Assisting Emigration to Upper Canada: The Petworth Project, 1832-1837 – CAMERON; MAUDE (CSS)

CAMERON, Wendy; MAUDE, Mary McDougall. Assisting Emigration to Upper Canada: The Petworth Project, 1832-1837. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. 354p. Resenha de: HOFFMAN, George. Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.1, 2002.

Historical writing reflects the fact that Canada is a nation of immigrants. Most accounts, however, concern the twentieth century and are not about the English. This book about the Petworth Project is an exception and, although narrow in scope, greatly adds to our understanding of nineteenth century immigration to Canada.

Between 1832 and 1837, eighteen hundred men, women and children travelled from Portsmouth, England to Upper Canada under the auspices of the Petworth Emigration Committee. They came mainly from parishes around Petworth in West Sussex in southeastern England and settled in what is today south-central and western Ontario. This book, filled with personal accounts, tells the story in marvellous detail: its English setting, the voyages across the Atlantic and settlement in Toronto, Hamilton, London and their vicinities.

The Petworth immigrants were primarily poor agricultural labourers and their families who received both private and public assistance to migrate. The Earl of Egremont (who owned much of the land around Petworth), the local parishes, the British government, and colonial officials in Upper Canada were all involved. The central character in the story was Thomas Sockett, rector of Petworth, personal chaplain to Egremont and founder of the Petworth Emigration Committee. He initiated the emigrations, chartered the ships, recruited prospective immigrants and, through correspondence, carefully observed their adjustment to life in Canada. Sockett deserves much of the credit for the success of the Petworth migrations.

The emigrations occurred during the time of the Swing Uprisings in southern England. Threatening letters were circulated by a mythical Captain Swing, and during the winter of 1830-1831 there were a series of local protests involving strikes, arson, machine breaking and mass demonstrations by unemployed agricultural labourers. Those in authority grew increasingly alarmed. Egremont, Sockett, and Sir John Colborne (Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada) were Tory paternalists who supported government assisted emigration and settlement for humanitarian reasons because they believed it would solve the problem of rural social unrest by removing the unemployed poor from the local English parishes and giving them a new start in Canada. Thus, it is interesting to see that there was a link between the famous Captain Swing and some pioneers on the frontier of Upper Canada.

During the 1830s, however, a new attitude toward the poor in the countryside was emerging within the British government and, in the aftermath of the Swing disturbances, a new Poor Law was introduced. It was based on free market principles and on the belief that government assistance only perpetuated poverty by encouraging dependency on public relief. It rejected the rationale behind the Petworth emigrations. Soon this new doctrine of laissez-faire liberalism was in place in England and among government officials in Upper Canada. In 1836 Sir Francis Bond Head (who is best remembered for precipitating the uprising led by William Lyon MacKenzie) arrived in Upper Canada and replaced Colborne as Lieutenant-Governor. Bond Head was fresh from his success of efficiently introducing the new Poor Law in England’s Kent county and was opposed, in principle, to government assistance to immigrants on either side of the Atlantic. The new political ideas which were current in England and in Upper Canada help to explain why the Petworth Project did not continue and why there was no large scale government assisted emigration and settlement in the years that followed. Thomas Sockett and those of similar views opposed the poor law reforms but their paternalistic humanitarianism was out of favour in mid-nineteenth century England.

Assisting Emigration to Upper Canada is a significant contribution to the study of nineteenth century Canada and will mainly be read by historians and used in university level studies. However, immigration topics are a part of most high school Canadian Studies courses, and the Petworth Project can be used by teachers to illustrate how immigrants are affected by events in both their country of origin and their new homeland. Too often we fail to emphasize that events in Canada do not occur in isolation from the rest of the world. Wendy Cameron and Mary McDougall Maude make clear that developments in England during the 1830s, particularly those in rural parishes, were directly connected to the lives of the people of Toronto, Hamilton and the Canadian frontier.

I strongly recommend this book to all serious students of nineteenth century Canadian history. It is a remarkable achievement based on an immense amount of research, much of which, due to space limitations, has not been described in this review.

George Hoffman – History Department. University of Regina. Regina, Saskatchewan.

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