The 1820 British settlers arrive in Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth. Image courtesy of:

The 1820 British settlers arrive in Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth. Image courtesy of:

22 million Brits left Britain between 1814 and 1913. Two-thirds of them went to America, the other spread out over the world: from Canada and the Caribbean, to India, Africa, and Australasia. About a third returned to Britain, only to leave again to some other corner of the globe. It was a time of empire building, of Britain conquering the globe.

Yet – so writes John Darwin in an excellent new book, Unfinished Empire – it was an empire built without a blueprint. The experiences of empire building were as varied as the diversity of the regions it engulfed, both for the colonizers and for the colonized. Rather than dividing chapters by region, the narrative follows more general themes: making contact, taking possession, settling in, warfare, traffic and trade, ruling, rebellion, and converts and culture. This global history makes for compelling reading: it points out the similarities but also the idiosyncrasies of the colonial experiences: the economic, political and ideological reasons why settlers could easily ‘grab’ Australia, to a lesser extent New Zealand, and to a much lesser extent South Africa.

South Africa was different. There exclusion (by wipe out) was practised against the San hunter-gatherers. But against the Xhosa, the Zulus and other pastoralist peoples (who also grew foodgrains), these tactics were useless. They were too numerous, too rooted, and in white eyes too useful, to be driven away. In a country too poor (before the finding of gold) to attract mass immigration from Europe (the British were always fewer in number than the local-born ‘Dutch’), black land and black labour were equally valuable. So the mode of exclusion was varied.

Darwin describes the trials and tribulations of the new settlers: how they struggled to survive in New Plymouth, New Zealand, or how they profited from land speculation in Canada. What surprised me the most, however, was the sheer scale of the emigration: 22 million people during the century when Britain is experiencing the greatest Revolution the world has ever seen, the Industrial Revolution. Darwin argues that it was exactly the economic pressures caused by the Industrial Revolution that fuelled the urge to migrate:

The gradual industrialization of many skilled trades through the rest of the century pushed men and women out of work or threatened a sharp decline in their wages (and thus of their status). As Britain imported more and more of its food, and especially its grain, many rural districts, not just in Scotland and Ireland, began to seem ‘marginal’. … It became the conventional view among English economists that the problem of Irish poverty could be solved only by large-scale migration – though preferably not to England. With the free sale of land and the consolidation of landholding, agriculture in Ireland might at last become profitable (p. 95).

But there was another ideology that fuelled emigration, not elitist but popular. While most people with influence had come to accept the idea that Britain was first and foremost a commercial and industrial state – the premise behind adopting free trade in corn – in the rest of society in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, a quite different set of beliefs survived. Notions of a ‘just’ wage, and of the respect owed to skilled work fuelled bitter resentment against ‘industrial’ employment and ‘factory discipline’. More rooted still was the idealization of property, of the right to cultivate a plot of land if not as a main income then as an insurance against old age and misfortune. The demand for ‘allotments’ – small plots of land to which urban workers could retreat – was a cry of the Chartists, the great working-class protest movement of the 1830s and 1840s. Even those who migrated abroad from Britain’s towns and cities were only a generation away from life in a village community, sometimes with rights to common or woodland. If migrants were pushed out by economic hardship or worse, they were also pulled out by the lure of free or cheap land, the huge social magnet that was dangled before them by rival destinations in America and Australasia. When settlers in New Zealand explained what they had gained from the change, it was the security of owning even a small plot of land that they most often referred to (p. 96).

It’s difficult to miss the striking similarities of the above sentiments with the demands of modern South Africa: the call for a ‘just’ wage for workers, the pressure for ‘land’ redistribution, the reproach of ‘industrial’ capitalism. But, different to nineteenth-century Britain, emigration for the poor South African is not an option. The best the poor can do in South Africa is to migrate to cities where they have a greater likelihood of finding a job and access to better (although not great) education, health and infrastructure services. (Remember, in South Africa the ‘poor’ are those living in rural areas, in female-headed households, with poor access to services (including education), and often affected by HIV/Aids.) But urbanization can create other economic and social challenges: crime, for example, or a greater (infectious) disease burden.

In industrializing Britain the poorest also moved to cities. But they had an alternative: to move abroad, find a job in the labour-scarce New World and, hopefully, acquire land of their own to cultivate and build a future. When, in 1819, the British government advertised for settlers to come to South Africa, 80 000 poor applied. Only 5000 1820 settlers were sponsored. Emigration provided an outlet for the economic and social pressures of the nineteenth-century English city.
Yet the inter-country movement of labour is today more restricted than it has ever been in history. Countries are most likely to accept high-skilled immigrants, but even then the process is expensive and cumbersome. For unskilled labour, there is virtually no hope of emigration except, for an (un)lucky few, as refugees. Opposition against further migration is gaining popularity; fences are being reinforced. Global apartheid is on the increase.

22 million poor could escape the poverty of industrializing Britain in the nineteenth century through emigration. Would England have continued along the path of industrial transformation if the pressure cooker poor could not be released through emigration?