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On Emigration and the State of the Highlands
Chapter X


Conduct of the Highland Society. Emigrant Regulation Bill.

If, from all these circumstances, individual proprietors so far mistake their own interest, it will not be surprising that the same mistakes should pervade and influence a public body. The respectable names which appear on the list of the Highland Society, and the benevolence which marks their proceedings in general, leave no reason to doubt of their conduct respecting emigration having been founded on the purest motives. Nevertheless they have lent the sanction of their name to representations of the most partial nature, and have recommended measures inconsistent with every principle of justice.

As this Society claim (and I believe without any competition) the merit of the bill passed in 1803, for regulating the transportation of emigrants, the consideration of that bill cannot easily be separated from a discussion of the arguments and statements upon which they recommended the measure. They transmitted for the consideration of Government, and of several members of the Legislature, three Reports, on the emigrations from the Highlands, in which many topics connected with the improvement of that district are treated with great judgement, and on the most liberal principles of political economy. Intermixed, however, with these discussions, we find some of a very different description. [These Reports have never been published, but are noticed in the Introduction to Vol. ii. Prize, Essays and Transactions of the Highland Society. The first was presented to the Society in January, 1802 - the second in June following - the third in March, 1803 - Some extracts have been printed as an Appendix to a "Report of a Committee of the House of Commons on the Survey of the Coasts, &c. of Scotland, relating to Emigration" - ordered to be printed June 9th, 1803. The quotations I have occasion to make, refer to the copies engrossed in the Records of the Society, with which they have been collated.]

1. Such an increase of population as the country, in its present situation, and with a total want of openings for the exertion of industry, cannot support.

2. The removal of many of the tenants from their farms, in consequence of a conviction on the part of the proprietors, that they will be better cultivated and managed, and pay better rents, when let in larger divisions; and more particularly, in consequence of the preference now very generally given to a sheep stock, of which the management does not, like that of a black-cattle pasture, admit of minute partition of the farm, nor require nearly so many hands.

3. The active circulation of seductive accounts of the immense advantages to be derived from going to settle in America.

The two first of these so candidly stated, and furnish so plain and rational an account of the fact, that it must excite surprise in the reader to find the last-mentioned reason insisted upon as the principal and the most extensive in its effects.

The Reporter indeed assumes the fact, that the condition of a labourer in America is not so advantageous as in Britain's; and, taking for granted, that the flattering accounts which have reached the people as to America are all false, has to explain how in course of so long an intercourse as has been kept up between different districts of Scotland and different settlements in America, no contradiction of these falsehoods should have appeared. Here he does not think it beneath the dignity of the Society to repeat the threadbare arid ridiculous story of Uncle James, and to assert, that all letters, not of a particular tendency, are detained; as if every letter had to pass a scrutiny, and as if there was no post-office establishment in America. Had some inquiry been made before such an assertion was hazarded, the Society might have learnt, that throughout all British America at least, the posts are under the same regulations as at home, and that (under the authority o the Postmasters-General of England) letters may be conveyed from almost every part of the colonies, more tediously indeed, but (sea-risk excepted) with as much safety as within Great Britain itself.

It is truly surprising , that gentlemen of respectable abilities and information, should give credit to fables of so little apparent probability. To repeat such stories without examination, can be productive of no good. On the contrary, there are so many of the people in the Highlands who have information of the situation of their friends in America on indubitable authority, confirmed by concurring testimonies, that it is in vain to think of concealing from them the true state of the fact; and the attempt to impose on their understanding can only tend to confirm the jealous suspicions, which they entertain against their superiors.

In another Report we find details of the emigrations going on, and representations of a spirit, from which the immediate and total devastation of the country is predicted. The discussion contained in the preceding parts of these remarks render it unnecessary to enter into any particular refutation of this assertion. It must, however, be observed that this representation (as well as the particulars that are given of the artifices of individuals to delude the people) appears to have been transmitted from the Island of Benbecula, one of the prime stations of the kelp manufacture. No reference is given in the Report, to the authority on which the facts are stated; and the tenor of the accompanying remarks may at least give room to doubt the coolness and moderation of the narrator, a circumstance of no less importance than his veracity for ascertaining the credibility of his information.

