Human Cargo

One of our core ambitions has always been to tell the long story of migration into and out of this country – partly because every immigrant into one country is an emigrant from another, and partly because people forget that, until the 1970s, the United Kingdom was a net exporter of people: more people left the country than entered it. The story of emigration from this country is fascinating and often horrific – and the parallels between ‘then’ and now are all too obvious. In this guest blog, Matthew Crampton, writer and folk singer (whose latest book is Human Cargo: Stories and Songs of Emigration, Slavery and Transportation), tells some of these stories and shows how folk song can allow the voice of people caught up in this practice to be heard.


Behind every statistic, a human story

Every statistic I read on migration suggests it brings economic benefits to a host country. Yet most newspaper headlines damn migrants. How do we bridge this disconnect? It’s not enough to state facts. People love their myths. Moreover, those on both sides of the argument tend to view migrants solely as statistics. Maybe story, and song, can help us re-frame the discussion.

Quayside departure lr

A quayside departure – the young man has just been ‘pressed’ into joining a ship headed for the colonies.

If you look at the lives of those trafficked* or transported in past centuries – particularly in the 1700s and 1800s – you see clear parallels with today. Patterns of cruelty do not change. In 1800, for example, frightened families filled the dockside of the Scottish town of Fort William. They were escaping famine, disease and landlords. Like Syrian families today, they were prey to the slick promises of unscrupulous traffickers, such as agent George Dunoon. He promised comfortable passage to America. Yet he crammed the desperate emigrants into rotten hulks. The crossing was horrific. The death rates for emigrants – though paying passengers – were sometimes higher than on slave boats. How could this be?

The answer, depressingly, is an economic one. Slavers were paid for the cargo they delivered alive; however cruelly the slaves who constituted this cargo might be treated, they were of value to slavers only if they survived the crossing. Emigrant captains, by contrast, were paid in advance, so they had less incentive to keep their cargo breathing. Indeed, the more that died, the more space, and food, for those left behind. Of course there was no moral equivalence: most emigrants, however desperate their circumstances, travelled voluntarily; slaves were transported against their will. And emigrants who survived, and arrived, were often free citizens, not slaves – whereas there was no such freedom for any slave who survived the journey.

Whipping White Slave Lead 151treated lr

Sex slavery was a common feature of the 18th and 19th century slave trade, occasionally, as here, featuring white women.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw millions of people on the move, a greater proportion of the then populations than today (though Syria is re-balancing the equation). And many of those people were Europeans. It’s estimated that nearly one third of the German-speaking adult population of Europe – some 15 million in total – migrated during the 1700s.

Tiny Britain had seized huge colonies, and needed labour to exploit this new land. Slaves were to provide much of this labour, particularly after the slave trade became highly sophisticated in the latter half of the 18th century. Before that, Britain also exported political prisoners to work the colonies, with Oliver Cromwell sending thousands of Scottish and Irish prisoners to the Carolinas (on the east coast of America). Later, the British government sent felons: you could be transported for 14 years for as small an offence as stealing a loaf of bread. This provided significant labour, at first to America, and then, after US independence, to Australia.

In any case, the majority of Europeans arriving in colonial America were indentured servants. Such servants entered a contract to work for another person for a defined period of time, usually without pay but in exchange for free passage to the new country; they could be bought or sold and, on average, they did not survive their period of indenture. But many did survive, like the remarkable Peter Williamson. He was kidnapped aged ten in Scotland, then ‘spirited away’ to be sold as a servant in South Carolina.

While playing on Aberdeen quay, he later wrote, ‘I was taken notice of by two fellows belonging to a vessel in the harbour, employed by some worthy men of the town, in that villainous and execrable practice called kidnapping.’ Such traffickers, known as ‘spirits’ (hence ‘spirited away’), sold him in Philadelphia – for sixteen pounds – for seven years’ indenture on a plantation. Much of that money would have made its way back to the Aberdeen magistrate who helped organise the seizure.

There are many such stories of human cargo from the time.

