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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2016

University of Kentucky
University of Kentucky, Department of History, 1715 Patterson Office Tower, Lexington, Kentucky 40506–0027,


This article examines three voyages of the late 1840s to advance the argument that emigration – often treated by its historians as ‘spontaneous’ – actually involved the laissez-faire mid-Victorian imperial state in significant projects of social engineering. The tale of the Virginius exemplifies that state's commitment to taking advantage of the Famine to convert the Irish countryside into an export economy of large-scale graziers. The tale of the Earl Grey exemplifies its commitment to transforming New South Wales into a conspicuously moral colony of free settlers. The tale of the Arabian exemplifies its commitment to saving plantation society in the British Caribbean from the twin threats posed by slave emancipation and free trade in sugar. These voyages also show how the British imperial state's involvement in immigration frequently immersed it in ethical controversy. Its strictly limited response to the Irish Famine contributed to mass death. Its modest effort to create better lives in Australia for a few thousand Irish orphans led to charges that it was dumping immoral paupers on its most promising colonies. Its eagerness to bolster sugar production in the West Indies put ‘liberated’ slaves in danger.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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Many thanks to my fellow presenters at the Morality, Institutions, and Empire Conference convened at Yale University in October 2014 for their constructive suggestions on an earlier draft of this article. I am particularly indebted to Robert Travers.


1 Christine Kinealy, The great Irish Famine: impact, ideology and rebellion (Basingstoke, 2002), p. 143; Gerard Moran, Sending out Ireland's poor: assisted emigration to North America in the nineteenth century (Dublin, 2004), pp. 48–54.

2 PP (Parliamentary papers) 1847–8 (399), pp. 174–5.

3 Kinealy, Great Irish Famine, pp. 320–1; Gov. Sir C. A. Fitzroy to Earl Grey, 19 Dec. 1848, PP 1850 [1163], p. 1; Henry G. Douglas to Edward D. Thompson, 7 Oct. 1848, ibid., p. 3; Report of the Orphan Immigration Committee of New South Wales, 6 Dec. 1848, ibid., p. 3.

4 Trevor McClaughlin, Barefoot and pregnant? Irish Famine orphans in Australia (2 vols., Melbourne, 1991 and 2001), ii, p. 11.

5 James Belich, Replenishing the earth: the settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-world, 1783–1939 (Oxford, 2009), p. 129.

6 Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine, Migration and empire (Oxford, 2010), pp. 150–1.

7 Robert James Scally, The end of hidden Ireland: rebellion, Famine, and emigration (Oxford, 1995), ch. 3.

8 Eric Richards, Britannia's children: emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (London, 2004), p. 149.

9 John Darwin, The empire project: the rise and fall of the British world-system, 1830–1970 (Cambridge, 2009), p. ix.

10 Philip Harling, The waning of ‘Old Corruption’: the politics of economical reform in Britain, 1779–1846 (Oxford, 1996), p. 9.

11 Most notably with respect to the Poor Law. See e.g. Lynn Hollen Lees, The solidarities of strangers: the English Poor Laws and the people, 1700–1948 (Cambridge, 1998). For laissez-faire as a more general organizing principle, see Karl Polanyi, The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time (Boston, MA, 1944).

12 Harling, Philip and Mandler, Peter, ‘From “fiscal-military” state to laissez-faire state, 1760–1850’, Journal of British Studies, 32 (1993), pp. 4470 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin Daunton, Trusting leviathan: the politics of taxation in Britain, 1799–1914 (Cambridge, 2001), chs. 1–3.

13 Anthony Howe, Free trade and liberal England, 1846–1946 (Oxford, 1997); Frank Trentmann, Free trade nation: commerce, consumption, and civil society in modern Britain (Oxford, 2008).

14 Sir Norman Chester, The English administrative system, 1780–1870 (Oxford, 1981); J. M. Bourne, Patronage and society in nineteenth-century England (London, 1986).