The facts related are not indeed in themselves improbable: the grounds of that irritation which is felt by the common people have already been explained; and it will not be thought extraordinary, that those individuals who have determined on emigration, should speak out their sentiments with little reserve, and make use of the prevailing temper of the country, to induce others to join in their schemes.

Independently of any question as to the policy of retaining against their will, a population infected with a spirit of discontent, it seems very doubtful whether their superiors are following the best methods to allay the ferment. If there exist among the Highlanders any such wanton discontent and restlessness as the Society allege, nothing seems so likely to keep alive and extend this spirit, as any attempt to repress it by individual persecution. Every manly heart will revolt at such means employed to restrain the exercise of an acknowledged natural right, and the indignation which every act of oppression must excite, may actually impel those to emigration who would never have thought of it.

Should an unreasonable and unnecessary disposition to emigration be any where observed, those who wish to obviate it, may perhaps profit by an example, which occurred in the Island of Barra in 1802. A number of people were preparing to emigrate. The proprietor, without allowing any hint to escape of his regret at the circumstance, told his tenants , that since such was their determination, he wished to see them well accommodated, and would assist them to negotiate for a ship to convey them to America. The frankness of this procedure laid every murmur to rest, and no more was heard of the emigration. Nor is this the only instance that might be quoted, where a rising spirit of this kind has been allayed by the temper and moderation of a proprietor.

Though the machinations of the leaders of emigration, as described in the Reports, are nothing more than might reasonably be expected from men of that stamp in a country where a general tendency to irritation prevails; yet the Society consider these artifices as the prime source of all the discontent they observe, and assign as their ultimate motive, the unjust and tempting gains accruing to the traders in emigration. No explanation however is given of the mode in which these extraordinary gains arise, and therefore it may not be superfluous to state a few of the details which are passed over.

Whenever the circumstances of any part of the country induced the people to think of emigration; the usual procedure has generally been, that the leading individuals have circulated a subscription-paper, to which all those, who agreed to join in chartering a ship for the purpose, subscribed their names; and whenever they had thereby ascertained their number, they called together all those who had declared their intention to emigrate.

If previous information had been obtained of the price at which shipping could be procured, it was usual for some person of the most respectable situation and property among the associates to make proposals to transact the business for them at a certain rate for each passenger; if his offer was accepted, one half of the price agreed upon was deposited by each in his hands. With the money so collected, he proceeded: to some of the great commercial ports, to make the best bargain he could with a ship-owner, contracting for such provisions and accommodation as were customary, and giving security that the rest of the passage— money should be paid previous to embarkation. When no individual was prepared to undertake the business in this manner, some one in whom the rest of the associates had confidence, was usually deputed to negotiate in the name of the others, and to procure them the best terms he could. In either case, however, the price to be paid by the individual emigrants, was always well understood to be rather higher than the price bargained for with the ship-owner. A difference of from 10 to 20s. on each passenger, was not considered as unreasonable, to compensate the trouble, expenses, and risks, to which the intermediate contractor was subject. The ship-owner seldom made more by the voyage than a mere freight; and the ordinary gains of the contractor, who was usually himself one of the emigrants, do not seems entitled to the epithet of unjust and tempting, or to be assigned as the motive for deceits and impositions so artful and so extensive as to be captable of diffusing the spirit of emigration all over the Highlands.

It may be readily believed, that in the course of such a transaction as has been described, carried on among men of low rank and little education, (the contractor being sometimes but a few steps above the rest of the associated,) much haggling would take place, sometimes deceit and imposition, and almost always a great deal of petty artifice and vulgar intrigue. It does not appear how the regulations proposed by the Society can operate to remedy any of he inconveniences arising from these circumstances, or to obviate the deceit and imposition which may occasionally have been practised by contractors. In this, as in other trades, competition must be the best check to abuse. The emigrants understand the accornmodation for which they stipulate, and competition alone can prevent them from paying too much for it. All that can be necessary therefore, to put an end to the unjust and tempting gains, of which the Society complain, is to enforce, on the part of the ship-owner and contractor, a fair performance of their bargain; leaving it to every one to make the best terms he can for himself. It is surely an extravagant allegation, that the ignorance of the people as to the nature of the voyage, puts them on a footing with men who have no will of their own, and renders it equally necessary to regulate their accommodation as that of the negro slaves.

