Were Bounty Immigrants Good or Bad for the Colonies?

by Leone Huntsman


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"My ancestor, Mary Ann Smith, then only 20 years of age, arrived in Sydney on the Carthaginian on 28 January 1842. She was an 'assisted immigrant', brought to Australia under what was known as The Bounty Scheme.

During the nineteenth century there were a number of schemes whereby the government provided funding to encourage immigration. The catalyst for the first such scheme was the imbalance between the male and female population. In late 1831 the British government appropriated a portion of the revenue from the sale of crown lands to subsidise the passage of unmarried female immigrants, in order to 'restore the equilibrium of the sexes; to raise the value of female character; and to provide virtuous homes for the labouring classes of the community'. [1]

Economically, however, the demand was for 'productive' (i.e., male) labour: most colonial employers wanted male immigrants, a labour force that would enable the development of colonial lands. In 1835 government-assisted migration was expanded to include males, especially 'farm labourers' and 'agricultural mechanics' and a scheme was instituted whereby 'bounties' were paid to individuals and companies who recruited emigrants and brought them to the colonies.

'Domestic or farm servant' was the category of occupation stipulated for single women eligible to emigrate under The Bounty Scheme. Married couples in the desired occupational categories, especially those who were young and without children, were also sought. Single unmarried females travelling alone were not acceptable: they had to be under the protection of a male relative or other respectable male person.

The original idea of The Bounty Scheme was that colonists who wished to sponsor and employ migrants were given a 'bounty order' worth £30 for each married couple under 30, £5 for each child, £15 for each single woman 15-30, and £10 for each single man 18-25, these amounts increasing as time went on. Five shillings was to be paid to the sponsor by the government when each migrant was approved on disembarkation in the colony, the balance after the immigrant had lived for 6 months in the colony. But the bounty orders very quickly passed into the hands of British ship owners, who sought pro?t by filling up their ships with would-be immigrants, employing sub-agents on contract to promote emigration in various parts of England, Ireland and Scotland.

What Type of Immigrants came to Australia under the Bounty Scheme?

Since colonial demand was for labour to work in rural areas, recruitment was most active in the depressed rural areas of England, Ireland, and to a lesser extent Scotland. There are sharp differences of opinion among historians regarding the calibre of the emigrants. The picture conveyed by earlier Australian historians [2] was of 'somewhat depressed and spiritless arrivals', with 'the paupers, the drunkards, the prostitutes and the convicts who formed, perhaps, too great a section of the arrivals'; [3] the unwanted residue, too poor to pay their own way to the United States or Canada. A belief that the British Government was using emigration as a way of ridding itself of the destitute poor, as the convict system had been used to expel the criminal classes, was prevalent.

Robin Haines, writing in 1997, strongly disputes these views, which might have placed excessive reliance on the opinions of those with axes to grind in the conflict between Imperial and colonial interests that characterised the immigration debate during the early nineteenth century. She concludes that 'government-assisted emigrants . . . between 1831 and 1860 were well-informed, self-selecting, literate individuals . . . who sought opportunities to exchange lives of under-employment at home . . . for the chance of full employment in the colonies . . . Many shrewdly took advantage of an amalgam of private and official aid to enable them to finance their [emigration]'. [4]

Beliefs about Assisted Immigrants - and their refutation

Haines takes issue with a number of beliefs about the bounty system put forward by earlier writers:

1. Assisted immigrants were drawn from the 'wrong' strata of the British and Irish population. The British government sent out people it wanted to be rid of rather than the kinds of workers needed in the colony.

This judgment needs to be viewed in the context of deep suspicion of the motives of the British Colonial Office in the colonies. Haines points out that the historian Madgwick, while arguing in support of this belief, had himself noted the extent to which defects in selection procedures were exaggerated by influential colonists.

There were abiding tensions between colonial demands for self-government and the British government's commitment to imperialism. As the British government took more control of the immigration scheme into its own hands, criticism of the scheme in the colonies increased. But Haines concludes that, contrary to the belief expressed above, the CLEC (Colonial Land and Emigration Commission) kept a close watch on bounty selections, seeking to build up a population of prosperous workers in the Australian colonies which would provide a market for British manufactured goods, rather than aiming to rid Britain of unwanted paupers.

2. Being illiterate and gullible, assisted immigrants were lured to the colonies by misleading propaganda disseminated by unscrupulous immigration agents or sub-agents seeking to fill the coffers of their shipowner employers.

Haines found that private agents paid a relatively minor recruiting role, and that the activities of the clergy, private individuals and philanthropic agencies in promoting emigration have been underestimated. Landlords, clergy and local gentry set up emigration committees, while the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 empowered parishes to raise loans to assist the poor to emigrate. A few landlords helped their tenants to migrate and supported them afterwards, though this was exceptional. From 1840 many emigrants applied directly to the CLEC themselves, or through their local clergyman.

