Colonial Emigration Conclusions: ‘We and They’

Every day last week, then, the Colonial Families Research Guide has explored the complex history of British emigration to the colonies of settlement within the British Empire. These posts have been added to the UK Emigration Guide, and can now be found here: But before we move on to intellectual pastures new, what conclusions can we come to about colonial emigration and its relationship with British imperialism?

The idea of empire was extremely important for Britons, colonies and emigrants alike. As James Anthony Froude wrote portentously in 1886: ‘Greater Britain is not a mere empire, though we often call it so. Its union is of the more vital kind. It is united by blood and religion, and though circumstances may be imagined in which these ties might snap, yet they are strong ties, and will only give way before some violent dissolving force.’ The idea of a united ‘imperial identity’ was also taken very seriously. In the words of the journalist H. A. Gwynne: ‘the Empire is founded on race and… would cease to be if the large majority of its population in Great Britain and the Dominions ceased to be British. Cosmopolitanism in the British Isles and the Dominions would inevitably lead to the destruction of the Empire.’ These opinions speak to the deep veins of superiority and difference that ran through intellectual constructions of empire. But they also highlight the deep-seated anxieties that counterpointed those ideals – that empire was never far from collapse, and that a constant stream of the “right sort” of imperial Briton was required to keep the empire strong and virile.

Of course, notions of imperial identity and imperial unity relied upon the creation of both “self” and “other”. In the immortal words of empire’s most famous wordsmith:

Father, Mother, and Me

Sister and Auntie say

All the people like us are We,

And every one else is They.

‘We and They’, by Rudyard Kipling (1919-23).

Empire relied upon the creation of difference, and injected corrosive ideas of “inferiority” and “superiority” to pre-colonial histories of encounter and exchange. The history of European imperialism has shaped the modern world in which we live today. Some of this legacy is about the demographic movement of millions of people from Britain to the colonies of settlement. (For a broader look at empire’s legacy you can listen to the BBC’s In Our Time podcast on the subject.) These people were colonisers, and sometimes took part in the conscious and violent eradication of indigenous peoples. In doing so they relied upon the ideas of their culture and context – that non-white peoples were inferior, “backward” or “primitive”; and that their empire was strong, virile and morally superior. The results were catastrophic for indigenous peoples with no mindscape for understanding colonial influx and its consequences. Aboriginal communities throughout the world still struggle with these issues – the eradication of their cultures, their violent dispossession from land and natural resources, and the conscious political, economic and social sidelining that accompanied their refusal to be eradicated.

Yet settler-colonialism was a complex process, and colonial emigrants themselves were much more likely to be those who were dispossessed or sidelined in contemporary Britain – convicts, domestics and “Cousin Jacks” – rather than the ruling elite, or those who shaped the imperial cultures that allowed for such practices of exploitation and demeanment. Modern settler studies is increasingly asking us to look at colonial settlement in two complementary frames: the macro level of settler colonialism as a process – violent, arrogant and imperial; and the micro level of settlement – men, women and families seeking a new life, whose experiences of individual encounter are often more complex, and indeed contradictory, than we might think. A true understanding of British imperialism, and of the emergence of what some scholars call the ‘British World’, can investigate and interrogate both these levels of settler colonialism, and can explore the relationship between them.

Meanwhile, Britain itself was transformed by its experience of imperialism – its identity was strongly shaped by its imperial engagements. British popular culture, national identity, and geopolitical engagement were all heavily influenced by empire in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries – with complex legacies for Britain’s place and view of itself in the modern world. Emigrants sent back to Britain letters, money, and sometimes the means for their families to join them – a process known as chain migration. As such, even small villages and towns in the heart of rural Britain could have a direct link with the empire that sustained them. The Cornish “Cousin Jacks” are only the most famous example of those who propped up their local communities through the fruits of their toil in the empire. Britain’s imperial engagement was both strident and ambivalent, and a less selective quoting from the Kipling poem with which I started this post, makes this eminently clear:

Father, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But – would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They !

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
And They who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They !

Migration has of course had an even more profound effect upon Britain, particularly after the Second World War, in the shape of colonial immigration. Yet this was only part of the broader history of peoples moving between imperial places and spaces in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and needs to be situated within that framework if we are to truly understand its significance. Our next series for the Colonial Families Research Guide will be taking an in-depth look at colonial immigration – how to trace your colonial ancestors from the empire, and what impact immigration has had on Britain today.

– Emily Manktelow

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