Britain under an  imperial federal  system, was swiftly rejected.

The British Empire may have been built on successive waves of migrants but the majority (69%) of those who went abroad to settle in the c19th did not choose the empire - they chose the United States. Those who were able to establish themselves as farmers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa  and Canada played an important part in keeping Britain fed but those who went out as soldiers, administrators and traders to India were just as important as were those who settled in the dominions but were not from Britain.

In 1883 John Seeley, Chair of Modern History at Cambridge, produced a best-seller, 'The Expansion of England' in which he denounced the lack of interest in the British Empire by the British people despite the Empire being at the time the largest empire ever and despite a huge exodus of its people abroad. His words that 'we seem to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind' were to encourage a greater interest in  empire, particularly by politicians who began to see it as a means of gaining political support.

How important was Migration to the British  Empire?

John Seeley

Emigrants bound  for Liverpool from Ireland in the 19th century

‘The Last of England’ by Ford Madox Brown

Emigrants bound for  Australia

Otago goldminers in New Zealand

Migrants arriving  in Victoria, Australia

Captain Cook arrives in  Botany Bay

Migrants arrive in New  York