Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gathering the Bones, 4: Thinking Like A Boy

I've put it forward that we're not going to understand the peopling of North America, or the fall of the Roman Empire, or for that matter the Viking Age or the Late Bronze Age collapse until we stop taking claims about identity at face value. And that this is not entirely an issue of dead history. Problematising identity is the first step towards the world state that the species will need to resolve issues such as global warming.

But why can't we solve this problem Colonization style? It's very simple, actually. Wikipedia (on the authority of the best sources, too!), there were 250,000 British Americans in 1700. This is absolutely unproblematic. Working backwards (or forwards from English parish registers), we conclude that 400,000 English crossed the Atlantic westward to the American and Caribbean colonies in 1607--1700.


According to War Office calculations from the last decades of sail, shipping 20,000 men overseas required the allocation of 166,000 net tons of shipping,or just over 8 tons per man. I've seen lower estimates elsewhere (6 tons per man), but those were for cross-Channel movements. No doubt the number can go lower --Mayflower alloted 2 tons per person--  but this was done at such serious risk to the travellers' health that this in itself would legitimately permit us to suspect that William Bradford is exaggerating when he tells us, 20 years after the fact, that there were "about" 100 passengers on Mayflower. (That only 41 of the 102 claimed passengers signed the Mayflower Compact has always required explaining.)

According to a well-established factoid of American history, (See here, 3400,000 Britons emigrated to the Western Hemisphere between 1607 and 1700. By War Office calculations arbitrarily rounded down to 4 tons/passenger, that means 1.6 million net tons of British  shipping passed west across the Atlantic in those 90 years, or 17,000 tons/year. The Mayflower II, a significantly enlarged "replica" of the original, displaces 233 net tons. Since all we know about Mayflower is that it was most likely a typical English 180 ton merchant ship, the reconstruction is a velleity; but it is all we have, and I shall use 233 tons. For 90 years straight, then, 76 Mayflower-equivalents passed the Atlantic westward every year, employing 2500 sailors. In 1626, a government census established that the total available English shipping was 40,000 tons, mostly in hulls closer to 60 tons size, while fifty years later, another random act of state data gathering greatly overestimated the total number of British sailors at 65,000 (210). Cutting these figures in half per our understanding of the Mayflower emigration still has more than a fifth of the total English merchant fleet hauling passengers westward.

To put this in perspective, the Newfoundland fishery has been estimated ((exact citation misplaced)) to have taken 5000 men across the Atlantic each year between sometime in 1505/20 and 1620 in between 80 and 100 vessels. Like the emigrant trade, the fishery focussed on maximising manpower delivery to the Western Shore.)

These are all numbers based on arrival figures. What about departure data? We have it from two contexts. The most thorough, but latest, investigation, was made by the Undersecretary for the Colonies between 1773 and 1776, when he was directed to count the numbers emigrating. It was believed that emigration was depopulating the country and ruining the nation's warmaking capabilities. Accordingly, he assigned agents to count outbound passengers from English and Irish ports, and circulated Scottish ports for reports of same. (Because there is good reason to believe that captains of emigrant ships misstated the size of their ships to attract passengers, I am discounting some of the particulars of the Scottish data.)  

A commission of inquiry found that from December 1773 to March 1776, 9,868 migrated, mostly through September 1775, when a ban on migration came into effect. Bernard Bailyn and Barbara DeWolffe suggest that the maximum bound for undercounting is 15,300; but I'm a little doubtful, as Graeme Kirkham finds reason here to allow exaggeration on the receiving side in one case, the Ulster exodus of 1717-20. A total of 33 emigrant ships outbound in 1717--20 versus 12 or 13 bringing 2000 Ulsterfolk to Philadelphia in 1720 alone per the most famous contemporary anecdotal evidence. (I have a recent demographic or population history of Ireland that cites work discounting the claimed "Scotch-Irish" emigration to America in the 1700s from 200,000 to perhaps 60,000, but I can't find the citation.)

Bearing on tonnage allotment per passenger we can say little about the size of the ships, but passenger complements were small. The mean passenger level of each outbound ship was 21.7. Three-quarters carried fewer than 20, and fully a third carried fewer than 5. At the other extreme, only 22 (5.1%) carried more than 100 migrant. (89, 94—5). Only 175 English children under the age of 10 sailed, while 80% of English emigrants were male. (Including Scottish data skews the numbers in favour of more children, more women, and larger ships, with 2/3rds of Scots migrants travelling in groups of over 100, including only 60% men, and 423 children under 10.) 

Another set of data gives departures from London in 1635. According to Alison Games, here, 4878 people  left London for all points in the trans-Atlantic world. By far the majority were male indentured servants, as was also the case for internal migration in this period, although departures for New England were much more demographically "normal," even if the number of unattached males outbound for New England was still very high. (Assuming a balanced sex ratio, the ratio of adult males to females headed for New England is at least 65% male, 35% female, with the caveat that I am conflating Games's data with Wrigley and Schofield’s numbers for 1636, cited by Games. (47).)

