Migration and Empire

February 3, 2011

Between the end of the wars against Napoleon in 1815 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, some 50 million Europeans left for the New World. Almost two-fifths of these (more than 18 million people) came from the British Isles, and this outflow exerted a huge influence on the shape of the modern world.

Migration and Empire considers only those who moved within what was, in the modern period, the British Empire. Consequently, the most influential stream of all - that which shaped the US - is not considered here. It is principally the smaller, although very substantial, number of millions journeying to Canada, Australia, Africa and New Zealand that concerns us here. The result is a thorough and interesting account that develops themes examined in less detail in the core volumes of the Oxford History of the British Empire.

The book is organised into 11 chapters, the first seven of which map the main geographies of migration between Britain and the Empire; between distant parts of the Empire itself; and, interestingly, back to Britain. The remaining chapters explore important, cross-cutting themes such as female and juvenile emigrants, the emigration business, and return and visiting emigrants. The study is wide-ranging. Certainly there is no other book with quite this coverage, and the detail is very good. The exploration, in chapter five, of Africa in a truly continental fashion is impressive. While South Africa inevitably captures our attention, the exploration of settlements in west, east and central Africa - small though these were - is important and well realised. There is also a very suggestive chapter on migrations, including bonded labour, around the Empire.

In 1901, when the British Empire encompassed 400 million people, almost 1.5 million who were born within British possessions (but not the UK) were to be found elsewhere in the Empire. These included Canadians in Australia, New Zealanders in India, and indentured labourers working in plantations in Fiji. If the growth of the Empire set Britons in seemingly perpetual motion, it also did something similar for peoples who were subjugated by the British crown, sending many into unwilling and permanent exile.

Later, principally in the period of decolonisation, these journeys also encompassed the millions of imperial subjects who went to Britain. This latter phenomenon is examined in a brief tour of immigration in a British context in chapter seven, where the discussion is limited by a rather cursory engagement of historiography of the Irish, who were, until the "New Commonwealth" immigrations, Britain's most important outsider group.

Migration and Empire ends with a thoughtful examination of our more recent past. Even in 2006, long after the Empire had disappeared and the colonies were mature nations, 5.5 million UK-born people - "expatriates", as we like to call ourselves - were living overseas. Such a figure is only partly a legacy of Empire. While the largest group (1.3 million) was in Australia, more than 300,000 were found in Germany and France. Nearly 200 countries counted British nationals within their borders; 47 had more than 10,000. Empire has gone, but the British desire to emigrate has not. This study, in addition to being a major work of historical scholarship, also taps our contemporary consciousness.

Migration and Empire

By Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine Oxford University Press. 400pp, £35.00 ISBN 9780199250936. Published 23 September 2010

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