Open main menu

Two speeches of Robert R. Torrens, Esq., M.P., on emigration, and the colonies/Emigration



Mr. R. TORRENS said, in undertaking to bring under the notice of the House the efficacy of emigration as a remedy for the distress so widely prevailing, he did not presume to claim credit for any truer or warmer sympathy with that suffering than he was satisfied stirred the hearts of other hon. Members; but he stood, in relation to this question, in a position so far peculiar that, owing to his having resided for nearly a quarter of a century in a land where such distress was absolutely unknown, its very strangeness rendered him more sensitive to its influence, impelling him to action; and the same circumstance placed him in the position of being enabled to testify, as an eye-witness, to the efficacy of emigration, when judiciously conducted, as a remedy for that condition of suffering which all alike deplored. He would not take up the time of the House by dilating upon details of that distress; but having already assumed its existence to be admitted and sympathized in, he would content himself with observing that the statistics of pauperism, though exhibiting a serious increase, by no means afforded a true measure either of the extent or intensity of suffering actually existing, inasmuch as they disclosed only the increasing number of those who, succumbing to pressure, become actually chargeable upon the poor rate, but tell nothing of the suffering of the still greater number who, with a patience and fortitude deserving all commendation, endure the pangs of insufficient sustenance and all the depressing incidents of extreme poverty, hoping against hope from day to day, if by any means they may escape the degradation of becoming chargeable on the parish. The evidences of this state of things, though not afforded by statistical tables, are only too patent to all who will be at the pains to inquire into the condition of the working classes. There might be—he wished it were in his power to say confidently there were—reasons for believing this calamitous distress to be but temporary as regarded the condition of the artizan class; but as regarded the agricultural labourer, the case throughout a great part of the country was undoubtedly chronic. When there was employment for two there were three seeking for it, and by this competition wages were kept at a scale which barely sufficed to supply food, clothing, and lodging essential to sustain a single man in vigor. In the case of the married labourer, therefore, that amount of food must be curtailed that the wife and children might be clothed and not starve. Lassitude and depression, induced by insufficient sustenance, created a craving for ardent spirits to arouse the system, or for the drugged beer of the pot-house to stupify and deaden the sense of suffering. The dwelling of the labourer seldom afforded sufficient accommodation to admit of separation of the sexes and observance of the ordinary decencies of civilized life. The conditions of such an existence were inconsistent with moral or intellectual culture—and the labour of a man thus enfeebled in body and almost brutalized in mind was dear even at the paltry wages paid for it. Disease and premature decay induced by those causes incapacitated for labour at a comparatively early period of life; a result hastened by despair of being able to rescue himself and family from the downward track at foot of which the inevitable workhouse yawned to receive them. This was no exaggerated picture, but a true description of the state of things in certain districts, and its existence was a disgrace to the civilization and humanity of this wealthy nation. Happily it was confined to certain districts. Notably our Northern counties were free from that opprobrium, a circumstance which afforded absolute assurance that it was remediable by human agencies. But wherever this state of misery existed—whether the locality be rural or urban—whatever be the industry, whether agricultural or manufacturing—and whether the distress be temporary or chronic, the proximate cause was one and the same, excessive competition—competition induced by the existing disproportion between the number of labourers and the amount of employment afforded within the limits of these islands. Probably no one would be found to deny that the distress which they deplored would at once be alleviated if only it were possible to interpose Nova Scotia or New Zealand in the ocean space between Great Britain and Ireland, so that the labour and capital here in excess might pass over to fertile lands inviting cultivation. The competition in the market for each would be relieved—the Irish land famine would be appeased—and the previously impoverished, because inadequately employed, labourers would, with their families, become largely customers for the manufactured products of those whom they had left behind in the old locations. The beneficial agency of such a migration would therefore be two-fold—immediate in reducing competition for employment, and ultimate in increasing the amount of employment for those who remained. As this augmentation of acreage of these islands was impracticable, as the mountain could not move to Mahommed, Mahommed must move to the mountain. That was, for migration they must substitute