Robert Grant | “‘The Fit and Unfit’: Suitable Settlers for Britain’s Mid-Nineteenth-Century Colonial Possessions” | 2005

New Zealand Illustrated. The Story of New Zealand and Descriptions of its Cities and Towns. 1889.

New Zealand Illustrated. The Story of New Zealand and Descriptions of its Cities and Towns. 1889.

Robert Grant’s paper investigates 19th century British colonial literature urging certain British subjects to emigrate to the colonies.


1. The Colonial Condition: Arcadian or Degenerate? Discussion of what sort of person was deemed fit to go to the colonies.

2. Footsteps “Marked by a Trail of Light.” British women’s role in the colonies.

3. Landscapes of Opportunity. Imaginative, rural tropes used to entice British subjects to the colonies.

1. The Colonial Condition: Arcadian or Degenerate?

For would-be emigrants the colonial frontier represented not just the potential for a new social order but also for the absence of regular government, abandonment of social restraints, and a surrender to lawlessness; concerns that were augmented by fears regarding actual racial degeneration. The removal of social restraints had given “a reckless and unprincipled character” to Western Canada, according to Nathaniel Willis. Intoxication prevailed to a lamentable degree because cheap spirits, which had produced “ill conduct and ruin”; and the tone of society there had been greatly influenced by Americans, “not from the civilized portions of the Union, but from the back-wood, breathing rather the spirit of Kentucky than of New England.” In Australian colony, New South Wales, with high wages, laborers could work one third or one quarter of their time and still earn an ample livelihood. Those so disposed consequently had plenty of time for idleness and drunkenness, she bemoaned, and the ‘cabalistic letters l.s.d. and R U M appear too frequently the alphabet of existence.” [DRINK]

For those promoting emigration to colonies, it was clear who were “fit and unfit,” “who should go,” “who would be better to stay at home.” Edward Jerningham Wakefield, son of “colonial reformer” Edward Gibbon Wakefield: “There is, perhaps, more need to consider the peculiar fitness of the character of an individual to become a colonist than to join any other profession.”

Mundy catalogued those unsuited to colonial life in Australia: “The drone and the voluptuary had better stay at home.” Those who met ruin in colonies did so because of “idleness, ignorance, or imprudence.”

Wakefield again: those who failed in the colonies were “disappointed men,” with some reason for disappointment, “but no courage to exert themselves or to seek for means of overcoming the difficulties in their way.” Rather, set to “grumbling […] smoking and drinking; pitching stones into the sea off the jetty; wandering lazily from one resort of idlers to the other; in the billiard-rooms, and near the public houses.” [DRINK] Such an immigrant was entirely unfitted for colonial life, and the parents or guardians of this kind of “scamp” were to be thoroughly reproved for inflicting such a pest on a new colony.

A particularly bourgeoise ideal of male sociality was central to Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s vision of settler New Zealand.

2. Footsteps “Marked by a Trail of Light.” No notes from this section.

3. Landscapes of Opportunity. For many mid nineteenth-century commentators, the greatness of the British nation and its empire = middle-class qualities = supreme ex. doctrine of self-help.

Samuel Smiles, best known proponent. Individual happiness and well-being depended on “diligent self-culture, self-discipline, and self-control – and, above all, on that honest and upright performance of an individual duty, which is the glory of manly character.”

Conclusion. The literature promoting colonial emigration touted a landscape of individual social and economic progress as its central motif. Developed ideas of colonial “nation,” colonial “people,” and colonial history that were to ramify well into 20th century.

The trope of the hardy British pioneer heroicized colonial expansion but also resolved emerging tensions surrounding an increasingly multi-ethnic Empire, which included, as Darwin was noted, French Canadians in Canada, Afrikaners and Indians in South Africa, and “Asiatic hordes” in Australia and New Zealand.


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