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Review Essay: Settlers, Migrants, and the British World

Reviewed by: Trevor Simmons, University of Texas at Austin

Migration and EmpireMigration and Empire

Authors: Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine

Publisher: Oxford University Press, Companion Series of the Oxford History of the British Empire

Date of publication: 2010

380 pages.

Migration and EmpireSettlers and Expatriates: Britons over the Seas

Editor: Robert Bickers

Publisher: Oxford University Press, Companion Series of the Oxford History of the British Empire

Date of publication: 2010

357 pages.

Scholars of ‘Britain and the World’ have long recognized the importance of migration and settlement in the history of empire.  The outflow of migrants from the British Isles helped to settle large parts of both the Old and the New Worlds, including a number of British colonies, several spheres of ‘informal influence,’ and the ‘neo-Britains’ of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa.  The idea that white settlement contributed to the strength and unity of the British Empire traces back as far as the writings of Sir Charles Dilke in the 1860s, who believed that it was the destiny of the English race to ‘girdle the earth’ by imposing ‘Saxon institutions’ and the English tongue on the new lands of Anglo settlement.[1]  Later in the nineteenth century, J.R. Seeley gave the idea academic respectability when he suggested that British migration was leading to an ‘organic unity’ of the English-speaking world, which might in due course result in an ‘imperial federation’ of Britain and the settler colonies.[2]  The expansion and ‘peopling’ of the so-called ‘white empire’ became one of the principal themes of imperial history for the next three generations.  It shaped both the topics of enquiry and the resulting interpretations of imperial history, as typified by the nine volumes of the Cambridge History of the British Empire, written between 1929 and 1961, and the five volumes of the Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs, published between 1937 and 1974.

The perception that British migration and Anglo-Saxon unity were the hobbyhorses of imperial apologists caused the study of the ‘white empire’ to fall into a prolonged period of neglect, which began in the 1960s and coincided with the end of empire.  In its place arose a new interest in the study of the newly independent nations emerging from colonial rule.  Histories of the former colonies, including the white dominions, came to resemble sagas of a progressive march toward nationhood, or of protracted, anti-colonial struggles for freedom.  Historians increasingly focused on the local causes of historical development and the indigenous experiences of colonialism, in which locality, province, and nation became the dominant categories of analysis.  The result was that the former significance attached to the wider associations of the British World became fragmented into discrete national and regional histories, in which British influence, even in the white settler colonies, came to be regarded as a temporary phenomenon that played only a marginal role in the formation of national character.[3]

The two books under review – Migration and Empire, and Settlers and Expatriates – represent part of a larger movement in imperial history of restoring the themes of migration and settlement to the privileged status they once enjoyed in the minds of contemporary observers.  They do so, however, without the old undertones of Anglo-Saxon race pride or the Churchillian belief in the historical destiny of the English-speaking peoples.  Their mutual aims are rather more modest, and can be summarized as follows.  First, they attempt to describe the volume and character of migration within the British Empire, not only from the British Isles, but between various colonies, and back to the United Kingdom itself.  Secondly, both books show in different ways how migration influenced the history of empire – sometimes, for example, by transferring labor to distant lands where unexploited resources awaited, at other times by drawing political ties closer through the bonds of kith and kin.  Finally, both books show how the processes of migration and settlement created distinctive societies abroad, marked by the culture of their countries of origin, but also shaped by the unique conditions in the new lands of settlement.

Of the two books under review, Migration and Empire, a co-authored study by Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine, is ultimately the more comprehensive overview of migration within the British Empire.  The book ranges widely over the whole period from 1815 to the 1960s.  It includes substantial discussions on migration in all parts of the empire, which was facilitated on a large scale in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by expanding steamship and railway networks, telegraph connections, the postal service, and a vast increase in newspaper circulation.  The authors describe their study as ‘specifically a story of empire,’ since settlement in distant lands ‘consolidated and extended possession’ and strengthened political bonds between the metropole and periphery.[4]  Both authors approach the subject having already published a large number of books and articles on emigration from the British Isles.  They bring this expertise to the present volume in the form of highly detailed statistical data and a familiarity with the wider literature that makes possible a survey of such scope and ambition.  The net effect of empire migration between 1815 and 1960, Harper and Constantine argue, was the ‘economic transformation of much of the world outside Europe.’[5]  Migration transferred labor and capital to distant lands.  It carried cultural and political values from the Old World to the New, leaving a lasting imprint on the countries of settlement.  Above all, this immense transfer of people helped to create a high degree of economic harmony between the colonial regions, which produced raw materials and primary goods, and the metropolitan economy, which supplied capital, labor, commercial services, and shipping.  Together, the authors argue, these large-scale flows of migrants within the British Empire, combined with the economic and social transformations of which they were a part, help to ‘explain much about the modern world.’