emigration, and analogous, if not identical, results would be attained. He was aware that that had often been denied, and probably would again be denied, by those who pleaded that emigration drained the country of its strength, its best producers; since it was the young, the vigorous, the enterprizing, who emigrated; leaving the aged, the feeble, the listless, to burden the ratepayers of the country. To that he would venture to reply—first, that the emigration which went on spontaneously or with the aid of Colonial funds, and which could not be interrupted, was almost exclusively of that valued class; but the emigration which he was prepared to advocate for the relief and at the cost of the mother country, would be almost exclusively of middle-aged parents accompanied by their children. Secondly, that the young, the vigorous, and the enterprizing were a strength only in the proportion in which the country afforded them employment. When they exceeded that limit they were not a strength but a danger and little less a burden than the aged and infirm. Thirdly, he would reply that the declaration of policy by Her Majesty's Minister for the Colonies in "another place" should go far to dissipate the idea that those who took up their abode in British Colonies ceased to constitute portion of the strength of the Empire. Large employers of labour need not be uneasy lest emigration be carried to such excess that upon a revival of trade they should find a scarcity of hands to avail of it. The ties of home and kindred were strong and not lightly broken. The reluctance to abandon an occupation in which skill and adroitness have been acquired by long practice, in exchange for one laborious and irksome, because unaccustomed, was also powerful, and would not be encountered except under pressure of circumstances amounting to something like necessity. Upon revival of trade, or any other cause supplying permanent employment at adequate wages, emigration would cease of its own accord; but, pending the contingency of increased employment from that source, they were not justified in leaving in indigence and misery thousands of their fellow-countrymen who, if removed to a position of competency in the Colonies, would, as customers for our manufactures, be largely instrumental in bringing about that revival of trade so earnestly desired. Again, it had been urged that that class of men were not suitable colonists, and that the demand for skilled labour was limited. There was some truth in that objection; but, after the experience of many years as a colonist, he dared assert that its applicability had been greatly exaggerated. He had known hundreds of artizans whose strong limbs and determined hearts had overcome whatever there was of difficulty or irksomeness in the change of avocation. He must, however, admit that there was a considerable degree of truth in that objection; and therefore it was desirable that any continuous or extensive emigration promoted or directed by the Government of this country should be of the agricultural class. The wisdom of this course would appear manifest when it was remembered that experience proved that new inventions and devices for increasing the efficacy of human labour when applied to manufactures did ultimately and vastly increase the amount of employment, insomuch that it might, without exaggeration, be said that wherever by such means two men were enabled to perform the task of 10 the result had been to cause 10 to be employed where two only found work before. This was so because manufacturing industry, co-expansive with the markets of the world, could not be circumscribed by the narrow limits of these islands. But as regards agriculture this was reversed. If the steam plough, the mowing machine, and the reaping machine, superseding the spade, the scythe, and the flail, enabled two men to perform the task of 10, no increased demand for labour ensued to absorb the eight thrown out of employment so long as the limits of these islands were allowed to circumscribe the area within which that industry was to be exercised. Hence it would be their true policy to divert to other fields of production the labour which constantly gravitated from the rural districts towards the towns, intensifying the competition for employment already excessive in those great centres of industry; and by that means, rather than by any extensive emigration of their skilled labourers, they might indirectly and gradually, but safely and effectually, relieve the distressed condition of their artizans and mechanics. He believed he had now made out a sufficient case to establish the expediency and the efficacy of emigration as a remedy for the distress so deplorably prevalent. It remained to consider from what sources the funds requisite for the application of that remedy might be derived. The Colonies, as they would benefit at least equally with the mother country by any well-considered system of emigration, had naturally been looked to as a source from whence aid might be expected. Speaking with a very intimate knowledge of the facts, he regretted his inability to entertain any sanguine expectations of material aid from that quarter. The Government of the Dominion proposed to afford some small aid in looking after the emigrants when landed on their shores, and, not