So we have one year in which the emigration exceeded the required annual average. (Probably quite significantly, if we only had data for provincial ports.) Was that normal? It was not. In 1633, King Charles capped his church policy by translating William Laud, Bishop of London, to Canterbury. Promptly the next sailing season began, religious dissidents began sailing for New-England. It should be understood, however, that they were not emigrants as we would understand the phrases. Although they were seeking shelter in the short term, the act was understood as a spiritual exile in the wilderness in the tradition of Saint John the Baptist. Because Atlantic islands were the refuge of the Culdees, and these medieval ascetics had become an object of controversy in England, this emigration was a political statement. These people intended to return, and many of them did, and as conditions changed in England, the religious motivation for migration to New England disappeared and was replaced by no strong economic motive. Robert Charles Anderson's exhaustive study of all sources made available by more than 150 years of genealogical research has established that 900 families migrated in this period, comprised of a total of perhaps 10,000 people. These were substantially the majority of migrants to New England in the entire Seventeenth Century. 

How many emigrants is a reasonable estimate for an average year? It is interesting that the same source that gives 400,000 as the aggregate Seventeenth Century emigration has only 322,000 Britons, now including the Scotch-Irish, crossed the Atlantic in the years before the Revolution. This is a little hard to understand if we take population as a "push" factor, the strength of the American economy as a "pull," and shipping capacity as a bottleneck. It is very easy to understand, however, if more accurate data is leading to a downward revision. The head tax data suggests a continuing process of discounting numbers that had been pitched much too high on the basis of anecdotal data and by cherry picking years of particularly high emigration.  And as mind-blowing as this claim that there was relatively little emigration from Britain to America during the Eighteenth Century is, it is substantially confirmed by the very small number of  foreign-born individuals in the census returns from 1790 into the 1820s. Thus, the demographic history of Eighteenth Century America, as it has been written since before Malthus, is one of explosive natural reproduction, as opposed to migration.

All that has been said so far, however, skirts the issue that the greater part of the migration was male. Admittedly this was less true of the family class of migrants to New England than to the South; but unless 9000 migrants really did turn into 100,000 New Englanders in 1700, we must look for more emigration to New England. And, in fact, the Newfoundland fishery is well-accepted as a "leaky pump," and much of the demographic leakage was of fishermen to New England. By far the majority of English emigrants to the New World were male.

So what happened next? As Ann Uhry Abrams tells us there have always been multiple readings of America's history, but the ones that came to dominate in the Ninteenth Century are, loosely, a patriarchal account of New England as a church in exile, and a matrilineal one of Virginia, in which Pocahontas is the mother of the nation.  This was done in despite of the fact that Governor Bradford's narrative makes no attempt to conceal the heterogeneity of early New England society. There were trading posts, rival plantings,  Wollaston’s settlement at Merry Mount, where English settlers took Indian women “for their consorts,” and even rivalry between more godly colonies such as that between Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. Even the godliness can be overstressed. In 1644, of 634 male heads of household in Plymouth Colony, only 232 were freemen in the church. This might be why, although Abrams does not stress the point, that the Bradford narrative was neglected until Bishop Wilberforce used it in his 1842 History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, a book so controversial that the North American Review never quite got around to reviewing it. Soapy Sam's gift for irony is rarely heard better than speaking of the  "settlers [who] were supposed to have numbered 4000, who are said in fifty years to have multiplied to 100,000."

At this point, Bradford was very gingerly embraced, and even eventually given a full American edition. So we have a story in which New England migrants travelled with families and were "pilgrims," in contrast to the migrants to the South, who were almost all male. As Abram notes, it is not hard to see through words of the Honourable Pelig Sprague, who asserted before the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth on Forefather's Day, 1835, that the Old Colony was most Saxon of all, that the “murky regions of heathenism” that mark the rest of the United States have no purchase in Massachusetts. Hmm. According to urban legend, anyway, you couldn't type "Red" in the early 1990s without the spell-checker substituting "Native American." I wonder what that spellchecker would have done with Pelig Sprague's "murky?"

Okay, I've said, or at least implied, controversial things here. But it is not like the facts are obscure, or admitting of any alternate interpretations. And that's why I dared use the All Caps key above. There's the data dump, and I'm done.


About the First Fleet....


  1. Also animals. Those ships had to take horses, cows, pigs and sheep as well as people. Read these if you haven't already as they're both brilliant:

    1. Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: how domestic animals transformed early America (Oxford: OUP, 2004).

    2. Ann M. Little, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

  2. Thanks, for the references, Gavin. I've glanced at Little's book without taking in her treatment of these issues, but Anderson slipped right by me.

    Now I'm hoping for some answers for some pressing questions --notably evidence going towards the existence or nonexistence of a Barbary-Nantucket-Pennsylvania triangle equine trade.

  3. I've often wondered if the early difficulties with colonial agriculture were because of the lack of beehives. "Creatures of Empire" may tell me something about that.