Tag: British Empire

Relics of Empire: Pitcairn Island

Halfway between New Zealand and the Americas sits one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. The tiny volcanic island of Pitcairn is separated from the rest of the world by thousands of miles of ocean, yet it gained surprising fame thanks to its original settlers.

English: House of Fletcher Christian, leader o...
House of Fletcher Christian, leader of mutiny on Bounty, Pitcairn Island ?esky: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The island was first discovered in 1606 by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. It was rediscovered in 1767 by a British ship, and named after the crew member who spotted the island. Owing to its size, however, Pitcairn was not suitable for large-scale colonization; thus, it was left alone.

In 1798, the crew of the HMS Bounty mutinied. After setting Captain William Bligh adrift with the remaining loyal crewmembers, Master Mate Fletcher Christian set off to look for a safe haven for himself and his small crew. Unable to properly man the ship with his nine companions, Christian made landfall in Tahiti where he recruited six men and twelve women. Together, this odd group found their way to the idyllic paradise of Pitcairn Island.

The island was uninhabited, warm, and replete with coconut palms and breadfruit. It was the perfect inaccessible hideaway for the mutineers. To avoid discovery and retribution, the sailors stripped the Bounty of her contents, then ran her ashore, and burned her to the ground, effectively erasing any clues as to their whereabouts.

The group of mutineers was led by Fletcher Christian and included Ned Young, John Adams, Matthew Quintal, William McCoy, William Brown, Isaac Martin, John Mills, and John Williams. Each of the sailors took a Polynesian woman for a wife, leaving the remaining three to be shared by the six Polynesian men.

Years went by, and the tiny community lived with alternating friction and peace. Some died, some were murdered, and by 1800, John Adams remained as the only male survivor of the original party, surrounded by ten Polynesian women and twenty-three children.

English: The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and pa...
The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and part of the officers and crew adrift from HMAV Bounty, 29 April 1789, published by B B Evans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1808, American sealing Captain Mayhew Folger happened upon the tiny colony; however, little interest was paid to the island for six more years. In September of 1814, H.M.S. Briton and Tagus rediscovered the colony. The British commanders were so charmed by Adams’ care and leadership of the community that they felt it would be inhumane to arrest him for his long-passed crime.

The isolation was ended, and a relationship began between Pitcairn and the British Navy. Ships visited regularly, bringing books, tools and practical necessities in exchange for provisions.

Adams soon became concerned about the future of the island, and appealed to the British Government for a successor. Appeals were ignored; however, voluntary immigrants soon arrived, including shipwright John Buffett and Welshman John Evans. By 1828, the population had risen to 66, with the arrival of a few new residents including George Nobbs.

In 1831, the community briefly moved to Tahiti due to diminishing resources on Pitcairn. They were warmly welcomed; however, they were unhappy and many contracted infectious diseases (to which they had little natural resistance). The Pitcairn Islanders returned home just a few months later.

Increasing intrusions by American whalers let the Islanders to feel insecure in their tiny settlement. They reached out to British Captain Elliot of the H.M.S. Fly who provided them with a constitution and code of laws. While Pitcairn officially became a British settlement in 1887, the Islanders consider Elliot’s constitution to signify their formal incorporation into the British Empire.

Throughout the 20th century, the island was governed by magistrates appointed from the Christian and Young families; however, in 1970, governance of the island was transferred to the British high commissioners of New Zealand. Today, many of the islanders have emigrated to New Zealand, leaving the population at no more than 45.

New Zealand – Edge of Empire

As 1840 dawned, New Zealand was officially incorporated into the British Empire. A small number of British immigrants had trickled to New Zealand in previous years, and had made their living in sealing and whaling, as well as in timber, agriculture and livestock. The floodgates really opened in 1840, however, with wave after wave of British and Irish immigrants flowing to settle in the newly incorporated territories.

1840 – 1852

A poster of the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line pro...
A poster of the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line promoting Immigration to New Zealand in the 1850s, featuring the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three major streams of migrants made their way to New Zealand between 1840 and 1852. The largest group consisted of assisted immigrants who were brought in to populate the New Zealand Company settlements. This group settled first in New Plymouth, Nelson and Wellington (between 1840 and 1842), and later in Otago and Canterbury (between 1848 and1852).

The second wave brought groups of land purchasers and free migrants. Many of these settlers came from an Irish background, and the majority of this group made their home in the Auckland province.

The third wave began in 1845, and brought a predominantly military crowd. Over 700 men who had been sent to New Zealand during the Northern War (1845-1846) were discharged from the British regiments and chose to stay and settle. Over 2500 men, women and children also travelled to New Zealand as part of the Royal New Zealand Fencibles – a regiment sent to provide military protection to settlers near Auckland. Smaller groups also arrived in New Zealand throughout this time, such as the 514 migrants from Paisley who settled in Auckland in 1842.