15 Douglas M. Peers, Between Mars and Mammon: colonial armies and the garrison state in India, 1819–1835 (London, 1995); idem, ‘State, power, and colonialism’, in Douglas M. Peers and Nandini Gooptu, eds., India and the British empire (Oxford, 2012), 30–42; David Omissi, The sepoy and the raj: the Indian army, 1860–1940 (Basingstoke, 1994); Thomas R. Metcalf, Imperial connections: India in the Indian Ocean arena, 1860–1920 (Berkeley, CA, 2007), ch. 3.

16 Catherine Hall, Civilising subjects: colony and metropole in the English imagination, 1830–1867 (Chicago, IL, 2002), ch. 6; Thomas C. Holt, The problem of freedom: race, labor, and politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore, MD, 1992).

17 Cormac Ó Gráda, The great Irish Famine (Dublin, 1989); idem, Black ’47 and beyond: the great Irish Famine in history, economy, and memory (Princeton, NJ, 2000); Christine Kinealy, This great calamity: the Irish Famine, 1845–1852 (Dublin, 1994); Cecil Woodham-Smith, The great hunger: Ireland, 1845–1849 (New York, NY, 1962); Mike Davis, Late Victorian holocausts: el niňo famines and the making of the third world (London, 2001); David Arnold, Famine: social crisis and historical change (Oxford, 1988).

18 Julia Lovell, The Opium War: drugs, dreams and the making of China (London, 2011); James L. Hevia, English lessons: the pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China (Durham, NC, 2003); J. Y. Wong, Deadly dreams: opium, imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856–1860) in China (Cambridge, 1998); Carl A. Trocki, Opium, empire and the global political economy (Abingdon, 1999); John F. Richards, ‘The opium industry in British India’, in Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ed., Land, politics, and trade in South Asia (New Delhi, 2004).

19 Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the raj (Cambridge, 1997), chs. 3–4; Eric Stokes, The English utilitarians and India (Oxford, 1959), pp. 239–69; Clive Dewey, Anglo-Indian attitudes: the mind of the Indian Civil Service (London, 1993).

20 Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and exiles: Ireland and the Irish exodus to North America (New York, NY, 1985), p. 291; Oliver MacDonagh, A pattern of government growth, 1800–1860: the Passenger Acts and their enforcement (London,1961), pp. 25–7.

21 Anbinder, Tyler, ‘Lord Palmerston and the Irish Famine emigration’, Historical Journal, 44 (2001), p. 445 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

22 Miller, Emigrants and exiles, pp. 292–3.

23 Extract from report of the medical examiner at Grosse Isle enclosed in earl of Elgin to 3rd Earl Grey, 8 Dec. 1847, PP 1847–8 [932], p. 5.

24 See esp. MacDonagh, A pattern of government growth, pp. 7–8, 221, 326–7.

25 See, classically, John Mitchel, The last conquest of Ireland (perhaps), ed. Patrick Maume (Dublin, 2005). For analysis of the nationalist critique, see James S. Donnelly, Jr, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Stroud, 2001), pp. 18–22, 217.

26 Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland starved: a quantitative and analytical history of the Irish economy, 1800–1850 (London, 1985), p. 291. See also Kinealy, Great Irish Famine, p. 221; Donnelly, Great Irish Potato Famine, pp. 11–18; Woodham-Smith, Great hunger, pp. 407–8.

27 Mokyr, Why Ireland starved, pp. 291–2; Ó Gráda, Great Irish Famine, 49; Donnelly, Great Irish Potato Famine, pp. 118–19; Peter Gray, Famine, land and politics: British government and Irish society, 1843–1850 (Dublin, 1999), p. 333.

28 Ó Gráda, Great Irish Famine, p. 48.

29 Moran, Sending out Ireland's poor, pp. 89–90.

30 Gray, Famine, land, and politics, pp. 279–308.

31 See Klaus E. Knorr, British colonial theories, 1570–1850 (Toronto, 1944), pp. 282–6, 297.

32 Speech of the Right Honourable Earl Grey, on emigration, August 10th, 1848 (London, 1848), p. 7.

33 See esp. Gray, Famine, land and politics; R. D. Collison Black, Economic thought and the Irish question, 1817–1870 (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 239–43.

