Cargoes of Women: The Maids

This is part two of 'Cargoes of Women'. For part one, please click here.

Scottish editors were a cheeky lot. Although I do my best, I cannot possibly begin to share the dozens of sweet, saucy and utterly bizarre notices they placed in their papers. Although most topics were considered fair game, the comedic tragedy of marriage had a perennial place in its pages. Thus, descriptions of female migration focused particularly–and unsurprisingly–upon the idea of the ravenous husband-hunter.

In the Victorian era, those undertaking marital migration were not always treated kindly. Lisa Chilton, for example, notes the outright derision with which the English press spoke of mid-century efforts to settle unmarried women abroad. Julia Bush likewise suggests that many female emigration societies had to robustly defend their organisations by stating their focus was female employment, not colonial marriages (even if they admitted privately that this was often the result).

In late-Georgian Scotland, the situation was quite the reverse. Economic and marital bliss were seen as wholly symbiotic pursuits. Newspaper commentators believed any migrating servant would rapidly procure a suitable husband and, indeed, this quick transformation from maid to matron was considered a key selling point. Rather than disparage unmarried migrants, editors made every effort to encourage marital cruises abroad.

Although marital migration had a long and glorious history by the 1780s, the possibility of success, and the tone of Georgian commentary, relied completely on economic state of the settlement society. As this was clearly beyond the control of the prospective brides, early newspapers reports demonstrated considerable pity towards the unsuccessful. One such piece was a letter written in Calcutta and appearing in Glasgow Advertiser in January 1790. The author lamented that 'my unhappy country women, who are every season transported to this horrid clime […] have not a chance of a husband.’ According to the correspondent, the machinations of the Governor-General had left the local economy very much depressed and had ‘rendered it difficult for the young ones to support themselves, without the expence of a wife; therefore the most successful must be content with an old dotard or return home much worse that they came.'

This brief notice highlights two key points. First, the matching of young British women to young British settlers was not, in the eighteenth century, an ignominious pursuit, as it would become in the Victorian era. Second, like its Victorian successors, this letter is highly critical of the unthinking exporters of the young girls, chastising the East India Company for failing to ‘check these unnatural parents, in this bartering the beauties of their children’. Thus, readers are left with the impression that the notion of redistributing women is a sound one, but only when properly managed.

On the other hand, a mere four months later, the editor of the Advertiser inserted the follow exclamation. ‘No fewer than nine young ladies are going to the Market of Love in India, on board the William Pitt! What a disgrace to our young men at home!’ However, as the note was sandwiched quite unobtrusively on page three, his outrage seems nothing more than winking gibe at the local bachelors. Indeed, they need not have worried, as, a year later the Advertiser noted that ‘Several young ladies have returned from India by the last ship, without having been able to dispose of their chattels at that market.’

As time progressed, and Britain shifted its attention to its settler colonies in North America and the Antipodes, the idea of providing congenial Jills for colonial Jacks took on a very different aspect. Colonial prosperity, at least for the industrious, became a much more prevalent narrative and with it came the desire, if not outright demand, for respectable female companionship. Although this famine of the fairer sex is most often associated with Australia, the call for wives often rang as loudly across the Atlantic as around the Cape.

In 1820, the Scotsman reported on an English colony, founded by Morris Birkbeck, in Edwards Country, Illinois. ‘One of the most trying privations of the colony’ it noted, was ‘a want of wives, an evil which happily does not affect the mother country, a midst all her other sufferings.’ Thus, in the Scottish press at least, the surplus women problem makes its first appearance some thirty years before the infamous census returns. More importantly, the grim reality of a dramatically unbalanced sex ratio is remarked upon with a clear sense of amusement. ‘The evil’ he suggests ‘has probably been aggravated by some of the colonists forgetting to take their wives with them.’ He continues, wryly, that ‘If matters do not get better in this particular, we may expect to hear of some of the adjoining American towns suffering a Sabine spoliation.’

Although this (facetious) prediction is itself a suggestion that wives were a commodity—to be begged, bought or stolen—it is the second half of his commentary that sets a noteworthy trend. The editor goes on to advise the ‘enterprising export traders’ of the city that

A cargo of young ladies would evidently be one of the best mercantile speculations; and as our own city had a surplus of ten or twelve thousand females at the last census, we have no doubt that some of our enterprising export traders will take the hint, and, by scouring the boarding-schools, complete a choice assortment, adapted to the Illinois market.

The phrase ‘cargo of women’ would be used again and again by colonial correspondents and British editors over the next fifty years, transforming female migrants into a generic commodity for a demanding overseas market. For modern readers it also has a disconcerting resonance with descriptions of the slave trade.

Shifting our gaze southwards to Australia, we find that, in addition to simple companionship, the call for female emigrants was very much linked to a need for their civilizing influence. In 1826, the Scotsman summarised its copy of the Hobart-Town Gazette and mused that

The scarcity of females is described as a most alarming evil. It has been suggested, that it would be desirable that Government should send out the wives of convicts in many instances, as it has been observed that married men in the colony conduct themselves with more propriety, and are the most industrious, sober, and honest.

The conjugal improvement of free colonists was likewise the focus of intense debate. Another Australian correspondent, appearing the Caledonian Mercury, felt that

The expence of a wife and family here is nothing to a mechanic […and…] They steady a man better than two sermons a day, and are not to be obtained here. Women are more wanted than any thing.

So desperate was the young colony for the fairer sex that the writer quipped 'I would say, good ones are best, but any better than none.’

By the 1830s, the editor of the Scotsman was jesting that

in New South Wales an old maid is a much rarer animal than a black swan. It is asserted that the fair emigrants from this country receive offers of marriage through speaking-trumpets before they land the ship.

Thus, between 1820 and 1840, the Scottish press diligently recorded the successful migrations of its countrywomen and reminded its readers, time and again, that ‘the ladies who are wanters at home would very soon be wed’ abroad; for example, in 1838, the Mercury reported that ‘a cargo of three hundred and fifty free women’ had landed in Sydney and within a week ‘almost all [were] engaged either as wives or servants! Here is encouragement for the five hundred thousand surplus females of Great Britain.'

What is crucial about the description of these young women, these blushing brides, is that there is none. Victorian condemnations criticise both the useless middle-class spinster and the disreputable working-class reprobate, their characters and physical suitability falling under intense scrutiny. But the Georgian migrants, as described in the press, were mere trade goods, one more or less interchangeable for another. Never are names, ages or backgrounds of specific migrants hinted at let alone explored. So, we are left to wonder, who were these women, and why were the Scottish editors so keen to be rid of them?

To be continued next week with 'Cargoes of Women: A Numbers Game'


Questions to explore…can you help?

  • How prevalent is the 'cargoes of women' trope in other media or in contemporary literature?
  • Are these passages really 'about' migration, or are the more reflective of an on-going gender debate within Georgian Britain?
  • Are these early references to female migration a uniquely Scottish trait or do they appear equally in the English and Irish press?

If you have any thoughts or comments on this developing research, please share them below, via twitter or email.


**Image courtesy of Bunches and Bits {Karina} provided CC-BY-NC-ND


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