1853 – 1870

From 1853 onward, New Zealand saw a dramatic increase in population, rising from around 20,000 to over 250,000 (non-Maoris). The provincial governments offered an alluring prospect to migrants from Britain and Ireland, not only providing assistance with fares, but even offering land grants in some cases. When gold was discovered in Otago in 1861, and then in Westland in 1865, emigration to New Zealand reached its peak as aspiring miners flooded in hoping to make their fortunes.

At the same time, war broke out once more between the settlers and the native Maori tribes. The British government sent a number of imperial foot regiments to resolve the conflict, and subsequently, over 2000 of those men decided to settle in New Zealand once they were discharged from service. Most of these men chose to take their discharges in Auckland, though smaller numbers did settle in New Plymouth, Wanganui and Wellington.

This time period (from 1853-1870) saw the greatest flow of migration. Over 45,000 people arrived in New Zealand in 1863 alone, with English and Irish nationals making up a substantial percentage of the total. From1853 to 1870, over 46% of immigrants to New Zealand were born in Britain, closely followed by approximately 21% who were born in Ireland. Of note, a large number of Highland Scots also made the voyage at this time, and made up a little over 30% of the total migrant population.

1871 – 1890

English: Sir Julius Vogel, ca 1870s

When immigration to New Zealand began to drop off some following the gold rush, New Zealand’s Premier, Sir Julius Vogel answered with an expansionist policy. He proposed deferred payments and guaranteed employment upon arrival for new migrants. He particularly hoped that new settlements on lands taken from the Maori would bring a measure of peace and security.

Some feared that New Zealand would become a “receptacle” for the “refuse population of large towns and cities, composed of beings hopelessly diseased in body and mind, deficient in all capacity for useful labour, vagrant and idle alike by habit and inclination, paupers by profession, and glorifying in being so.” In answer to those fears, Vogel proposed careful selection of immigrants through the Immigration and Public Works Bill.

This bill, in fact, simply allowed the government to bring in the type and quantity of immigrants requested by provincial superintendents. Over the next few years, the scheme expanded to provide subsidized or free passage, as well as the opportunity for settlers to nominate friends or relatives for immigration from England or Ireland.

The London-based Agency General followed and launched an all-out campaign to recruit immigrants. Through recruiting agents and lectures, the agency worked tirelessly to attract immigrants in general, but agricultural labourers and women in particular. The decade from 1870-1880 saw over 100,000 assisted migrants relocating to New Zealand. 1874 alone produced over 32,000 assisted migrants, making it New Zealand’s highest level of annual net migration ever.

Immigration was also encouraged in the private sector. For example, George Vesey Stewart was a gentleman entrepreneur from County Tyrone, who came to obtain 10,000 acres of land in New Zealand. To this parcel of land, he eventually attracted four groups of Protestant families from Ulster County.

Throughout this period, New Zealand’s non-Maori population increased from approximately 256,000 in 1871 to over 624,000 by 1891. A majority of the immigrants to New Zealand continued to come from the United Kingdom, making up approximately 54 % of the gross number.

Emigration from the UK continued to wax and wane throughout this time, and was determined in large part by the economic climate in New Zealand at the time. The depression of the 1880s and early 1890s certainly made New Zealand a less appealing option for migrants – especially once assisted migration was cut during the late 1880s. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that New Zealand once again became an attractive destination for migrants.

The Hong Kong Colony

Hong Kong harbour from a hill above Causeway Bay.
Hong Kong harbour from a hill above Causeway Bay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Britons in the 19th century had created an enormous market for Chinese tea; however, they were hard pressed to offer any British products that the Chinese were interested in exchanging. This presented a very real problem until the British discovered a commodity that China did want: opium.

Thanks to the poppy fields of India, the British had access to a vast supply of the narcotic, and began to aggressively pursue the trade. The Chinese government, however, became alarmed as opium addiction became widespread and the nation’s coffers were drained to pay for the imported opium. Emperor Chia Ch’ing and his successor, Tao Kuang issued edicts banning the opium trade throughout China, Whampoa and Macau.

The drug trade could scarcely be suppressed though, and a network of corrupt officials ensured its ongoing success. In 1839, Lin Xexu, the governor of Hunan and a man known for his integrity, faced off with the British garrison in Guangzhou. He surrounded the garrison, cutting off the British food supply until they turned over their stockpile of more than 20,000 bales of opium.

Captain Charles Elliot was British chief superintendent of trade at the time, and he responded by promptly cutting off all trade with China while he waited for orders from London. Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, sent off a force of 4000 men under the command of Rear Admiral George Elliot. He tasked them with pressing the Chinese government into yielding to a favourable trade agreement and providing reparations for the confiscated goods.