34 Paul Bew, Ireland: the politics of enmity, 1789–2006 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 161, 250–1.

35 3rd Earl Grey, The colonial policy of Lord John Russell's administration (2 vols., London, 1853), i, pp. 244–5. See also the similar pronouncements of the imperial state's chief emigration stewards, the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission (CLEC): CLEC, 9th annual report, PP 1849 [1082], p. 1; CLEC, 11th annual report, PP 1851 [1383], p. 2; CLEC, 12th annual report, PP 1852 [1499], p.14. By 1853, CLEC was beginning to worry that the rate of Irish emigration had so intensified that it ‘could not be continued for many years without exhausting the native labouring classes’. CLEC, 14th annual report, PP 1852–53 [1647], 11.

36 See esp. Kinealy, Great Irish Famine, pp. 315–27; McClaughlin, Barefoot and pregnant?; Robin F. Haines, Emigration and the labouring poor: Australian recruitment in Britain and Ireland, 1831–1860 (Basingstoke, 1997), ch. 5; Paula Hamilton, ‘The “servant class”: poor female migration to Australia in the nineteenth century’, and Janice Gothard, ‘“Pity the poor immigrant”: assisted single female migration to colonial Australia’, in Eric Richards, ed., Poor Australian immigrants in the nineteenth century (Canberra, 1991), pp. 99–101, 130–1; Paula Hamilton, ‘“Tipperarifying the moral atmosphere”: Irish Catholic immigration and the state, 1840–1860’, in Sydney Labour Group, What rough beast? The state and social order in Australian history (Sydney, 1982), esp. pp. 22–5.

37 Henry G. Douglas to Edward Thompson, colonial secretary, New South Wales, 7 Oct. 1848, PP 1850 [1163], p. 2.

38 PP 1850 [1163], p. 3.

39 The National Archives (TNA), Colonial Office papers, 201/423, fos. 208–10.

40 See McClaughlin, Barefoot and pregnant?, i, pp. ii–iii, 18–19. Unsurprisingly, there were also some tragedies. See Trevor McClaughlin, ‘Exploited and abused: Irish orphan girls’, in Rebecca Pelan, ed., Irish-Australian studies: papers delivered at the seventh Irish-Australian conference, July 1993 (Sydney, 1993), pp. 161–6.

41 CLEC, 9th annual report, PP 1849 [1082], p. 3.

42 K. S. Inglis, The Australian colonists: an exploration of social history, 1788–1870 (Melbourne, 1974), pp. 16–17; John Gascoigne, The Enlightenment and the origins of European Australia (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 64–5; Donald Winch, Classical political economy and colonies (Cambridge, MA, 1965), ch. 8.

43 Richards, Britannia's children, p. 136. For an institutional history of CLEC, see Fred H. Hitchins, The colonial land and emigration commission (Philadelphia, PA, 1931). For a compelling account of how its far-flung recruitment network operated, see Haines, Emigration and the labouring poor. For CLEC as a centralized Benthamite entity, see Winch, Classical political economy, pp. 149–50.

44 CLEC, 7th annual report, PP 1847 [809], pp. 1–2.

45 See e.g. Winch, Classical political economy, ch. 8.

46 R. B. Madgwick, Immigration into eastern Australia, 1788–1851 (2nd edn, Sydney, 1969), pp. 83–5; A. G. L. Shaw, ed., Great Britain and the colonies, 1815–1865 (London, 1970), pp. 22–3, 78–9, 208.

47 See e.g. Madgwick, Immigration into eastern Australia, pp. 191–7.

48 See e.g. Philip Harling, ‘The trouble with convicts: from transportation to penal servitude, 1840–1867’, Journal of British Studies, 53 (2014), pp. 80–110.