Deserted crofts lr

The Highland Clearances, undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries by unscrupulous landowners seeking to change the use of the land from agriculture to sheep farming, was the source of a huge movement of people from the heart of Scotland to the large towns and, further afield, to the British colonies. In its wake, abandoned crofts were the only record of a once-thriving Gaelic community.

Catherine McPhee was ‘cleared’† by her Hebridean landlord, who gave her just hours to pack up her life before forcing her onto a boat, next stop Nova Scotia. James M’Lean was an American sailor, pressed into the Royal Navy and forced into many years of horrific service across the world. Robert Whyte wrote a chilling account of life (and death) aboard an Irish ‘coffin ship’ bearing emigrants to America, which was later published as Robert Whyte’s 1847 Famine Ship Diary: The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship.

And Olaudah Equiano provided us (in his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano) with a rare first-hand slave’s account of the Middle Passage from Africa to America. He wrote ‘It was said the stench of a slave ship was so strong that other sailors could smell it a mile downwind, and that the odour of vomit, sweat and faeces of its human cargo worked its way into the very wood and could not be scrubbed away.’

BM6GC1 ZONG MASSACRE - contemporary woodcut of the mass-killing of African slaves in 1781 thrown overboard from the ZONG trading ship

Olaudah Equiano was instrumental in drawing to public attention the horrific 1781 massacre of African slaves on the slave ship ‘Zong’. The ship’s crew threw 133 Africans over board when the ship ran low on drinkable water – but also to cash in on insurance repayments for the ‘loss’ of the ship’s cargo. The case against the ship owners was unsuccessful but is said to have led to the abolitionist movement in Britain.

These stories help humanise the history of migration. But history tends to record the rich, the resourceful and the lucky. What of the masses, the poor or illiterate, who left no testimony?

Here, interestingly, we can turn to folk song. Vast numbers of folk songs exist from this period. They’re mostly anonymous, passed down orally until transcribed by a song collector. Or they were printed crudely on broadsheets, sold cheaply in the streets of Hanoverian or Victorian England.

Though anonymous, folk songs can provide an authentic record of ordinary people. There’s a song called “Paddy’s Lamentation”, or “By the Hush”, whose chorus sings:

Oh you boys, now take my advice
To America I’d have you not be coming
For there’s nothing here but war,
And the thundering cannons roar,
And I wish I was back home in dear old Ireland.

Union flag and cannon treated low res

Union flag and cannon – on their arrival in America, many indentured servants found themselves drafted in to fight on behalf of the Unionist cause.

“Paddy’s Lamentation” highlights a little-known story about migration from the time. During the American Civil War, the Union Army sent recruiting agents to post-famine Ireland. They promised free Atlantic passage to young men, in return for a bit of work. On arrival in New York, all excited, the men would not be allowed to disembark until they’d signed up to join the army of the northern states. Within months, or weeks, they might be on the battlefield of Gettysburg, where, like the narrator of this song, they lost a leg, or worse.

Migrants who’d survived the crossing could not depend on Trip Advisor to chronicle their duplicitous traffickers. But word could reach back home with songs like this.

For my book Human Cargo, I found many such stories, and songs, which chart the breadth of migration in past centuries. These touch areas such as emigration, slavery, the press gang, sex trafficking and convict transportation. Where possible, I’ve included modern testimony, for example contrasting a trafficked Japanese sex worker from 1905 with the recent experience of a young Albanian woman lured into Italy. Or I link the vicious practices of the press gang with the recruitment of African child soldiers today.

As I say in the introduction, today’s refugee crisis demands witness – and action – but is hard to grasp. Story and song won’t solve the problems, but they can help find a way in.



*The terms ‘trafficking’ and ‘transportation’ in the 18th and 19th centuries include those carried involuntarily – such as slaves, prisoners and the forcibly displaced – and those travelling by choice (even if it was a desperate choice), such as most emigrants.

†Another way of saying ‘forcibly displaced’ – this process, which took place over a period of 100 years in the 18th and 19th centuries, is now referrred to as the Highland Clearances.