This sparked the beginning of the First Opium War, as the British forces first besieged Guangzhou, then sailed north, blockading and occupying ports and cities along the Yangtze River. When the British forces reached Shanghai and began to threaten Beijing, the Emperor realized the very real danger to his capital. He quickly sent out an envoy to negotiate with the British, offering Hong Kong Island in exchange for the British withdrawal from Northern China.

Ultimately, neither side truly agreed to all the terms of this offer, known as the Convention of Chenpui, though the British did take control of Hong Kong in January of 1841, hoisting the British flag at Possession Point. Hong Kong was, at the time, little more than a backwater. There were only around 20 tiny villages; however, its deep, sheltered harbour provided the British with a distinct advantage in the region.

Captain Elliot saw the island as an ideal foothold for the British Empire from which they could conduct their trade under complete British sovereignty. The British merchants in Guangzhou felt differently, however. They saw the tiny, barren island as scarcely the sort of victory that the British should have achieved. The following month, Captain Elliot took control of the Pearl River, the Bogue Fort in Humen, and laid siege to Guangzhou, refusing to withdraw until he exacted concessions from the merchants there.

Sir Henry Pottinger, the first governor of Hon...
Sir Henry Pottinger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Henry Pottinger succeeded Captain Elliot six months later, and led a powerful force north, seizing Amoy, Ningpo, Shanghai, and other strategic ports. With the British closing in on the strategic city of Nanking, the Chinese were pressed into accepting the terms that the British offered.

When the Treaty of Nanking was signed, five “treaty ports” were opened to the British. British residents were free to establish themselves there, and foreign trade was allowed to thrive. British nationals were exempt from Chinese laws, and the island of Hong Kong was officially ceded to Britain “in perpetuity”. On June 26, 1843, Hong Kong officially became a Crown Colony of the British Empire.

When Hong Kong became a British Colony, it was very easy for Britons to find work there since visa and immigration procedures were almost non-existent. It became quite common for young working class Britons to turn to Hong Kong for employment, especially during economic low periods in England.

Interestingly enough, however, Britons never made up more than a small portion of Hong Kong’s population. While the mark left on the culture and institutions of Hong Kong was enormous, there were never a very large number of Britons there at any one time. This can be seen on the census of 1865, which notes Hong Kong’s population at 125,504, of which only 2,000 or so were European or American.

Related Articles

History of Hong Kong

The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong


Forced Migration to England: Slavery in the 18th Century

English: Plate to commemorate the abolition of...
English: Plate to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament in 1807. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Slavery in the British Isles dates back to the times of the Roman Empire; however, the British really perfected the Atlantic slave trade throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. As the demand for black slaves grew in 18th century England, so did the industry of buying, transporting, and selling slaves. As the slave trade expanded, as many as 1700 and 1800 British merchants jumped on the lucrative bandwagon, committing ships and seamen to the transport of slaves.

The Transatlantic slave trade was the single most lucrative element in Britain’s trade during the 18th century. Ships never sailed empty, and profits were enormous. For a long while, very little consideration was given to the morality of the slave trade. James Houston, an employee of an 18th century slave merchant, noted, “What a glorious and advantageous trade this is. It is the hinge on which all the trade of this globe moves.” And, in fact, in many ways it did. It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of the government’s total income at that time came directly from taxes on goods from its colonies.

As money poured in through the slave trade, that money was in turn invested into British industry. The industrial landscape of Britain and other European countries involved in the slave trade was changed forever, as massive wealth poured in. In fact, the profits gained through the slave trade contributed hugely to financing the Industrial Revolution.

However, while some grew obscenely wealthy off of the trade in human chattel, others suffered greatly: namely, the slaves themselves. Uprooted from their homelands thousands of miles across the sea, they were forced into labor in a culture, language and country that was not their own. Transportation of slaves subjected them to appalling conditions for many months as they were packed tightly onto ships with little concern for comfort or well-being. Many, in fact, died before ever reaching British soil.

It is estimated that nearly three million slaves were forced across the Atlantic and into a new culture and lifestyle far from the home, people and places they knew. As the slaves were integrated into the culture, some were eventually freed and others escaped. By the final quarter of the 18th century, many thousands of black people had become part of the population of the British Isles. Some of them worked in domestic settings, yet many more worked in port cities and industrial hubs.

At that time, black domestic servants were seen as a sign of great wealth. In some cases, the African immigrants were paid workers and were free to leave their employers at will. In many other cases, however, black slaves were treated little better than property and were kept, sold, or traded at will. As time went on though, many African immigrants were free and worked as tradesmen, sailors, and even businessmen and musicians.

Interestingly enough, while the British indisputably gained nearly immeasurable wealth through the slave trade, they ended up being the leaders in the struggle to end slavery completely. In only 46 short years, the slave trade was outlawed completely by the British government. In one of the most successful reforms of the 19th century, the British government went on to abolish the practice throughout every one of their colonies.


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