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Manpower for Britain's Empire

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The flood of emigrants bidding their 'Last farewell to England' in the early nineteenth century was not as the result of an organised governmental policy of colonial development, argues Mark Brayshaw, but of haphazard individual effort.

Most of us retain a somewhat simplified view of Colonial emigration in the nineteenth century, believing that robust, enterprising workers were assisted to leave poverty and unemployment at home by a benevolent government which paid their passage to Canada, Australia or elsewhere. But the facts are rather different and the process a good deal more complex. For the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the Government was hardly involved at all in directing or assisting emigration to the Colonies. When forced by circumstances to arrange a scheme, it was always with reluctance and never large in scale. Most organised emigration was therefore privately sponsored. Even when the Colonial Office finally began to assume a more direct and prominent role after 1840, assisted passages were always paid for out of the proceeds of selling Colonial Lands and not directly by the British Treasury; and those to whom a steerage ticket was granted were not selected on the basis of their personal needs, but rather to meet the rigid criteria which had been laid down to achieve an 'appropriate' age structure and workforce in the Imperial territories.

It is hardly surprising then to find that the United States of America, and not the Colonies, consistently attracted the bulk of British emigrants in the last century. At this time the U.S. government was far less choosey about the people who entered their country. Competition for the passenger trade on the North Atlantic route meant that by the mid-nineteenth century, instead of the hefty fare which was charged (in the absence of an assisted passage) for the voyage to Australia, or even Canada, for as little as £3.00, the intending emigrant could travel direct from Liverpool to New York.

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