without a fair show of reason, excused themselves from further contribution, by pleading that their money would be availed of by emigrants en route to the United States. Throughout Australia, prior to 1837, the Wakefield system of colonization had been more or less operative; the principle of which was that the value which population conferred upon land on which it was located should constitute a fund for defraying the charges of emigration. The waste lands of the Crown, so far as they were placed at the disposal of the local governments, were so placed to be alienated by sale only, and the proceeds held subject, as regarded one moiety, to lien in the interests of the people of England, available for generations to come, to relieve this country of surplus population. He lacked words wherewith to convey to the House an adequate idea of the beneficial working of this system. In an evil hour, no less for the Colonies than for this country, the Colonial Minister of the day conceived the idea of bestowing upon these small communities the vast estate of the people of England in these lands, without any reservation of the emigration moiety; and, at the same time, a form of government, the most purely democratic the world had ever known, was introduced into them. An immediate consequence of throwing the entire control of this land revenue into the hands of the class of hired labourers had been the abandonment of the Wakefield system—they withdrew the bridge by which themselves had passed to independence—and since that time but a meagre and inadequate sum had been grudgingly doled out by the Australian Legislatures for emigration. Wages had been forced up to 6s. or 7s. per day; but the previously rapid advance in population and wealth had been arrested, and the working classes of this country, without their knowledge or consent—and he ventured to add without the cognizance of their representatives—had been deprived of that fund which, at a period of severe distress like the present, would have been available to transport them to lands where liberal wages and a fair future prospect would reward their industry. Such conditions did not warrant any reasonable hope that the Colonies would contribute any sum sufficient to have an appreciable effect in relieving the labour market of this country. If, therefore, that relief was to be afforded they must look at home for the means; and that brought him to the concluding consideration, towards which all the remarks, with which he had, he feared at too great length, troubled the House, were intended to converge. He would assure the House, and especially Her Majesty's Ministers, that in offering suggestions, which were the result of much careful thought, upon a subject in which he took the deepest interest, he did not presume to dictate or prescribe any special course as that which should alone be adopted. On the contrary, he held that not one agency but several might with advantage be called into play for the promotion of emigration; and in that spirit he offered a few suggestions to be considered with others for what they might be worth. Voluntary efforts were being made, and in these the merchant princes of this city had, with the liberality which ever distinguished them, contributed large sums, to be expended under the auspices of the Emigration Aid Society, in furtherance of this great work of charity. He would venture to call it this best work of charity, for it was free from that alloy which, more or less, entered as an ingredient into other modes of relief. It did not break down the spirit of self-reliance in the recipient, but placed him in a position of independence. Neither was the benefit conferred upon the individual alone. It endured to all who might be borne of him for generations to come. Voluntary efforts of this kind should by all legitimate means be encouraged; and with that view he begged leave urgently to press upon the consideration of Her Majesty's Government the expediency of assisting the efforts of the society he had named—a society which numbered amongst its active administrators many Members of that House—the Lord Mayor of London, and others, whose names were a guarantee for a judicious and faithful use of any means that might be entrusted to them—by placing at their disposal some of the Government transports or vessels of war which might be suitable for conveyance of emigrants, and not likely to be again or speedily commissioned. He would venture to hope that no considerations of departmental convenience, or other such obstruction, would be allowed to interfere with what the public voice loudly and distinctly called for in this matter. But whilst voluntary efforts should be availed of and encouraged, it would be worse than folly to shut their eyes to the fact that the scope and magnitude of the work in this case requiring to be done was altogether beyond what could be accomplished by private benevolence. If anything effectual was to be done for the relief of the present distress, or for the permanent improvement of the condition of the working classes, it was not in hundreds, but in thousands that families must be transplanted; and for such a work they must look elsewhere than to private resources and voluntary associations. It remained for consideration whether the funds required for this