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Does A Freeborn Englishman Have A Right To Emigrate?
Just before the Revolution, newly studied documents reveal, the flight of British subjects to the New World forced a panicky English government to wrestle with this question
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
Pownall’s chief concern, however, was not to rein in the hustling and annoying Irishman, but rather to develop a general and effective policy for restraining emigration. To that end, he sent to Dart-mouth for his approval a document that finally set the heavy wheels of the national government in motion.
The Board of Trade, Pownall wrote in this draft recommendation to the king, called the emigration problem to the crown’s attention but confessed itself unable to recommend any remedy “without knowing with precision the actual extent of the emigration complained of and what parts of Your Majesty’s kingdom are principally affected.” In order to gain that information, “we most humbly submit to Your Majesty whether it might not be advisable that the officers of Your Majesty’s customs in the several ports of your said kingdoms should receive directions to take account of all persons that shall embark as passengers on any ships which may clear out from the said ports and to transmit to His Majesty to transmit to us monthly, or oftener, a list of all such persons specifying their names, ages, sex, and profession, as far as the same can be ascertained.”
By the end of November 1773, word had gone out that the government was about to take action. But it soon became clear that Parliament would delay consideration of bills curbing emigration until Pownall’s first step, the collection of statistics on who was leaving, whence and why, was completed. Even that much, it soon developed, would be difficult to accomplish.
The treasury administered the customs offices where the emigrants would be questioned, and so it fell to the Treasury Department to establish the specific terms of the survey. Whoever it was in the Treasury who gave the questionnaire its final form had a keen sense of what might be learned from such a survey as well as an exaggerated respect for the efficiency of the British customs administration. On December 9, 1773, Britain’s Lords of the Treasury ordered the Boards of Customs Commissioners in London and Edinburgh to instruct their officials in the various ports “to use every proper means in their power” to record not only the name of every person leaving the kingdom but also his or her “age, quality, occupation, employment & former residence,” and also “what port or place they propose to go, and on what account, and for what purposes they leave this country, together with such other remarks and informaon as they may be able to obtain.”
In the months that followed, customs officials in ports scattered from Devonshire to northern Scotland and from Dover to the Outer Hebrides interviewed hundreds, then thousands, of emigrants as they boarded ship; gathered passenger information from ship captains and port officials; and sent in to the customs headquarters sheet after sheet of detailed compilations. In the back rooms of the customs headquarters in London and Edinburgh, clerks gathered the sheets, collated the information from England, and forwarded all the material to the Treasury.
At first there was much confusion. The inspectors in Wigtown, in southern Scotland, were politely incredulous of the whole project: did the honorable Board of Customs Commissioners really mean that the ports should “take such a minute account of every individual person as [their] letter would seem to imply,” or did they, more reasonably, want only summaries? Answers were given: yes, the board meant precisely what its letter implied, “a minute account of every individual person.”
The result is a documentary collection that illuminates as does no other source, literary or statistical, the process by which British North America was peopled in the years before the split with England, and that characterizes a major segment of the immigrant population in pre-Revolutionary America. Here, in the sheets received at the Treasury Office—which together compose what may be called the Register of Emigrants, 1773–76, well preserved in four large volumes of Treasury papers—are the answers to the questions that so agitated the Hillsboroughs, Millers, and Suffolks: who were the people who were leaving Britain—what ages, which sex, what occupations were represented and in what proportions? Where did they come from, why did they leave, from what strata of society were they drawn? How did they travel, where were they going?
The answers to these questions, based on a computer analysis of these records, fill a large volume, Voyagers to the West, to be published later this year, the 210th anniversary of the register’s last entry. Some of the results are predictable. Of the 9,364 permanent emigrants to the North American colonies registered during these months, the overwhelming number were young: almost half were under twenty-five, 30 percent between the ages of twenty and twenty-four. Three out of four were male. Slightly less than half (48 percent) were indentured servants and redemptioners. Almost a third traveled in family groups, and very few of the families listed included servants of any kind. Just under one-third came from London and the six Home Counties of southeastern England; onequarter of the total came from greater London itself. On the other hand, 41 percent of the entire group came from Scotland, and over a third of the Scots came from the Highlands and the northern and western islands.