The necessity of regulation is however inferred from the hardships to which the emigrants were subject on their passage from this country, which, it is said, were ascertained beyond the possibility of doubt by authentic documents. It is rather singular, however, that to find an instance in point, the Society go back as far as year 1173. There is indeed one other instance quoted, in 1191, and from the details that are given, it is evident that the ship referred to was too much crowded to be comfortable. As to the actual result, however, all we can learn is, that being put back after twelve days boisterous weather, the passengers were tired, especially the women and children, and did not choose to proceed:—a consequence very likely among people who for the first time in their lives were heartily sea-sick!

In speaking of the emigrations of 1801, the Society admit that minute particulars have not come to their knowledge: they state, however, upon hearsay, " that 53 of the passengers died on board one of the vessels before reaching America."—A committee of the House of Commons receiving this intelligence from so respectable a quarter deemed it worthy of being quoted among the grounds for a Legislative Enactment. They could not indeed suppose that the Highland Society would lend the sanction of their name to a mere vague report: but surely the Society, being informed of a fact so shocking to humanity, and giving such entire credit to it, ought to have followed out the inquiry, and brought the accusation home to those whose criminal negligence or avarice had occasioned the disaster. This however they have never yet thought proper to do, and have never even named the vessel to which they refer.

In calling for a remedy against the abuses, they allege, the Society disclaim any view of restraining the constitutional freedom of the Highlanders, and declare that their only object is, to regulate the transportation of emigrants in such a way, that no undue profit may arise from its being conducted in a manner destructive to the passengers. It cannot be denied, that this is a liberal profession; and if the legislative provisions adopted on their suggestion correspond to this profession, the Society are entitled to the gratitude of the emigrants, as well as of the rest of the public. Let us see then how far this can be traced, and whether the regulations laid down are absolutely necessary for the preservation of the health and lives of the emigrants.’

The most important clauses of the bill are those which regulate the number of persons which any ship is permitted to carry, and the provisions which are to be laid in and allowed to them. As to provisions, the customary food of the people to be conveyed cannot be objected to, as an inadequate criterion of what is absolutely necessary. A passenger at sea, with little or no opportunity of exercise, cannot well be supposed to require more food than when engaged in a laborious life at home.

A bill of fare is laid down for the passengers, with no part of which they are themselves at liberty to dispense; and in this there is an allowance of farinaceous food, more than equal to the entire consumption of country labourers in any part of Scotland that I am acquainted with. Over and above this, each person is obliged to take  3lb. of beef or pork, weekly. The Highland Society indeed recommended 7lb. "as absolutely necessary for a passenger*. Was it from their intimate knowledge of the domestic economy of the peasantry of the Highlands, that the Society were led to judge such an allowance of animal food indispensable,—even for an infant as the breast! This seems to have escaped the notice of the gentlemen employed by the Board of Agriculture to examine the Highlands; for we find in one of these Surveys, that animal food is rarely tasted by the lower order of tenantry, and in another, that among the farmers there is not 5lb of meat consumed in the family throughout the year!.

In the regulation which they recommended as to the numbers which any ship should be allowed to carry, the Society surely did not mean a censure on His Majesty’s Government: yet the allowance of room which they lay down (as absolutely necessary for the health of the passengers) is nearly double of that of the Transport service. The disproportion does nor indeed appear quite so great at first sight; for the bill requires 2 ton for every passenger, while in the transports 1+ ton. is the usual allowance; but that is for full-aged men: the bill requires the same accommodation for the youngest child, as for any other person; and will it be contended, that an infant requires as large a bed as a grown man?