As with any project of this scale, much of the content is determined by the emphasis accorded to various regions of the empire.  Harper and Constantine are interested primarily in the lasting demographic and economic consequences of the large volume of emigrants from the United Kingdom, which the authors estimate to have approached nearly twenty million of the fifty million emigrants who left Europe between 1815 and 1930.  The greatest attention is accordingly given to British emigrants destined for the familiar ‘old dominions’ of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa, whose histories are described in the first four chapters, which take up nearly half the book.  This core discussion on the dominions is complemented by supporting chapters on various marginalized groups of migrants, including Africans, British Indians, Pacific Islanders, West Indians, and even female and juvenile migrants.  Finally, in the last chapter, Harper and Constantine examine the phenomenon of ‘return migration’ back to the United Kingdom, a peculiar twist on the same theme that tends to strengthen their analysis of the causes and consequences of migration.

One of the threads running through Migration and Empire is a careful analysis of the factors of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ that motivated people to migrate.  It is in this respect that Harper and Constantine use their empire-wide analysis to its best effect.  They attempt to compare the motives, means, and experiences of UK migrants with their non-European counterparts in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies.  In general, migration from the United Kingdom occurred primarily as a matter of free choice, motivated by the prospect of material improvement.  White emigrants found it much easier to secure passage to a distant land, to buy and sell property, to gain capital and start businesses, and to achieve all the customary rights of Englishmen in their new countries of habitation.  White emigrants from Britain were thus often ‘pulled’ by opportunities expected overseas as much as they were ‘pushed’ by poor circumstances at home.  Moreover, as Harper and Constantine explain in several excellent chapters on the migration business, the timing and destination of emigration from the United Kingdom was often motivated by various positive inducements.  Subsidies, assisted passages, and promises of land – such as those proposed in the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 – were all offered at various times by metropolitan and colonial governments seeking to augment settlers societies with the right kind of racial and cultural stock.

Non-Europeans, by contrast, enjoyed far less freedom of choice and more limited opportunities overseas.  Many of them migrated under compulsion as indentured laborers or plantation workers sent to destinations where labor shortages were most acute.  The ‘push’ factor was usually paramount for non-Europeans, the authors explain, owing to high taxes, scarce land, and poor conditions in their countries of origin.  Although some non-Europeans migrated by free choice and became very successful, the majority occupied what Harper and Constantine called the ‘lower level in a dual labor market,’ forced to undertake difficult and poorly paid work.  Many non-European migrants, like Gandhi in South Africa, were also deprived of legal and political rights, and treated as second-class citizens, making it more difficult for them to make the transition to a new home overseas.  Using the empire as a wider unit of analysis that encompasses both Europeans and non-Europeans allows Harper and Constantine to examine the phenomenon of migration comparatively, to more easily identify the unique features of each type, and thus to provide us with a valuable survey that will doubtless guide the work of many other scholars of migration in the British Empire.

Despite its similar themes and complementary discussion, Settlers and Expatriates, edited by Robert Bickers, takes a very different approach to the history of migration in the British Empire during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The contributors to this volume analyze the overseas Britons outside the dominions, and outside the colonial and military services, whose experiences as migrants fit awkwardly in major categories of research.  The book’s chapters provide case studies of the major populations of Britons that were formed overseas by non-officials, traders, planters, professionals, entrepreneurs, and state functionaries at all levels in the police, health services, public works, merchant marine, and railways – in short, the people who have been called ‘expatriates’ right up to the present day.  Being an expatriate, as compared to an emigrant, implies temporary habitation overseas.  Many of the Britons who lived abroad in the two centuries covered by this volume did so to pursue careers and opportunities not available at home.  When their work overseas was finished or their riches were made, they often returned to Britain.  Many others expatriates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wrote to, revisited, and remitted money to family and friends back home.  British expatriates also clung to staples of British culture and created distinctive, tightly knit, and insular communities in the process.  It is the purpose of Settlers and Expatriates to trace the oft forgotten experiences of these globally dispersed, temporary British sojourners, who often get overshadowed in the historical literature by the much larger volumes of people migrating to the colonies of white settlement.

