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  • Emigrant Worlds and Transatlantic Communities: Migration to Upper Canada in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century
  • Wendy Cameron
Emigrant Worlds and Transatlantic Communities: Migration to Upper Canada in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Elizabeth Jane Errington. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007. Pp. 256. $80.00 cloth, $29.95 paper

Emigrant Worlds is a fascinating study of the personal side of emigration, a search for what was common in the very individual experiences of emigrants leaving the British Isles for Upper Canada in the years from 1815 to 1845. Some two and a half million people sailed from the British Isles for North America between 1815 and 1850. Neither the macro picture of rapid population growth and economic dislocation at home, nor the attractions offered by various sources of information on Canada entirely satisfy the questions why some emigrated when many more did not, or why some chose to come here. Emigrants and those close to them already knew the whys, but Errington teases out information on the emigrant decision from families in which opinion was divided. John and Ann Gemmill kept the debate alive when their eldest son refused to join them. In other families the dialogue continued during preparation for a voyage of seven weeks or more, packing the bulky boxes and crates of nineteenth-century travel, and saying the difficult goodbyes. Once they engaged directly with crowded ports and uncertain sailing dates, emigrants such as diary writer George Pashley were in the thick of the events they described. Passengers struck by the strangeness grappled with describing the shipboard world and left rich material for a lively account of the ocean crossing.

After they disembarked into the 'Strange Land,' the leisurely pace of travel for relatively affluent emigrants such as the Langtons or the Huttons was in sharp contrast to the urgency of labourers and artisans running out of money. And what of all the things that might go wrong, of separation during travel, death, illness, and deliberate desertion? [End Page 153] Mrs Hennesey, Mrs McIndoe, the parents of Michael Carey, and many others who failed to find expected husbands, children, or siblings turned to Canadian newspapers. Errington makes brilliant use of her survey of some 350 'information notices' inserted in the hope of contacting relatives or friends who had gone missing. On a happier note, emigrant letters bring the discussion back to people anxious to maintain ties with family at home. Yet Harriet Pengelly stands out for her failure to overcome her homesickness during her short life in Upper Canada, and most writers were quick to find compatriots and to start forming new ties. The conclusion is a reflection on the dynamics of memory and increasingly distant contacts and on the transformation from an old identity to a new life. For Errington, emigration was not a 'tide' but a world of individuals who 'left home and remade home as part of family and kin groups' (166) and who had this experience in common.

Emigrant Worlds belongs on the bookshelf with David Fitzpatrick's analysis of emigrant letters in Oceans of Consolation, Bruce Elliott's study of chain migration in Irish Migrants in the Canadas, and as a back story to the Wives and Mothers, School Mistresses and Scullery Maids in Errington's own look at women in Upper Canada. It is a close analysis of a sample of sources backed by wide reading. It explores complex kinship networks, which in recent scholarship are replacing the comparatively simple dichotomy of singles and nuclear families in emigration studies. And it brings to the fore the sensibilities and contributions of female emigrants absent from most contemporary published sources. Intriguingly, Errington states that she was led to ask what it was to be one of many thousands who braved emigration in the first half of the nineteenth century by the information wanted notices, by people for whom obvious questions of why, how, and where cannot be answered. They left the briefest of snapshots of themselves, but two features are characteristic of their 'cards.' Emigrants and those looking for them gave their own relationship to the person sought, and they used their home community...


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pp. 153-155
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