Matthew Crampton’s book, Human Cargo: Stories and Songs of Emigration, Slavery and Transportation, is available for £10 – more info here. The pictures accompanying this article come from the 50 illustrations in the book.

Brits abroad

Our last blog looked at the huge exodus of British citizens in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when 2 million people left the UK to seek new lives in Canada, the USA, Australia and elsewhere. Emigration continues to be an important part of the migration story in Britain, and currently an estimated 5 million British citizens live abroad. That’s 7–8 per cent of the UK population. The European country with the largest British population is Spain, with an estimated 700,000 British emigrants.

Charlie Clift is a British portrait photographer living in London. He has dangled CEOs upside down, got shouted at by political leaders, waded up to his chest in floodwaters, smeared paint on art dealers’ faces and poured pints for dogs. All of it to make great photographs. He’s worked with the likes of The Sunday Times Magazine, The Independent, Samsung and AXA. His project Brits Abroad, featuring portraits of British emigrants living in Europe, was born out of a desire to change the current immigration debate in the UK by reminding people that Brits are immigrants, too.

Simon Williams – Brits Abroad Project

Simon owns a Caribbean themed bar on Fuengirola beachfront and enjoys the relaxed lifestyle of the area. He moved to Spain for medical reasons, because the warm climate helps alleviate his arthritis. © Charlie Clift

My interest in migration came from a frustration with the way migration into the UK was being talked about in the British media. Instead of viewing it as a human subject, it is often spoken about using statistics and stereotypes – when in fact every person’s journey to a new country is unique and personal. I wanted to show this to a British audience and couldn’t think of a better way to do this than to look at the lives of British people who had moved to live abroad. Every person I photographed lived a different life in Spain: some did live the stereotypical ‘retired and moved for sunshine’ type of lives, but many did not – from those who struggled to speak Spanish, and therefore to integrate, to those who had married Spaniards and brought up a family there. Each was a unique story.

Before setting off to Spain I started asking just about everyone I met if they knew a Brit who lived in Spain. This led me down a lot of interesting paths. Of course, once you start to find people in the area, they recommend others who may be interested in taking part in the project. I also thought of certain things which were really British and researched to see if they existed in Spain – for example, I found the Javier Bowls Club when I looked for the very British hobby of lawn bowls. Eventually – after many hours on Skype, on Google and talking to people – I found a wide group which I thought would show the diversity of the Brits in Spain.

For almost all of my sitters, moving abroad was the biggest change they have ever experienced in their life. It is not something people do lightly and is often something that defines them and which they feel is an important part of their character. I also found there was a unique ‘Britishness’ running through all the people I photographed, regardless of how much they had integrated into the Spanish way of life. I don’t think people lose their origins – it is part of who we are and will always be with us.

People often talk about migration into the UK and forget that Brits are immigrants too. I hope that by showing these people’s stories I will make people think twice about immigration into the UK, or at least see the discussion from a different viewpoint.

With a referendum about Britain’s membership of the EU on the way I thought there would be no better time to remind everyone in the UK just how many British people are living in Europe – so I am currently expanding the project to include many other EU countries. I’ve just got back from Denmark, Sweden and Estonia, and I hope to add four or five more countries in early 2016. By the end of the project I will have a body of work showing the massive variety of lifestyles that exist within Europe that I hope will help people see migration from a new angle.

Fracesca Sadleir – Brits Abroad project

Francesca was born in Spain and is schooled in the Spanish education system; she is also a British citizen. She enjoys chocolate ice-lollies from the Iceland store that her mother occasionally visits to purchase British goods. © Charlie Clift

Sean Mitchell – owner of a fish and chip shop on Fuengirola be

Sean runs a traditional British fish and chip shop by the beach in Fuengirola. The majority of his customers are British holiday makers or expatriates and he serves chips made from imported British Maris Piper potatoes. © Charlie Clift