Parishes and Unions, local emigration committees and individual landlords acted as information exchanges and advice bureaux regarding emigration. There were also local advertisements in newspapers and on placards and handbills, notices were packed with information on government regulations, eligibility criteria, and steerage prices. The emigrants' choice of destination seems to have been based on a great deal of written information, with standards of literacy being higher than has commonly been supposed. [5]

3. Because immigration under The Bounty Scheme was free, it attracted emigrants who would prefer to have gone to North America but couldn't afford even the steerage fee.

Haines points out that the personal cost of unassisted passage to the United States was sometimes marginally cheaper than the compulsory contributions which government-assisted emigrants to the Australian colonies were required to make. A passage deposit (which cost between £1 and £15) was mandatory, as was a compulsory out?t of clothing. She gives an example of one couple with nine children who paid a deposit which was equal to two years' wages for an adult labourer. Thus emigration to the Australian colonies was a deliberate choice, not a last resort. 'Elite' Irish rural labourers, she suggests, tended to choose Australia over Britain and the United States, although North America remained the major attraction for most emigrants; and John Besnard, an Emigration Agent in Cork between 1837 and 1840, believed that the regulations ensured that the better-off Irish embarked for Australia under The Bounty Scheme.

Reasons for ending the Bounty Scheme

In 1840, assisted immigration was centralised under British government control through the establishment of a Colonial Land and Emigration board. From the establishment of the CLEC in 1840 onwards, monitoring of the suitability of bounty immigrants increased, as did colonial complaints about abuses of the system. A Colonial Examining Board questioned immigrants and perused their papers at the ports of disembarkation, and either approved or refused the payment of bounties. Bounty operators were required to pay the entire cost of passage for immigrants considered ineligible by the Colonial Examining Board, and as the number of people refused bounties on various grounds increased, agents accused the colony of tightening up regulations because colonial funds, derived from land sales, were depleted.

In 1842 a depression in the colony led to a decision to call a temporary halt to the scheme, and the British Colonial Secretary, prompted by criticism of abuses of the system, men ordered the cessation of immigrant recruitment. Assisted immigration resumed on a lesser scale later in the 1840s, but The Bounty Scheme was finished.

The significance of Bounty Immigrants: an assessment

In the view of many of those living at the time, The Bounty Scheme might have been considered a failure; but from a modern perspective, it is possible to be more objective about its achievements:

1. Immigration under The Bounty Scheme helped to redress the imbalance between the number of males and females in the colonies. Between 1831 and 1851 government-assisted immigration, mainly 'The Bounty Scheme', brought out 37,000 women and 32,000 men. The aim of providing wives and mothers for future Australian families, thereby increasing happiness and stability within the colonies, was furthered by this influx.[6]

2. The already substantial proportion of Irish people within the Australian population was maintained and strengthened by The Bounty Scheme. Just under half of convict women and of assisted immigrants were Irish. In the case of the immigrants, the percentage might have been even higher, given that Irish farm workers sometimes emigrated from English ports, having travelled to England in search of work. The ship Gleswilly, for example, in 1841 had 310 emigrants listed as English, but all were Irish, having been brought across to join the ship in Plymouth.[7] In 1841, the last year of full-scale bounty immigration, 4563 immigrants were listed as coming from England and Wales; 1616 from Scotland; and 13,344 from Ireland, brought to the ports of Sydney and Port Phillip (Melbourne) by 99 ships, 89 of which had been specially fitted out for this purpose. [8]

This 'flood' of Irish may have been one of the real, major reasons why The Bounty Scheme was disparaged. The prosperous, land-owning colonists were largely English and Protestant in origin, and the Irish were distinctly unwelcome. There were loud complaints, promulgated through the mouthpieces of the propertied classes, the Sydney Herald and the Melbourne Argus, that Australia was being flooded with 'low, depraved and bigotted [sic] classes who are selected from the south of Ireland'; 'Popish serfs' [9] The Sydney Herald of 23 May 1842 argued that immigrants from manufacturing districts in England were just as or even more welcome than those from agricultural regions, and the Governor was criticised for concentrating on rural migrants because 'it leads to an undue proportion of immigrants from Ireland. All who wish to see this Colony retain its character as a British and Protestant community ought to do everything to counteract this'. [10]

Sectarianism - antagonism between Protestants and Catholics (i.e., Catholics of Irish descent) - was ingrained in the fabric of Australian society until well after World War 11, rising to a peak during and immediately after World War 1, when Catholics were accused of being disloyal to the Empire because they were largely blamed for defeating a bill to introduce conscription.

In the long run, however, tensions between English/Protestant and Irish/Catholic settlers and their descendants can be seen as a dynamic, creative factor in Australia's development. The Irish were there from the beginning, in large numbers, along with the English; they continued to migrate to Australia throughout the nineteenth century, maintaining their position as a substantial component of the population. While there was active prejudice against them, they were too numerous to ostracise, and Catholics and Protestants were involved together in nation-building tasks. O'FarrelI judges that 'the effect of anti-Irish tirades was to isolate and discredit those who made them, and to undermine the edifice of such bias by exposing it to ridicule and contempt as un-Australian bigotry and extremism. Paradoxically, the operation of a colonial revulsion against such hysteria gradually brought the Irish toward the territory of what was real and acceptably Australian'. [11]

There were no dense concentrations of Irish people maintaining a distinct identity separate from the general population. Few could ever afford a return visit to Ireland. Building for themselves a better life in Australia, they paid to bring out relatives and friends to join them. Wherever there was settlement in Australia, the Irish were there as part of it.