The geographical focus of Settlers and Expatriates lies in regions where inhabitants of British descent constituted a minority.  The various chapters discuss British expatriate communities in both foreign and colonial territories, including those formed in Argentina, Egypt, Kenya, southern Africa, India, Ceylon, Malaya, and China.  Bickers describes these disparate expatriate communities as ‘mini-Britains,’ since they, like the larger ‘neo-Britains,’ developed overlapping local and global identities that were influenced by an expansive sense of Britishness.[6]  This geographical focus allows the contributors to emphasize a second defining theme of the volume.  Because of the perception of living in an alien and unfamiliar land, British settlers and expatriates in non-European countries often felt a stronger urge to create enclaves of British life and culture, which they achieved in part by recreating the comforts of home and maintaining a connection to the wider British World.  The tendency of expatriates to cling to symbols of Britishness created a high degree of commonality between the disparate territories discussed in this volume, despite the distance separating them and the influence of local culture.  Moreover, the contributors argue that empire and settlement performed complementary functions.  British ascendancy and imperial power created opportunities for Britons to migrate overseas, to entrench themselves in new lands, and to better negotiate the challenges they faced.  Conversely, the outpouring of settlers and expatriates helped to strengthen and extend imperial power owing to the loyalty and connection Britons felt for the home islands.  The precise outcome of settlement patterns and identity formation, Bickers argues, depended to a large extent on the ‘local structures of British authority, changing patterns of power, the politics and policies of the host state, and on factors like war, cold war, economics, and resistance.’[7]

One final theme worth stressing concerns the phenomenon of ‘return migration.’  This theme receives thorough attention in Migration and Empire as well, but return migration was a more typical experience for the expatriates and sojourners who lived abroad temporarily in countries whose inhabitants were primarily non-European.  Bickers points out – by reference to Marjory Harper’s earlier work, incidentally[8] – that some 40 percent of English and Welsh migrants returned to the British Isles between 1870 and 1914.  Many others followed the same course both before and after this period, especially in the age of decolonization, when the end of the empire put colonial officials out of the job, and gave others a sense of uncertainty about the transition to new, untried governments.  The act of traveling abroad for extended periods – sometimes in multiple countries – and then returning home for late career or retirement gave expatriate communities an impermanent and contingent quality.  For British expatriates themselves, the experience was, as Bickers writes, ‘dislocating but wholly ordinary.’[9]  The British penchant for travel and living abroad helps to explain why, even after independence, British society as a whole has continued to show a predisposition to migration.

Each of the books under review thus bring to the study of empire a view of British communities abroad that adds substantially to the recent scholarship on the English-speaking world, and the close connections that developed between its many constituent parts.  It is useful to take stock here of how the two books under review will be viewed by fellow historians interested in using them for teaching and research.  There is no question that Harper and Constantine’s Migration and Empire is the more thorough of the two books.  Their attempt to cover migration in the whole empire over two centuries has allowed the authors to collate an immense amount of demographic and statistical data, to analyze empire migration comparatively in all its forms, and to offer a provisional synthesis of a wide range of secondary literature.  Such an approach enhances the value of the book for other historians, both for writing lectures and for buttressing research with a compendium of accurate, detailed, and well-researched data.  At the same time, however, it is a very challenging book, unlikely to be found accessible by undergraduates new to the subject.  Its 350 pages are densely packed with numbers and figures, percentages, rates and trends, and proportions.  The publishers also gave it a somewhat smaller font than other volumes in the OHBE series, adding to its feeling of density.

Settlers and Expatriates, on the other hand, is an altogether easier, more accessible, even more elegant volume, characterized by its excellent stand-alone essays by eminent scholars in several distinct but overlapping fields of study.  It adds immeasurably to the value of this book that its individual case studies, already well known to specialists, have been placed within a broader framework of analysis, and published with the prominence that attends all of the contributions to the Oxford History of the British Empire.  The book’s major weakness is that it attempts to analyze the putative transnational phenomenon of migration with a series of chapters focused, in the main, on national units of study.  An edited volume of this kind inevitably excludes certain countries, too, like the West Indies and Uruguay.  Nevertheless, while the content of Settlers and Expatriates lacks the unity that can be achieved by a single sweep in a co-authored book like Migration and Empire, it is hard to imagine a more distinguished retinue of historians following Bickers into what was, until recently, a relative backwater of historical research.  John Lonsdale on Kenya, David Washbrook on India, Tim Harper on Malaya, Robert Bickers on China, John Lambert on South Africa, as well as several others, all rounded out by John Darwin’s excellent overview at the end of the volume, makes Settlers and Expatriates valuable for its individual essays as much as for the novelty of the combined effort.

The real value of these two volumes, however, is the contribution they make to a young sub-discipline known as the ‘British World’ initiative, which emerged a little over a decade ago in a series of conferences spearheaded by James Belich, John Darwin, Phillip Buckner, Robert Holland, and Carl Bridge.[10]  ‘British World’ scholarship is based on the presumption that English-speaking countries, including the United States, shared enough in common to make them a viable unit of historical analysis, comparable to the ‘Atlantic World’ or the ‘Pacific World,’ a transnational phenomenon that was politically divided between different states and colonies, yet broadly united by shared language, culture, race, and institutions that were products originally of the British Isles.  In contrast to the old ideas of Dilke and Seeley, however, the new ‘British World’ scholarship approaches the subject using the established methods of social, cultural, and economic history, combined with recent insights on transnational networks and global interactions.[11]  Migration and settlement, as described in the volumes under review, formed an important function in peopling the far reaches of this disparate ‘British World’ that we now seek to study from a transnational perspective.

