Britain needs to have a word with itself about immigration

A short look at our own history makes the Leave campaign's rhetoric seem particularly distasteful.

Jeremy Fox
14 June 2016

Massacre of native American women and children in Idaho. Image,

Most palaeontologists seem to agree that our ancestors came from Africa probably between 150,000 and 250,000 years ago, which means that everyone born in Europe is descended from immigrants. By definition, those first arrivals on the European continent would not have encountered their own kind, but they would certainly have come upon near relatives of the modern human species such as homo erectus, and neanderthal man; hominid kin that subsequently died out as homo sapiens settled and multiplied; an early example, perhaps, of human-induced extinction.

Since that first journey out of Africa, migration has been a constant feature of the human story; and it has often been accompanied by a postscript to the effect that when the newcomers have found others occupying land they covet for themselves they have taken on the role of usurpers. Such was the case after the European discovery of the Americas. By the time of this discovery in the last decade of the 15th century, European culture had achieved a level of sophistication – or sophistry – that required claims on “new” territories to be legalised as a means, above all, to forestall squabbles between monarchs over property. Thus, in 1494 – two years after Columbus famously sailed the ocean blue – the divine authority, Pope Alexander VI, partitioned the New World by drawing a line along an imaginary meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, and granting everything east of the line to Portugal and everything beyond to Spain. Most of the lands embraced by this sublime demonstration of ecclesiastical generosity were already inhabited, and in some cases by people who had no word for ownership or property.

Somewhat later, with similar blithe disregard of existing local populations, British monarchs happily bestowed swathes of North America on their favourites. In 1675, for example, with a magnanimous stroke of the pen and the addition of the royal seal, King Charles II “by the Grace of God…” granted the Lords Clarendon, Albermarle, Craven, Ashley, plus a few favoured knights of the realm “…that Province, Territory, or Tract of Ground called Carolina, situate, lying and being within our Dominion of America…”

Emigration from the British and Irish Isles to the colonies began soon after they had been annexed and increased at a rapid pace, reaching its highest level in the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries. Between 1815 and the beginning of World War I, roughly 18 million English, Scots and Irish emigrated to North America, with a further 3 million going to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Although some of these were “transported” criminals and persecuted minorities, the vast majority were economic migrants seeking an escape from poverty and lured by the prospect of wealth in lands of apparently limitless size and potential. From the outset, many were what would today be termed “low skilled”, and were regarded disdainfully not only at home but even by more-qualified fellow migrants. Here is John Lawson, Surveyor-General of North Carolina in 1709, on the average immigrant to the Carolinas:

’Tis a great misfortune, that most of our Travellers, who go to this vast Continent in America, are Persons of the meaner Sort, and generally of a very Slender Education [1].”

On the other hand, Lawson, unlike like many others of European extraction, developed an admiration for the superior moral qualities of the indigenous people he encountered:

"They are really better to us than we are to them; they always give us victuals at their quarters, and take care we are armed against hunger and thirst; we do not so by them (generally speaking), but let them walk by our doors hungry, and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with scorn and disdain, and think them little better than beasts in human shape, though if well examined, we shall find that, for all our religion and education, we possess more moral deformities and evils than these savages do, or are acquainted withal.”

For the native populations of North America, the consequences of European migration were catastrophic. Diseases to which they had no immunity – influenza, smallpox, measles, etc. – destroyed entire communities. Here is Lawson again:

“The Sewees have formerly been a large nation, though now very much decreased since the English hath seated their land, and all other nations of Indians are observed to partake of the same fate, where the Europeans came, the Indian being a people very apt to catch any distemper they are afflicted withal, the smallpox has destroyed many thousands of these natives…”

Increase Mather, a 17th century puritan minister, interpreted the diseases visited upon the native people as evidence of divine munificence:

           God ended the controversy by sending the smallpox amongst the Indians…. whole towns of them were swept away.” [2]

Where disease failed to dispose of inconveniently located “Indians”, violence took over, to the extent that European massacres of North American peoples constitute without doubt one of the most significant holocausts known to human history. That such massacres were sanctioned at the highest political level is indisputable and they continued for a long time. As late as 1851, Governor Peter Burnett of California stated in a message to the state legislature that war must “continue to be waged…until the Indian becomes extinct.”[3]

It was in 1867 that US General Philip Sheridan uttered words that in abbreviated form have become embedded in the collective memory as an aphorism, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.[4]

And here is future President Theodore Roosevelt on the same subject:

“The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages… the fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilised mankind under a debt to him”[5]

Estimates of the population of North and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans range between 90 million and 145 million, at a time when the population of Europe was around 70 million.[6] By 1900, the native population of present-day United States, estimated to be 15 million to 18 million before Columbus, had shrunk to around 250,000, a decline that included the complete disappearance of many nations – some of them (such as the Sewees mentioned by Lawson) leaving barely a trace behind.[7]  For generations of indigenous people, the best that could be expected of life was bare survival at the margins, a miserable, despised existence on reservations (US) or reserves (Canada). Native population numbers have increased somewhat over the last century – though for many the nightmare of disenfranchisement, impoverishment and demoralisation continues.

Why is it important to remember our migratory past? Because recognition of the dimensions, savagery and consequences of British migration to other lands, and the role that our own people have played in displacing others by force, might perhaps help us to place in an appropriate historical context the ‘Leave’ campaign’s outcry against the current level of immigration to the UK. Foreign-born residents of the country now account for about 15% of the population – unquestionably a significant proportion, though it is slightly below the OECD average and significantly below the figures for Australia, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Austria, Canada and the US, among others.[8] Modern immigrants to the British and Irish Isles, however, do not come to displace the natives. Nor, despite alarmist inferences by prominent ‘Leave’ campaigners, do they arrive hell-bent on rape and murder. Instead, they come to share in and contribute to our prosperity.

Without doubt, significant concentrations of immigrants can and sometimes do produce a degree of social disruption, and exert stress on local public services. But the idea that, with a modicum of national and local government effort, newcomers cannot be accommodated and welcomed is simply xenophobic nonsense. Over several centuries, our people have sacked, exploited, and robbed others of their land, their livelihood, their dignity and their freedom; and then gone on to displace them. To use immigration into this country as a stick with which to beat the European Union, to demand “control of our borders” as a catchphrase for keeping out foreigners from a country that has thought nothing of extending those borders at others’ expense, may come to be remembered as one of the darker hypocrisies of our island history.



[1] John Lawson, Gent. Surveyor-General of North Carolina, A New Voyage to California, London 1709 (reprinted many times).

[2] Increase Mather, A Brief History of the Wars of New England, London 1676.

[3] David. E. Stannard, American Holocaust, OUP, Oxford 1992.

[4] Dee Brown, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, New York 1970.

[5 Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, Volume Three The Founding of the Trans-Alleghany Commonwealths, 1784-1790, New York 1894.

[6] Stannard, op.cit, Appendix I.

[7] Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, Oklahoma 1987.

[8] LSE - Centre for Economic Performance, Paper EA019, London 2015.

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