Carole regularly plays bowls at the Javea Green Bowls Club, which consists almost entirely of British members. She loves living in Spain and doesn’t want to move but is frustrated that she can no longer vote in British parliamentary elections. © Charlie Clift


Reggie works at an English language newspaper that her husband owns. She likes the Spanish pace of life but has not learnt to speak the language and thus struggles to integrate with locals. © Charlie Clift

David Salgo - Brits Abroad project

David Salgo is a musician who retired to Spain. He enjoys living in a typical Spanish village and plays golf regularly with friends, many of whom are also expatriates. © Charlie Clift

David Marshall - Brits Abroad project

David is a sculptor who works in his home in the mountains. He moved to Spain 46 years ago after learning to speak Spanish on a long motorcycle trip through South America. © Charlie Clift


Paul runs an English language newspaper called The Courier from an office in Torrevieja. He moved to Spain to escape the busy life he had in London working for News International. © Charlie Clift

Joyti Tyler – Brits Abroad project

Joyti lives and works in a community project in the desert named Sunseed Desert Technology. She enjoys living a sustainable life and move to Spain because it is where the project is based. © Charlie Clift

Stacey Lloyd – Brits Abroad project

Stacey runs a charity to care for and re-home unwanted dogs. Her house is full of donated goods to sell to raise money. In her spare time she plays darts in a local expatriate league and looks after her four cats. © Charlie Clift

Linda Hutchence - Brits Abroad project

Linda works cleaning holiday villas to pay her bills and rent. She likes being able to have an outdoor life 8–9 months of the year but misses being able to watch her grandchildren grow up in England. © Charlie Clift


Charlie Clift’s photography may be viewed on his website – –where there is more information on his Brits Abroad project. 

The last great exodus from Britain?

Our position has always been that the Migration Museum we are working to develop will be a museum about emigration as much as about immigration, and for two main reasons. The first is that, until the 1980s, Great Britain was a net exporter of people – more people left the country than came into it – and emigration has been a core part of our history for thousands of years. And the second is that every immigrant into a country is, of course, an emigrant from another – but, when people talk about migration, the focus tends always to be, unevenly, on the impact of immigration rather than that of emigration.

In this guest blog, Murray Watson tells the story of one particular episode of emigration in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. This is in many ways a much less widely known story than that told by Mihir Bose in his recent blog comparing the current migration situation with that within Europe in the years following 1945.


Away from the ration book . . .

The mass movement of people in the years following the Second World War was exceptional. Much has been written about war brides and the millions of displaced persons as well as returning military personnel; but little attention has been given to the mass exodus of young British emigrants desperate to depart Britain’s war-torn shores.

In the years after the war more than 2 million people emigrated from the United Kingdom. Such was the scale of population loss that wartime leader Winston Churchill feared those leaving would hamper post-war recovery. He issued a patriotic appeal on the BBC:

I say to those that wish to leave our country, “Stay here and fight it out.” If we work together with brains and courage, as we did in days not long ago, we can make our country fit for all our people. Do not desert the old land.



Applicants for emigration to Australia queue at the Australian Embassy in London, December 1929. English-speaking Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada were favoured destinations for emigrants, with some governments offering assisted passage schemes to try and attract workers. © Getty Images

This was a battle Churchill was destined to lose and his feelings were made palpably clear when he described emigrants as ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’. Five years later, in 1952 on a visit to Canada, he had apparently modified his views when he said, ‘A magnificent future awaits [immigrants] in Canada.’

Canada was the most popular destination for post-war British emigrants, with over half a million emigrating there in the 25 years after the war. Other popular destinations, according to secretary of state Duncan Sandys, were Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia–Nyasaland and the USA.


A nurse inspecting a group of children from the Outer Hebrides on board the Canadian Pacific ship the SS Marloch, April 1924. © Getty Images

Why was emigration such an important phenomenon after the war? My new book, Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada Since 1945, co-authored with Marilyn Barber, reveals a complex mix of explanations. What was evident was that there was a pervasive nationwide propensity to emigrate; most adults would have been aware of some of their friends or family thinking about leaving Britain in pursuit of a new and better life.

