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Impressions that stick: a critical examination of the reputation of assisted emigrants to New South Wales, 1832-42
thesisposted on 2022-03-28, 20:59 authored by Melanie Burkett
In the 1830s, the British government began a grand experiment in so-called 'assisted emigration'. In order to relieve pressure on an overstocked labour market at home, it offered free passages to working-class people interested in emigrating to the Australian colony of New South Wales who lacked the financial means to make the journey. Despite the pressing need for labour in the colony, the over fifty thousand workers from the British Isles who arrived in the first decade of the scheme (1832-42) were vociferously criticised in the colonial public sphere, most often on the dimensions of morality and usefulness as labourers. Early Australian migration historiography long parroted these condemnations. The picture of the assisted immigrants changed significantly in the 1990s, however, as new research deemed the criticism of the immigrants to be, on the whole, unfair. Yet, this revisionist work left an important question unanswered: if this negative reputation was largely undeserved, why did it arise in the first place? In order to answer that question, this thesis critically re-examines contemporary rhetoric surrounding immigration in the colonial public sphere and argues that colonial judgments of the arriving immigrants expressed a host of tensions surrounding self-government, the economic development of the colony, cultural constructions of class and gender, and selective dissemination of compassion. The answer to why the assisted immigrants were so maligned lies in this tangle of political, economic, and cultural factors. Political and economic tensions were shaped by cultural constructions designed to protect the elevated status of the colonial elite. Those cultural constructions influenced political manoeuvrings and were, in turn, legitimised by political rhetoric. The political, economic, and cultural overlapped, intertwined, and dialogued with each other. Thus, a comprehensive understanding of the deep resistance to Australia's earliest, (unforced) working-class immigrants - resistance that has shaped the long history of Australian immigration - requires multiple analytical perspectives.