Imperial Ambiguities: Scottish Emigration During the 1920s and 1930s

Marjorie Harper. Emigration From Scotland Between the Wars: Opportunity or Exile? Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780719080463.

Did migration help or hinder empire building in the first third of the twentieth century? In this fine case study of Scottish emigration to overseas destinations – especially Canada – during the two world wars, Marjory Harper uses the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 to explore to what degree Britain could support and bind its colonies and dominions through migration policy. From the re-stabilization of Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the sparsely populated Scotland had lost over 400,000 people to the United States and British overseas colonies, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The nineteenth century was the age of laissez faire in migration politics. State governments neither hindered nor supported in any meaningful way the white European migration to the Americas and Antipodes. Emigration from Scotland was high throughout this time. In some years, more people left Scotland than were born there.

Laissez-faire politics changed after the war, when the United States introduced a quota system in 1924, limiting the number of European immigrants. Canada, too, increasingly controlled European immigration. At the same time, the implementation of the Empire Settlement Act (SA) introduced new government incentives and infrastructure to support would-be emigrants who lacked the motivation or resources to move on their own. Under this scheme, the British government provided up to three million pounds annually to train would-be emigrants, support emigration and settlement agencies, and pay for transportation. Although the Empire Settlement Act was to last for fifteen years, it was in effect halted by the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Overall, the ESA spent just over six million pounds from 1922 to 1936, helping one third of all British emigrants move abroad. Many of the 400,000 ESA emigrants were juveniles and single women, but there were also single men and families. Forty-six percent of the ESA emigrants went to Canada, 43 percent to Australia, 11 percent to New Zealand, and under 1 percent to South Africa.

In order to find out whether Britain was able or interested in significantly manipulating migration as a means of empire building, Harper asks whether the Empire Settlement Act had a significant impact on Scottish emigration during the 1920s and 1930s. She explores this question by examining the flurry of activities and discourses generated by the ESA and the issue of emigration generally, comparing the views of the major churches, newspapers, political parties, labour unions, government agencies and committees, and the emigrants themselves. While most private and public sectors had strongly negative or positive or even contradictory responses, would-be Scottish emigrants saw the ESA as simply one more option – viable to some, unacceptable to others – in a larger array of resources they used to decide whether to migrate and if so, where to and when. Most Scottish emigrants, however, continued to rely – as they had in the nineteenth century – on their private networks of family and friends to organize their own migration and integration.

Thus, while the activity of emigration and booking agents increased in the 1920s, it is unclear to what degree they influenced Scots to emigrate. Here, Harper’s analysis of how agents at times acquired shady reputations, made exaggerated promises, and generated general controversies, could have been strengthened by asking emigrants about their experiences with agents. Despite Scottish people’s ability to make decisions within their own networks, published opinion had often depicted emigration as a reluctant exile of impoverished people from the Scottish islands and highlands. Harper argues that this narrow view was belied by the complexity of the actual emigration, which drew from all regions – including the lowland and urban industrial centres – and many social classes. Much of the controversy between national government, local authorities, and commentators turned on the question whether the Scottish economy needed more or fewer people. Eventually, public opinion came around and skepticism was balanced with some enthusiasm. Much of this ambiguity was reflected in the attitudes and experiences of the emigrants, many of whom returned to Scotland. More controversial were the various emigration and settlement schemes by a whole range of national and local Christian organizations such as the YMCA, Salvation Army, and the Church of Scotland that brought juveniles to remote locations in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Best known in Canada as the Home Children or Barnado’s Boys, these young immigrants sometimes continued to be in touch with their parents or other relatives in Scotland. The quick demise of these schemes by the end of the 1920s was not so much a result of the numerous complaints of deceit, neglect, or abuse but rather by a general disinterest in this form of emigration.

Harper paints a complex and broad picture of Scottish overseas emigration during the interwar years – a period largely neglected by migration historians. She does not provide a conclusive answer to her question whether the Empire Settlement Act had a significant impact on Scottish emigration or British empire building during the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, her study illuminates multiple ways in which imperial ambitions and politics succeeded or failed. Indeed, examining the diverse traditions and understandings of migration, settlement, and demography in the context of imperial history demonstrates that imperial projects, for the most part, wavered between contradictory political goals, half-hearted policies, fiscal fears, and muddy notions of empire, motherland, and dominion in London, Glasgow, Ottawa, and Canberra. Thus, Harper’s book will be of interest to both, scholars of migration and scholars of empire.

Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg

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