49 CLEC to Herman Merivale, 27 June 1848, PP 1847–8 [986], p. 111.

50 1st Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Colonization from Ireland, testimony of Thomas Frederick Elliot, 9 Mar. 1848, PP 1847–8 (415), p. 59. See also MacDonagh, Oliver, ‘The Poor Law, emigration and the Irish question, 1830–1855’, Christus Rex, 12 (1958), pp. 35–7Google Scholar; idem, ‘Irish emigration to the United States of America and the British colonies during the Famine’, in R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams, eds., The Great Famine: studies in Irish history, 1845–1852 (Dublin, 1956), pp. 352–9.

51 Kinealy, Great Irish Famine, pp. 322–3; Madgwick, Immigration into eastern Australia, pp. 206–13.

52 Stephen Nicholas and Peter R. Shergold, ‘Unshackling the past’, in Stephen Nicholas, ed., Convict workers: reinterpreting Australia's past (Melbourne, 1988), pp. 7–10; Deborah Oxley, ‘Female convicts’, in Nicholas, ed., Convict workers, pp. 85–97.

53 Richard West Nash, Stray suggestions on colonization (London, 1849), p. 49. See also George Blakiston Wilkinson, A letter to Lord Ashley on the necessity of an extended government plan of emigration to the Australian colonies (London, 1848), p. 7. For the abiding fear of moral contamination on the voyage to Australia, and the steps that emigration authorities took to try to prevent it, see esp. Jan Gothard, Blue China: single female migration to colonial Australia (Melbourne, 2001), ch. 5; Robin Haines, Doctors at sea: emigration voyages to colonial Australia (Basingstoke, 2005), ch. 5.

54 Testimony of Edward Cousins and William Behan, 6 Aug. 1850, PP 1851 (347) (347-ii), p. 177.

55 CLEC [T. W. C. Murdoch and Frederic Rogers] to Herman Merivale, 25 May 1849, PP 1849 (593) (593-ii), pp. 113–14.

56 C. J. Latrobe to Earl Grey, 9 Apr. 1850, PP 1851 (347) (347-ii), pp. 29–30.

57 Irish Poor Law Commissioners to Sir Thomas Redington, 27 Nov. 1850, PP 1851 (347) (347-ii), p. 254.

58 PP 1847–8 (399), p. 174.

59 Ibid., p. 182.

60 Ibid., pp. 176–7.

61 Ibid., pp. 178–81.

62 William A. Green, ‘Plantation society and indentured labour: the Jamaican case, 1834–1865’, in P. C. Emmer, ed., Colonialism and migration; indentured labour before and after slavery (Dordrecht, 1986), 164. For planters’ arguments about the salutary effect of imported labour on the creoles, see e.g. 5th Report, Select Committee on Sugar and Coffee Planting (testimony of Henry Barkly and Philip Miles, respectively), PP 1847–8 (206), pp. 19, 246.

63 William A. Green, British slave emancipation: the sugar colonies and the great experiment, 1830–1865 (Oxford, 1976), pp. 273–4.

64 Indeed, the authorities sought to get liberated Africans off St Helena as quickly as possible, as it proved such an unhealthy environment. Mortality rates hovered around 30 per cent on the island. The health of the Africans who landed there was already badly compromised by long stretches of extreme deprivation aboard slavers chased by naval vessels over vast southerly stretches. It was quickly made worse by biting winds, contaminated water, and inadequate housing that the treasury was too cheap to improve despite the protests of the Colonial Office. Herman Merivale to Sir Charles Trevelyan (permanent undersecretary at the treasury), 27 Nov. 1849, TNA, Foreign Office papers 84/780, fo. 249; Earl Grey to Sir Patrick Ross (governor of St Helena), 17 Jan. 1850, PP 1850 (643), pp. 121–2; Sir Charles Trevelyan to Herman Merivale, 21 Dec. 1849, PP 1850 (643), p. 124; Sir Patrick Ross to Earl Grey, 14 Aug. 1849, PP 1850 (643), pp. 101–2.

65 See esp. Simon Schama, Rough crossings: Britain, the slaves, and the American Revolution (London, 2005), part ii; Johnson U. J. Asiegbu, Slavery and the politics of liberation, 1787–1861: a study of the liberated African emigration and British anti-slavery policy (New York, NY, 1969), pp. 20–6.

