- Emigrant Worlds and Transatlantic Communities: Migration to Upper Canada in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century
In Emigrant Worlds and Transatlantic Communities: Migration to Upper Canada in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, Elizabeth Jane Errington takes the reader on a transatlantic journey from various corners of the British Isles to Upper Canada. In doing so, she reminds us that the resettlement of Upper Canada in the first half of the nineteenth century was undertaken by individual men and women with complex lives and varieties of motivations for leaving home and starting anew. As one of Canada's leading scholars on the social history and development of Upper Canada, Errington opens a fresh window into the personal world of emigration through a meticulous reading of the writings of emigrants and their families and an empathetic analysis of their emotional voyage.
Emigrant Worlds reverses the usual lens for research on migration to North America. Typical studies of migration "look 'out' from North America to try to understand how particular cultural practices and political propensities persisted and shaped New World societies" (p. 169). By contrast, Errington's study looks toward North America to understand what factors drove emigrants to leave home and abandon their familiar cultural practices and political propensities. She finds transatlantic communities in which familial networks were instrumental in establishing a new and broad sense of identity and home. Kinship ties and networks with friends and families who had gone before were often instrumental in forging connections and communities that made the emigrant's world navigable. Within this context, personal reasons for emigrating were often more pivotal than wide-scale socio-economic conditions. Decisions were very much shaped by the experiences of individual emigrants and the particular circumstances in their local communities and within their transatlantic interpersonal relationships.
Errington uses letters, diaries, and journals to examine the variety of reasons that convinced emigrants to go to British North America. She paints a vivid portrait of the physical and emotional stress that preparing to leave home brought upon emigrants, the peculiar culture and surreal experiences that connected emigrants aboard passenger ships on the Atlantic, and both the euphoric and disappointing emotions that welcomed emigrants into the "strange land." Emigrant [End Page 259] writings certainly demonstrate that many "remained emotionally rooted more than three thousand miles away" (p. 137). In turn, for those who remained behind, the bonds were equally as strong. Through transatlantic webs of kin and community facilitated by letter-writing, the availability of newspapers, and, for those with the means, the occasional return visit home, the old world remained a part of the emigrants' new world. The author furthermore broadens our historical imagination through an innovative reading of often overlooked information such as wanted notices printed in colonial newspapers. In doing so, she successfully teases out information about who the emigrants were, where they were from, for whom they were looking (or who was looking for them), and how emigration was a "family affair."
Throughout the book, Errington takes the reader beyond a practical description of emigration and into poignant accounts of the joys and pains of leaving home. Departure, she argues, separated the emigrant from friends and family who were staying behind not only physically, but also emotionally. As emigrants negotiated the intricacies of arranging passage to the New World, sold their farms, possessions, and family heirlooms to raise funds for and lighten the load of travel, and found lodging while waiting to board the ship, the world of emigration "was now very real. It was a world with its own rules and customs, and for those in transit it was often bewildering and sometimes overwhelming" (p. 59). While reading this book, with its descriptive and telling accounts of the trials and tribulations of emigration, I could not help but imagine the harsh emotional journey of my own family who travelled across the Atlantic from Italy to Canada in the 1960s. Indeed, one of the striking features of emigrant writings...