Locating the Hidden Diaspora: The English in the Anglo-Phone World


The emigration of people from England, the English, has been since 1600 one of Europe’s most significant population movements. Yet in contrast to the Jewish, Scottish, Irish, Italian and African diasporas comparatively little scholarship has examined what we might tentatively term the English diaspora. Last weekend, scholars involved in the English Diaspora project at the University of Northumbria convened a conference concerning the related questions of whether there was (or is?) an English diaspora and if so, why there has been so little scholarly analysis of the same.

Sticky Toffee Pudding from Wikimedia Commons

Including panels and keynotes ranging from the 1500s to the 1990s and covering the English in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the conference began to lay the groundwork of understanding the question of the English diaspora. The opening keynote by Professor Robert J.C. Young of New York University, who recently published The Idea of English Ethnicity, most closely addressed the question of why the English abroad did not create so strong a diasporic or ethnic identity as say, the Scots or the Irish. Young proposed several possible hypotheses, examining various elements of English identity. English individualism, Young suggested, may have worked against a more unified group identity. Additionally, Young examined three common markers of ethnic identity: food, religion and language. The English abroad were not united by religion, Young argued, because many of those who emigrated were not members of the official church, the Church of England. The English language was not necessarily a marker of English identity because it was so widely adopted by those who were not from England, especially in the United States. Food, Young argued, did not became a marker of identity, because the English abroad did not miss English food. This was probably the most disputed of Young’s contentions by later speakers, several of whom addressed the issue of food and drink as markers of English identity and one who defended English cuisine, citing sticky toffee pudding.

Another reason for the lack of an English diasporic identity was the relative position of privilege of English migrants who travelled both to the British Empire and also the United States, where the majority of English migrants went before twentieth century. Though, as several papers highlighted, the English did not always receive the warm reception they expected and many struggled to make the transition, English migrants did not face the same kind of discrimination as many other migrant groups and were often actively recruited as desirable immigrants, especially in settler colonies of the British Empire such as Australia and Canada.  Professor Young’s talk also picked up this point, suggesting that because Englishness was an imperial identity, this may have subsumed Englishness as an ethnic identity. This summary only begins to scratch the surface of even the content of Professor’s Young’s talk which also included the class dimensions of English identity, and the English approach to nationalism, suggesting that this will be a fertile area of scholarship.

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8 Responses to “Locating the Hidden Diaspora: The English in the Anglo-Phone World”

  1. Laura J. Mitchell Says:

    Jean, your post helps me to think about recent work on appeals to “Britishness” within 19th C empire in a new light. Investigations about the degree to which English speaking colonial residents (both colonists asserting an emerging white racial identity and colonial subjects grappling with imposed hierarchies of race and and subordination) had recourse to shared ideas of “Britishness,” has focused on governmentality, education, and public sphere issues. Breaking out what might be cultural “English” about these dynamics–and how that played out in various contexts–either w/in sites of British empire or elsewhere (here I’m think of 20th C retirement to France, for example) is rich terrain for investigation.

  2. Home Rule for England Says:

    It seems to me that the English are not seen as immigrants in countries such as the USA because the English were in effect the Founders of those nations in their current form. The Pilgrim Fathers landed America in the C17th and the USA spread west from there.
    English and US culture are effectively seen as one in the same. Americans probably see the English Magna Carta as part of their heritage as much as we English see it as part of ours
    I doubt any American would describe the Founding Fathers as immigrants unlike the many Italians, Russians, Irish etc etc who followed.
    Many other ‘new’ nations are the same.

  3. Jean Smith Says:

    Laura, I think you are right that the distinction between English (or British?) institutions and English culture is an important one. At the conference, Amy Lloyd’s paper at the conference, “No English need apply”: Canadian Hostility to English immigrants, 1900-1914″ made the point that while many anglophone Canadians felt allegiance to what they considered British and in some cases English institutions and values, for example, the monarchy or the rule of law, they might still be critical of other aspects of English culture and or even hostile to English migrants at the same time. And of course the entire conference was beleaguered by the difficulty of differentiating between English and British across a long time period and so many different conferences.

    I also think that looking at English migrants beyond the Empire, in Europe as you suggest but also South America and perhaps South Africa after 1960 might also prove fruitful to understanding the English diaspora and the various forms that diasporic identities might take. English restaurants and pubs on the Costa del Sol immediately spring to mind but I am sure there would be other instances.