The premise of the ‘British World’ initiative is not without its debt to other scholars, of course.  J.G.A. Pocock outlined a very similar conception of a ‘new British history’ as early as 1973, in which he argued that ‘Britishness’ should be analyzed as a cultural identity that developed first in the British Isles, then spread across the seas through migration, and then, following the end of empire, became dispersed into cultural ‘islands’ that were indelibly marked by their historical association with Great Britain.[12]  Britons overseas, he argued, assumed overlapping British identities, just like the inhabitants of the British Isles could simultaneously claim some combination of Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish, British, or even imperial identity.  More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, John MacKenzie authored and edited a number of books detailing the influence of empire on British society and culture.[13]  Cultural and literary studies, as influenced by Edward Said, played a role in showing how conceptions of race influenced the character of empire, and how, too, the racial and cultural prejudices of the age helped to extend and solidify the feeling of shared Britishness, even as they alienated and excluded indigenous peoples.  Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper have proposed one method of studying these peculiar issues by calling for the study of the colonizer, not just the colonized.[14]  Many more examples could be cited.  Even the Oxford History of the British Empire has recognized the new field of ‘British World’ history by dedicating the last four volumes of its ‘Companion Series’ to subjects that fall firmly within the ‘British World’ tradition of scholarship.[15]  It is a testament to the growing importance of the field that the prestigious Beit Professorship of imperial and Commonwealth history at Oxford University has broadened its scope to include ‘transnational’ and ‘global’ history[16], and that its most recent appointee, James Belich, was elected to the position freshly on the heels of his publication of arguably the most substantial work of ‘British World’ history to date, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939 (Oxford University Press, 2009).  Given the rising prominence of the British World in historical studies, it is hardly surprising to witness the success that has attended to The British Scholar Society, the Society’s book series with Palgrave MacMillan, and its journal, Britain and the World, published with Edinburgh University Press.  Migrants and Empire and Settlers and Expatriates, together these scholarly developments, make clear that settlers and colonists, not just the colonized, have returned as a topic of serious concern in imperial history.

[1] Charles Wentworth Dilke, Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries during 1866 and 1867, Volume 1 (London: Macmillan, 1868).

[2] J.R. Seeley, The Expansion of England (London, 1883).

[3] This historiographical shift was first discussed in a lecture by David Fieldhouse, later published as: “Can Humpty-Dumpty be put together again? Imperial History in the 1980s,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 12 (1983-84), pp. 9-23.  More recent variations of the theme are provided by A.G. Hopkins in “Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History,” Past and Present, No. 164 (1999), pp. 231-34; and “Rethinking Decolonization,” Past and Present, No. 200 (August 2008), pp. 211-247.

[4] Harper and Constantine, Migration and Empire (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 3.

[5] Ibid, p. 7.

[6] Robert Bickers, ed., Settlers and Expatriates: Britons over the Seas (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 2

[7] Ibid, p. 5

[8] See Marjory Harper (ed.), Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigration, 1600-2000 (Manchester, 2005).

[9] Bickers, Settlers and Expatriates (2010), p. 4.

[10] See especially the books and articles that emerged from these conferences: David Armitage, “Greater Britain: A Useful Category of Analysis?” American Historical Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (1999), pp. 427-445; Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich, “Mapping the British World,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2003), pp. 1-15; Bridge and Fedorowich, The British World: Diaspora, Culture, and Identity (2003); Phillip Buckner and Carl Bridge, “Reinventing the British World,” The Round Table, Vol. 368 (2003), pp. 77-88; Phillip Buckner and R. Douglas Francis (eds.), Rediscovering the British World (2005); and Buckner and Francis (eds.), Canada and the British World: Culture, Migration, and Identity (2006).

[11] Several books closely related to ‘British World’ scholarship include: Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton University Press, 2007); Gary Magee and Andrew S. Thompson, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the Brtish World, c. 1850-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2010); and John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[12] See especially: J.G.A. Pocock, “British History: A Plea for a New Subject,” Journal of Modern History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 601-621; and Pocock’s collected essays, The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[13] MacKenzie’s influence is particularly strong in Manchester University Press’s ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series, but also in his own books, including Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester University Press, 1984); and MacKenzie (ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester University Press, 1986).

[14] See especially Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper (eds.), Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (University of California Press, 1997); and Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (University of California Press, 2005).

[15] In addition to the two volumes under review, see Phillip Buckner (ed.), Canada and the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2010), and Deryck Schreuder and Stuart Ward (eds.), Australia’s Empire (Oxford University Press, 2010.

[16] See the announcement published by Oxford University: “Beit Professorship of the History of the British Commonwealth, in association with Balliol College”:


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