The Irish and the English settlers between them, and their descendants, despite and because of their differences, wrought for themselves a new identity; they became simply 'Australian', forging a new and unique national character. The Bounty Scheme assisted this process by importing large numbers of Irish, a process that was maintained by the immigration of female Irish orphans in the late 1840s and 1850s, and the Irish who joined the goldrushes in the decade of 1851-60.

3. While many bounty immigrants undoubtedly endured hardship in their new homeland, opportunity awaited them as well. Despite contemporary suggestions to the contrary, there seems to have been plenty of work: Mr Merewether's 1842 Report on Immigration stated that of the 23,200 immigrants who arrived in 1841, there remained in Barracks (i.e., as yet unemployed) in Port Phillip (Melbourne) only 107, and in Sydney only 46, on 1 January 1842. Only 372 had failed to find employment within ten days of their arrival in Sydney: 'These statements render unnecessary any comment on the great demand for labour which must have existed in the colony and the almost overwhelming distress which, but for its arrival, would have been experienced'. [12]

Agricultural labourers paid £3 a year in England in 1840 could earn £20 and sometimes generous keep in Australia. Meat consumption per head was more than twice that of Britain. There were always tales of hardship; but given the alternatives, one can only conclude that immigration was the right move for most assisted immigrants.

Were the bounty immigrants a poor lot, as earlier historians claimed; or enterprising, self-selecting, well-informed individuals, as Haines has concluded? (Since four of my ancestors were bounty immigrants, I prefer Haines' verdict!) in support of her favourable judgement, there is every reason to believe that a strong class bias was inherent in the records of the system, rendering the perception of middle-class and upper-class observers unreliable. As Alford puts it, 'Adverse judgements were directed at a predominantly impoverished and working class of British and Irish females [and males], by a class comprising senior civil servants in Britain and Australia, colonial employers, pastoralists and clergymen'.[13] Female convicts had also been roundly condemned as a hopelessly drunken, immoral lot of prostitutes; recent research has similarly revealed the class prejudice and misogyny inherent in those judgements.[14]

It took courage as well as desperation, or a sense of adventure, to travel twelve thousand miles across the face of the globe to a largely unknown destination. l believe that readers who are descended from bounty immigrants should take pride in the calibre of those who took this momentous step. Those of us who enjoy a good life in Australia are grateful that they did."

1. Select Committee of the NSW Legislative Council on Immigration, 1835, p.413.
2. See, for example, R. B. Madgwick, Immigration into Eastern Australia 1788-1851, Longmans Green & Co. 1937 and Geoffrey Blainey, A Shorter History of AustraIia, Port Melbourne, William Heinemann Ltd, 1994.
3. Madgwick. op. cit., p.251.
4. Robin F. Haines, Emigration and the Labouring Poor: Australian Recruitment in Britain and Ireland, 1831-1860, Macmillan, 1997.
5. From the immigrants who arrived in 1841, nearly all of them under 'The Bounty Scheme', 8643 were recorded as being able to read and write; 2961 could read only; and 3178 could do neither. (immigration Agent Mr Merewethers Report, Sydney Herald, 16 June 1842). These figures seem to support Haines' contention that literacy levels may have been higher than commonly assumed.
6. See Katrina Alford. 'Assisted immigrants', in Production or Reproduction? An economic history of women in Australia. 1788-1850, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1984, for a more detailed and critical examination of this aspect of immigration policy.
7. Patrick O'Farrell, The Irish in Australia, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 1987, p.71.
8. Report on Immigration for the year 1841, by Mr Merewether, in the Sydney Herald of June 16, 1842. 9. O'Farrell, op. cit., p.71.
10. The Australasian Chronicle, a Catholic/Irish newspaper, ridiculed those who advocated the emigration of 'mercantile clerks' from the cities in an editorial on April 19, 1842: Is their motive to clear the country of the corn law repealers?' It contended that the colonies needed capital rather than more labour, and condemned the bounty system as a traffic in human flesh'.
11. O'Farrell, op. cit., p.74.
12. Report on immigration, op. cit.
13. Alford, op. cit., p.119.
14. See Portia Robinson, The Women of Botany Bay: A Reinterpretation of the role of women in the origins of Australian society, Sydney, Macquarie Library, 1988.

FROM: Were Bounty Immigrants Good or Bad for the Colonies? Copyright © by Leone Huntsman
from DESCENT, the Journal of the Society of Australian Genealogists:
December 2001 - pp.174-179. Reprinted with permission (11 Aug. 2020)

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This page was updated on: 8 September 2020