The euphoria after VE Day and VJ Day was short-lived. The costs of fighting the most expensive war in history had plunged the country into a series of economic crises that even the Marshall plan from the USA could not relieve. Cities were bomb-scarred, and housing shortages – exacerbated by returning troops – were critical. There were food and fuel shortages, and an austerity regime rationing food, fuel, furniture and clothing continued until 1954. Newly married couples were often forced to share with parents or to live in cold, inadequate homes. And, if that was not enough, there was the winter of 1947, a winter of Canadian proportions that made life even more miserable. Conditions were such that George Drew, the Premier of Ontario, handed out food parcels from the people of Canada to hungry residents in Suffolk.


Scottish emigrants on board the Minnedosa, headed towards Canada. © Getty Images

George Drew was a wily operator. He, along with other politicians in the Federal Government, wanted to attract British immigrants. Drew, in another publicity stunt, personally welcomed the first thirty-nine airborne immigrants who arrived in Toronto on a Skymaster aircraft run by Transocean Air Lines in 1947.

Immigration offices from Commonwealth countries sprang up in cities throughout the UK, with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand extolling the benefits of better housing and employment opportunities, as well as offering incentives for an unsurpassed quality of life.


An immigration official processing new arrivals in the customs hall at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

At the age of twenty-one James Roland decided it was time to seek pastures new. He went to London and, as he recalled, ‘I sort of had this idea of the Commonwealth in my mind.’ He planned to go to the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian High Commissions to learn about emigrating. He went to Canada House first and never got any further. There he found a huge room full of people all wanting to go to Canada and waiting for several days to be processed. When an immigration officer discovered that Roland had a degree, however, he was fast-tracked and emerged three hours later, having had a medical and obtained an assisted passage and landed immigrant status. He did not bother to investigate Australia or New Zealand.


A group of cheering miners’ sons on board the ship Montcalm as they emigrate to Canada.

The crowded rooms and queues at immigration offices were largely populated by young people – married couples, nuclear families, and single men and women. James Roland was typical of the single people who emigrated. In the years after the war there was an urge to travel, for adventure and excitement. Shortages of cash and frequent spells of exchange controls meant there were few of the opportunities enjoyed by the backpackers of today. People had to go on working holidays, which meant they had to secure landed immigrant status. Some of these people returned, but many remained in their new homes.

Married couples and those with young children also sought adventure, but they also wanted better jobs and better housing. A typical example was Emma Bulmer, who was a child when she emigrated with her parents in 1948. Her family stories of English austerity shaped her childhood knowledge of her background:

Part of the stories of growing up was how there was not enough coal to heat the house, so we slept in the kitchen and that was really cold, and putting the baby in a drawer to sleep because there wasn’t enough money to buy a certain thing like a crib, and of the ration books …



Ex-servicemen and their families on the Canadian Pacific liner Montrose on their way to take up agricultural work in Canada, January 1927. They were sent under the auspices of the British Legion, which trained them in Canadian agricultural methods. © Getty Images

You can discover more about these hidden histories from dozens of immigrants who were interviewed for my new book. Our recorded life stories are intensely private, often funny, and occasionally heartbreaking. Many of the immigrant interviewees talk frankly about their motivations, fears, expectations, and family separation anxieties. Others refer mainly to their public lives, revealing insights into how individuals and families integrated into local communities and the Canadian way of life. The book also includes comparative examples of experiences of other immigrants, including those who went to Australia and New Zealand. Some accounts are positive, others negative; some are sad, others happy; some are success stories, others are not. They reveal memories about hardship, first impressions, culture shock, heartbreak, love, family, illness, death, ambition, work, patriotism, and much more.



Dr Murray Watson is an honorary research fellow in the School of Humanities (History) at the University of Dundee. He is the author of Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945 (University of Manitoba Press, 2015) and Being English in Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2003). He was also a post-war migrant himself, emigrating to the West Indies with his parents and siblings in 1959.