the immigration crisis of the 1700s -- 8/20/19

Today's selection -- from Voyagers to the West by Bernard Bailyn. The immigration to America in the 1700s created a crisis in Ireland, Scotland, and parts of England, leaving many towns drastically depopulated:

"By 1773 it was commonly believed that emigration was leading to virtual depopulation in certain regions of the British Isles -- not everywhere, but in particular territories of the kingdom, and indeed not in the populous and highly urbanized core region of southeastern England from which the largest number of emigrants came. The steady, prolific exodus from that area was seldom complained of; there emigration did not constitute a social problem. Complaints, reflecting fears of radical social disturbance resulting from emigration, centered in the northern regions. Reports from Ireland were particularly ominous. An authoritative summary, which circulated widely, contained startling figures. It stated, first, that between July 1769 and March 1771, 5,870 tons of emigrant shipping had departed from five main Irish ports, which meant, by the traditional calculation, the same number of emigrant departures. Then in the two years that had followed, the report said, the figure had tripled, to 17,400; and in the course of the next fifteen months (March 1773 - June 1774) no fewer than 20,450 emigrants had left. The monthly average, therefore, had quintupled in four years. ...

"At times concern in Ireland seems to have turned to panic. The 'incred­ible' emigration there was said to threaten the future of Ireland's industry as well as its agriculture; in the end it could only lead to a forced reduction of both rents and taxes. Ireland's excise revenues, the secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland declared, were as drastically reduced by emigration as by poverty. The Irish poor, who emigrate 'in swarms to America,' must be allowed at least enough sustenance to be able to pay taxes: 'if the cow is to be milked, she must be fed.'

"Belfast newspapers teemed with letters from recent emigrants, many of them instructive, cautionary, warning of the lies and avarice of shipmasters, the swindling advertisements of Ameri­can land speculators, and the myriad difficulties of resettlement. ...

"America was a dream -- 'a dream of escape,' but, to some of these Irish emigrant correspondents, a dark and frightening dream too. Tales were published of savagery on the wild Indian frontiers, and especially of the brutality of 'the people called Cracker, who live above Augusta in the province of Georgia.' But stories of the dangers posed by savage natives and 'associated banditti ... committing all manner of robberies and vio­lences' could not stay the exodus.

"The reports from Scotland were more alarming, and more circum­stantial. In 1771 a land agent on the Isle of Skye reported such losses and such elaborate plans for further emigration that if nothing were done major estates would become 'wastelands' and land would go begging for buyers. Observers of the exodus from the Western Isles of Scotland noted in 1772 that in the course of the previous four years £10,000 had been taken out of Britain by the emigrants to America, and that 'unless some speedy remedy is fallen upon by the government and landholders' Scotland would be fatally depleted, economically as well as demographically. And more than that: 'the continual emigrations from Ireland and Scotland will soon render our [American] colonies independent on the mother-country.' ...

"The problem seemed ubiquitous, inescapable. From Bristol came re­ports that 'the spirit of emigration has begun to show itself in the western parts of the kingdom.' From Portsmouth came word that the exodus was spreading south and that 'captains, carpenters and laborers may then be­come as scarce as guineas.' From the Spitalfields textile center in London it was reported that over two thousand weavers and their families had left for the colonies in the previous two years. Lord Dartmouth, owner of estates throughout England, many of whose inhabitants were troubled and restless, was confronted with the issue directly and personally within a month of succeeding Hillsborough as colonial secretary. 'I am importuned by two hundred families,' one John More of Rothiemurchus, Inverness­shire, wrote Dartmouth, 'to intreat of Your Grace to let them have the encouragments given by government (if any) for settling in North Amer­ica.' His people, More wrote, were farmers, 'honest, sober, and industri­ous,' who were being forced out of their homes by an excess of population, the impoverishment of the soil, and the oppression of the landlords. Confi­dent of Dartmouth's 'principles as a nobleman and a Cristian,' More begged him to feel for their distress as members of 'the human species' and help them to emigrate. He hoped that Dartmouth would direct his clerks to arrange a meeting with them anywhere in Britain within a month or so, so that the people might be delivered from their 'present miseries.'

"Later, in 1775, Damnouth would receive from the Bishop of Derry in Ireland a summary of the political fears of the consequences of emigration that had been circulating in the early seventies. The bishop attributed much of 'the rebellious spirit' in the central colonies in America to the emigra­tion from Ireland 'of near thirty three thousand fanatical & hungry republi­cans in the course of a very few years.' A few months earlier the Presbytery of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides had set aside a day for public thanksgiving when a favorable harvest and 'other concurring causes' seemed to have 'cured the people of the epidemical phrenzy which had seized them for migrating to America.'

"But it was Dr. Johnson, after his famous tour of the Highlands and the Western Isles with Boswell in 1773, who sounded the most eloquent alarms. He was shocked by what he termed the 'epidemick disease of wandering' that he found in his travels. The exodus of whole neighborhoods, moving in such numbers that departure scarcely seemed an exile at all, threatened, he wrote, 'a total secession' of the Highlanders. ...

"The subtler and deeper catastrophe was cultural; and he evoked a haunting image of people scattered in the wilderness spaces of America where their culture, their spiritual and moral integument, and their familiar, time-sanctioned ways of life simply dissolved, leaving them bereft and primitive, and Britain reduced. The thousands that were leaving for the colonies, he wrote, are forever lost, 'for a nation scattered in the boundless regions of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays remain, but the heat is gone. Their power consisted in their concentration: when they are dispersed, they have no effect."



Bernard Bailyn


Voyagers to the West


Vintage Books


Copyright 1986 by Bernard Bailyn


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment