Marjory Harper, Stephen Constantine. Migration and Empire. The Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 380 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-925093-6.
Reviewed by Charles V. Reed (Elizabeth City State University)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2012)
Commissioned by Thomas Hajkowski
Migration and Empire is a useful contribution to the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion series. In the book, Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine offer a broad examination of immigration to and emigration from the empire and from within and beyond its boundaries from 1815 to the 1960s. Their statistical assessments alone make the book a must read for any student of British imperial history. While the book does engage with the historiography of the cultural and imperial “turns”--considering how migration shaped identities and paying some attention to the role of nonwhite migrants, for instance--it would perhaps sit more comfortably next to the old Cambridge History of the British Empire (edited by Holland Rose, A. P. Newton, and E. A. Benians [1926-61]) than it would next to the works of the New Imperial history. Contributing to a growing body of recent work on the colonies of settlement, Migration and Empire is, above all, a social and economic history of immigration that skillfully traces, in particular, the paths and motivations of UK migrants to the white colonies of settlement. It is a highly readable and deeply researched introduction to the topic that ought to be within arm’s reach of anyone working on the subject.
John Seeley, the nineteenth-century father of imperial history, understood the history of Britain to be one of expansion, the movement of British people and institutions to new Britains overseas (The Expansion of England ). The nine-volume Cambridge History of the British Empire, the magnum opus of early twentieth-century imperial history, dedicated individual volumes to the colonies of settlement. Since the 1960s, postcolonial scholars and “New” Imperial historians have challenged these conceptual frameworks as privileging the experiences of white settlers over “the colonized” and reproducing a Whiggish history of British expansion and liberty that was itself the ideological apparatus of empire. The British world movement, with its origins in a series of conferences starting in 1998, represents an intellectual pendulum swing away from these trends, its purveyors arguing for the centrality of the white settler experience to the history of modern Britain and the British Empire. Phillip Buckner and other scholars of British world “movement” have criticized the settler experience as a profound lacuna in the original five-volume Oxford History of the British Empire series. In some sense, this volume and several others (including one on Canada edited by Buckner) are designed to fill that conceptual gap.
The book is organized (unofficially) into two sections. The first four chapters examine the experiences of migrants to specific destinations in the settler empire, with chapters on Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and sub-Saharan Africa respectively. The rest of the book takes a more thematic and comparative approach, with chapters on nonwhite migrants, the domestic (British Isles) context, female migrants, child and juvenile migrants, sponsors and entrepreneurs, and the “homecoming migrant.” By its very nature--as a broad overview of colonial migration--the book does not have an explicit interpretive framework, but it does suggest the indispensability of the migrant experience to understanding the British imperial story. As the authors suggest in their introduction, “The British did not acquire one quarter of the planet’s land surface without stocking much of it with migrants” (p. 3). While an almost-too-obvious declaration of fact, the authors’ concern for settler migration within the empire as a British story, rather an Australian or New Zealand or Canadian one, and for the importance of that experience within the history of modern Britain and the British Empire represents an important trend in the recent historiography and a thoughtful corrective to the postcolonial and New Imperial agendas.
The book is at its best when exploring the social and economic “push-pull” factors that motivated migrants to settle in the empire. With a few exceptions, emigration from Britain was a rather haphazard affair with many efforts to promote or sustain it being stillborn or short-lived. While teachers and scholars of British history have traditionally cast migration to the empire as British society discarding its dregs, Harper and Constantine skillfully examine the role of propaganda; economic motives; and, most important, the role of local colonial governments and nongovernmental actors in advocating immigration schemes to a sometimes ambivalent imperial government at “home.” Local and nongovernment activism, from such groups as the 1820 Memorial Settlers’ Association in South Africa, played as much of a role in promoting British immigration overseas as colonial and imperial governments. Moreover, while economic opportunity was a nearly universal lure of the empire, the experiences of the various British colonies differed significantly. For instance, propaganda promoting immigration to New Zealand celebrated the islands as a “working man’s paradise,” while British Columbia sought to recruit a most gentrified clientele of migrants (p. 15). These diverse and sometimes haphazard processes of recruitment and settlement were also practiced by the migrants themselves. The Scot Wellwood Rattray, whose family migrated to Canada in 1887 when he was twelve years old, recalled that “it was the toss of a coin whether we came to Canada or South Africa” (p. 38). As Constantine and Harper reveal, one of the most important patterns of empire migration over the long term was the very lack of one!
While an engaging and useful contribution to the historiography of the British Empire, the book is not without flaws. This is overwhelmingly a book about migration from the United Kingdom to the white colonies of settlement. One of the most useful insights of the British world movement--that the political and cultural space of empire was characterized by a multiplicity of cores rather than a unitary path between metropole and colony--is duly recognized by the authors but not fully acted upon. Immigration within the empire but beyond the United Kingdom receives limited attention, and migrants of color--including sailors, students, laborers, and other sojourners, who could be usefully examined in the frame of the study--are relegated to a single chapter. The authors also recognize the porous nature of imperial networks, arguing that “the UK and the British Empire did not constitute a containing space,” yet relatively few pages are dedicated to “other” European settlers or immigrants to the United States and other nonempire countries from the United Kingdom or the empire (p. 9). Although the authors do articulately defend their decision to focus largely on migration from the United Kingdom in their introduction, the work reads as somewhat out of touch with recent trends in the field to incorporate new actors into the standard narrative of imperial history.
If a tour de force of economic and social history, the book’s engagement with cultural history is limiting. Each colony- or region-specific chapter includes a section on “identities,” but these analyses feel somewhat halfhearted. The role of Britishness and imperial loyalty, the imagining of “better Britains” overseas, and the development of local and national identities all deserve more attention in a book about migration and empire. For instance, the role of non-English Britons in making the British Empire is briefly explored, through the emergence of Caledonian Societies throughout southern Africa, for instance (p. 143). These issues, which are now the subject of a great deal of fascinating work by scholars, are secondary to the economic, political, and social implications of migration in the metropole, for settlers themselves, and for their new home societies.
These criticisms aside, Migration and Empire is a meaningful contribution to the series, full of useful statistics for the teacher and researcher and fascinating anecdotes about the experience of the British migrant. While its more traditional approach to imperial history limits the study’s scope in several important ways, it also rewards the reader with a stalwart empiricism, an attention to detail, and an embrace of statistical data that make it a worthwhile adventure.
. Phillip Buckner, “Whatever Happened to the British Empire?” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 4, no. 1 (1993): 3-32.
. John MacKenzie, The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Identity, Gender and Race 1772-1914 (New York: Palgrave, 2007); and Aled Jones and Bill Jones, “The Welsh World and the British Empire, c. 1851-1939: An Exploration,” in The British World: Diaspora, Culture, and Identity, ed. Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich (New York: Routledge, 2003), 57-81.