object might, with greater justice and expediency, be drawn from local rates, from the general taxation, or from both. It had been objected, and the objection insisted on with some pertinacity, that a local rate for emigration would lay an additional burden on those who remained for the advantage of those who emigrated. That objection would be fatal were there any question of a special rate for emigration; but as he would presently show that simply by a more judicious use of the amounts already drawn from the pockets of the ratepayers, they would be in a position to afford substantial relief, that objection, on the score of injustice, fell to the ground. For the emigration of a family such as he had referred to as drifting towards pauperism, but not yet paupers—say, the parents over 40 years of age, and four children under 10, equivalent to four statute adults—the sum of £50 would suffice if transplanted to Australia, or £30 if transplanted to Canada. The mean of these amounts—£40—would, on the terms on which moneys were advanced to Irish landlords for the improvement of their estates, impose on the parish or union an annual charge of £2 12s. for interest and sinking fund. Surely the case needed but to be stated in order to satisfy every rational person that, in guaranteeing ratepayers on such terms as these against the more than probable contingency of having to support this family in the workhouse, there would be the truest economy for those who remained in this country, and that, so far from imposing any additional burden, the future pressure on the ratepayers would be effectually relieved; whilst, at the same time, the higher wages and cheap and abundant food which reward industry in new countries would enable the emigrating parents to bring up their family in comfort, with a well-assured prospect of future independence. To render that practicable it would be necessary to amend the existing law, 3 & 4 Will. IV. c. 76, so as to place Boards of Guardians on the same footing as Irish landlords, as far as regarded the privilege of borrowing from the public Treasury on the security of the rates. The law, as it already stood, recognized the principle of borrowing of money for emigration purposes; but, in addition to other disabling conditions, it required the sum so borrowed to be repaid within five years, and limited the amount to a sum not exceeding the average of a half year's rates collected in the parish or union. The amendment of the law in that respect was the second suggestion which he ventured to submit for the consideration of the House and of Her Majesty's Government. But as a district which once relieved of its surplus labourers by the procedure he had been recommending would be liable to be again overburdened by the influx of indigent workmen from other districts, attracted by the improved state of the labour market, it was desirable to encourage simultaneous action wherever the number of labourers was in excess. And in that view, as well as on the grounds that all classes throughout the kingdom were interested in the solution of this momentous question of the condition of the working classes, he felt justified in advocating the policy of stimulating local efforts by subsidies from the general revenues of the country, proportioned to the amounts expended by the several localities. That was the third suggestion which he begged to submit. Whilst in the interests of the mother country he thus earnestly advocated the emigration of large families at the cost of ratepayers and the general public, he must in the interests of the colonists and with equal earnestness protest against any scheme that could have the effect of transferring to them the burden of supporting our habitual paupers, or persons not capable of earning subsistance for themselves and families. The colonists, in Australia at least, had serious grounds for complaint on this score in times past, and in order to guard against the revival of any such abuse, it would be necessary that all emigrants sent out at public expense should, before embarkation, be passed by the emigration agents of the several Colonies in this country. Subject to this condition, no reasonable objection could be raised by the Colonies against receiving emigrant families of the suitable class. On the contrary, he was convinced that such families would be welcomed if sent out at the cost of the mother country, although it was true that the colonists, as they were reasonably entitled to do, required that Colonial funds should be expended exclusively on the emigration of young adult persons as the most valuable producers. In conclusion, he would remark that as he knew of no question of equal importance or to the solution of which the highest intellects of the country might more worthily be devoted, neither was he aware of any object for the attainment of which the resources of this great country might more legitimately be drawn upon. He begged to express his gratitude for the patience with which the House had borne with him for so long a time, and would conclude by moving his Resolution—

"That, in order to arrest the increase of Pauperism, and to relieve the distressed condition of the working classes, it is expedient that measures be adopted for facilitating the Emigration of poor families to British Colonies."