The regulations upon this head which were customary among the emigrant passage ships, deserve attention, They were the result of experience; and the scale of proportion by which children of different ages were rated, both as to the payment of passage money, and the allowances of provisions, and birth-room, appears to be founded on pretty accurate principles. In their mode of reckoning, the passengers of all ages (when they consisted of entire families, with the usual proportion of young and old) were seldom equivalent to more than two thirds of their number of grown up persons. According to this calculation, two tons for every individual is as great an allowance as three tons for a grown man, which is not far from the proportion that the tonnage of a man of war bears to her crew alone.

These regulations are so far from being absolutely necessary, that it is difficult to see what object they can serve, except to enhance the expense of passage. This object, indeed, is not entirely disavowed by the Society; and in the history of their Transactions the regulations are spoken of as having the effect of a certain necessary but then on the voyages of emigrants. It is rather an unfortunate coincidence, that an object of so very different a nature should be combined with the regard which is professed for the comfort and safety of the emigrants. Some persons may be inclined to doubt whether humanity was the leading motive of the Society.

Whatever may have been their views, it has certainly been the subject of exuIcation to many individuals, that the bill, by rendering the passage too expensive for the pecuniary means of the tenantry, must leave them at the mercy of their superiors: but I apprehend, that however oppressive its consequences may be, the bill can produce this effect only in a very inconsiderable degree.

Every one who is acquainted with the characteristic obstinacy of the Highlanders, must be sensible how much the attempt to keep them at home by force, will rivet their determination to take the first opportunity of leaving the country. The circumstances of the times may protract the execution of this intention; but few will be prevented by all the difference of expense. It has been observed, that the tenants in general have been hitherto enabled, by the sale of their farming stock, not only to defray the expense of their passage, but to carry some money along with them. The Highland Society estimate the average amount which is carried in this way, by the emigrants, at 10/-. each family of the poorest passengers and by some a great deal more: they instance one ship, in which they give reason to suppose, that the whole party carried with them 1500/-. The enhanced expense of passage arising from the regulations, will encroach upon this reserve of cash, and, in some cases, may totally exhaust it. Should this happen, it will not deter the emigrant from trying his fate. Few of the Highlanders are so ignorant of America, as not to know that a persevering exertion of personal industry will supply the want of every other resource; that, if they should have to land there without a shilling, they may be thereby exposed to temporary hardships, and retarded for a few years in their progress; but the independence, which is their great object, will still be within their reach.

What is to be thought, however, of the superabundant humanity of the Highland Society, of which this is all the result - which, to save the emigrants from the miserable consequences of being as much crowded on ship-board as the King’s troops themselves, and of living there on the same fare as at home, reduces them to land in the colonies in the state of beggars, instead of having a comfortable provision before-hand?

Humanity apart, can such waste be considered as a matter of indifference in a national view? The money which the emigrants carry with them serves as capitals by means of which the forests of the colonies are brought into a productive state, the markets of Great Britain supplied with various articles of value, and the consumption of her manufactures extended. Is it consistent with any rational policy, that individuals should be compelled to waste this capital in expenses absolutely futile and useless? The framers of the bill, indeed, can perceive no distinction between the money expended by the emigrants for their passage and that which they carry with them to the colonies; they set it all down alike—as lost to the kingdom for ever.

It cannot, for a moment, be supposed, that these considerations can have occurred to the Highland Society, or that they would have recommended the measure in question, if they had been aware of all its consequences. It would not, perhaps, be just to. blame them for not having considered the subject with perfect impartiality, or extended, their views to the general interests of the empire. The peculiar objects of their institution lead them to pay an exclusive attention to the local interests of one district. They have given their opinion not in the character of a judge, but as a party in the cause, as representing one class of men, for whom they appear as advocates at the bar of the public.

It has fallen to my share to plead a too long neglected cause, in opposition to these powerful adversaries: I have treated their arguments with the freedom which belongs to fair discussion, but, I trust, without any sentiment inconsistent with that respect to which they are so justly entitled, from the general tenor of their patriotic labours.

[In the Highland Society, and I presume in every other that's equally extensive, the whole business is managed by a very small proportion of the members nine-tenths of them, perhaps, scarcely hear of the proceedings that are carried on in the name of the whole. Having the honour to be upon their list myself, I should certainly be very sorry to think that every member of the Society is held responsible for all their proceedings.]


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