66 See esp. Philip D. Curtin, The image of Africa: British ideas and action, 1780–1850 (Madison, WI, 1964), ch. 5.

67 Seymour Drescher, The mighty experiment: free labor versus slavery in British emancipation (Oxford and New York, NY, 2002), p. 104. This view had long since settled into Colonial Office orthodoxy by the time Earl Grey dismissed Sierra Leone in a single sentence in 1853: ‘[C]omparing its actual condition with the length of time that has elapsed since the Colony was established, and with the very large amount of expenditure which for many years was incurred there by this country, I fear it must be admitted to have disappointed the expectations of its philanthropic founders.’ The only good thing he had to say about Sierra Leone was that its civil establishment had been pared down to a puny £4,500 a year. Grey, Colonial Policy, ii, pp. 292–3.

68 CLEC, 14th annual report, PP 1854 [1833], p. 111.

69 See e.g. testimony of John Logan Hook, PP 1847–8 (366), p. 77.

70 Douglas Hall, Five of the Leewards, 1834–1870 (St Lawrence, Barbados, 1971), pp. 99–100.

71 Sir John Barrow to Benjamin Hawes, 22 Oct. 1847, TNA, Colonial Office papers 267/20, fos. 400–1.

72 Grey to Macdonald, 15 Nov. 1847, PP 1847–8 (749), p. 400.

73 Enclosure, CLEC report of 5 May 1848, PP 1847–8 (749), p. 106.

74 PP 1850 [1204], p. 67.

75 Governor Henry Light to Earl Grey, 2 Apr. 1848, PP 1847–8 (399), p. 172.

76 David Ewart to Sir Charles Edward Grey, 16 Mar. 1848, PP 1847–8 (399), pp. 50–1.

77 Light to Earl Grey, 17 May 1848, PP 1847–8 (749), p. 164.

78 Ibid., p. 163.

79 Wigley to William Walker, 6 May 1848, PP 1847–8 (749), p. 164.

80 ‘Extract of a report from Commander Wigley, naval officer on board the “Una”’, n.d., enclosed in CLEC to Colonial Office, 13 June 1848, PP 1847–8 (749), 107.

81 See David Richardson, ‘The British empire and the Atlantic slave trade, 1660–1807’, in P. J. Marshall, ed., The Oxford history of the British empire, ii: The eighteenth century (Oxford, 1998), p. 454.

82 Earl Grey to ‘the officer administering the government at Sierra Leone’, 12 July 1848, PP 1847–8 (749), pp. 425–6.

83 By Apr. 1849, CLEC was reporting that average mortality in emigrant ships sent from Sierra Leone to the West Indies was down to 1.5 per cent after spiking at 11.9 per cent for the first five ships sent over in 1848. CLEC to Colonial Office, 19 Apr. 1849, TNA, Colonial Office papers 386/56, fos. 291–3.

84 CLEC to Colonial Office, 5 May 1848, PP 1850 (643), p. 115; see also Mary Elizabeth Thomas, Jamaica and voluntary laborers from Africa: 1840–1865 (Gainesville, FL, 1974), pp. 133–5.

85 As Asiegbu comes close to doing. Asiegbu, Slavery and the politics of liberation, esp. pp. 158–9.

86 PP 1851 [1383], p. 69.

87 See e.g. K. O. Laurence, Immigration into the West Indies in the nineteenth century (Kingston, 1971), pp. 21–2.

88 With the notable exception of Jamaica, where a political stalemate brought immigration to a virtual standstill. See Holt, The problem of freedom, chs. 6–7. For testimonials to the efficacy of ‘coolie’ immigration elsewhere, see e.g. 3rd Baron Harris to Sir John Pakington, 7 Aug. 1852, in Kenneth N. Bell and W. P. Morrell, eds., Select documents on British colonial policy-making, 1830–1860 (Oxford, 1928), p. 443; Donald Wood, Trinidad in transition: the years after slavery (London, 1968), pp. 127–31.

89 Grey, Colonial policy, i, p. 66.

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