  4. Jean Smith Says:

    @ Home Rule. Thanks for your comment. I think this is particularly true early on in the histories of countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, etc. but is less so as time passes. Many Americans may view the Magna Carta as part of their history (there is a copy in the National Archives on display nearby the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) but I think there would be few today who would consider contemporary American and English culture to be the same. Regardless, I do think that the idea of England as a founder of these countries had contributed to making the English “invisible immigrants” as Charlotte Erickson put it.

  5. JoVE Says:

    I have come across English immigrants here in Canada who vociferously claim that they are no longer English. They renounced UK citizenship when they took Canadian citizenship and think it odd that my partner (who emigrated here after 2000) and my daughter hold both and continue to claim cultural ties.

    These cases are anecdotal but suggest there is something about their reasons for leaving England and how they perceive that. Class in particular seems to play a role with English immigrants of working class origins often rejecting a system in which one can’t seem to escape one’s class (your father’s occupation matters more than it does here; or is perceived to).

    The English vs. British thing seems easy to solve. I have never met any person who identifies themselves as British. Most identify with a region. Those on the left find it difficult to claim an identity as English due to racist appropriation of that identity. In my experience British only gets used by others to describe the country as a whole and is a political entity as much as anything. But maybe there is research evidence otherwise.

  6. Michael Says:

    I think focusing on English ethnicity simply in the colonial period is quite wrong and simplistic. Written documentation before the 10th century shows a clear idea of English ethnicity, culture, language etc. In fact religion seems less important than the English nation in these early periods. Obviously nations, ethnic group change opinions, societies develop, but one has to look at the birth of England itself to understand English ethnicity more. The nation in ancient times it seems was more important than anything. But also looking at how England was born and the type of society it was in the very early days is vitally important. Clearly no-one has been taught English ethnicity throughout history, in schools, so where does it come from? There is no evidence kings forced it upon people. Looking at early English society is the key. Looking at the colonial period as professor Young is doing is completely missing the point and English ethnicty itself. People migrated from England since early times throughout the British Isles and Europe and the world long before the British Empire. Englishness is my opinion is not at all class orientated as documentation from early times show people of all classes considered themselves English, many might have rejected being English nationally as they have moved but have kept ties culturally and historically sometimes without them even knowing about it. The have adopted other identities mainly because they wanted to fit in and also they were often good at blending in. The Germans too often blended in as did other northern Europeans. The Irish and Scots feel maybe more they need to identify themselves as separate as their culture was disappearing and they needed to preserve it more. It was therefore easier to fit in being English and German as their cultures dominated more. Religion has always been more important to the Irish as it defines them and so they feel they have to preserve it, whereas the English have considered their nation and culture more important than any religion as such. Infact the working classes in England have always pushed forward English identity and culture more than riches classes. Mainly becuase the birth of English ethnicity was in these early earthy English, the ones who preserved and kept alive old traditions. The ruling classes often did things for their own ends without consulting the people anyway. I do however think the form of Englishness pushed in the Empire had very little to do with English identity in the 9th century for example (which was a very tribal and hierarchical society), often Englishness in the Empire or more used Britishness were terms very much misused for peoples own ends. Whereas a more tribal Englishness was carried on by the masses a different form of Englishness by more well educated people was used for very different purposes. But one should not confuse ancient ideas of Englishness with modern ideas or self-created ideas of Englishness.

  7. Jean Smith Says:

    @JoVE. Thanks for your comments. Indeed it seems that class might often play a role in whether migrants continue to identify themselves as English. Of course this might depend on the specific context of the migration as well. For example, I have met several people who moved to the United States during the 1980s who still strongly identified themselves as refugees from Margaret Thatcher and the economic troubles of that period, in this case their rejection of an English identity is very much colored by this experience. I have also encountered the strong identification with the new country you describe in migrants from other places (including my own family) and suspect that in part dismissing your country of origin and embracing your new home is one way to justify your decision to move. The English vs. British question I referred to was less about self-identification (which I agree tends to be more local) but rather about what various writers meant when they used English or British more generally since this is not always clear.

    @Michael. Thank you for emphasizing how contingent and changing ideas of identity have been over time. I agree that modern ideas of Englishness should not be conflated with previous notions of identity and that national sentiment and history are often manipulated, not least in the context of the British Empire. As Hobsbawm and Ranger’s “The Invention of Tradition” and the work it has inspired has shown, we should be wary of any idea of a continuous, unchanging nation with stable “ancient” traditions. However, I would stress that though the origins of Englishness and for that matter national identity more generally is certainly an interesting and much debated question, my post, the conference and Professor Young’s talk specifically address the question of Englishness in the context of migration from England since 1600 and do not make claims beyond this.

  8. Tanja Bueltmann Says:

    As one of the organisers of this conference, I was pleased to stumble over the story and comments just now. Perhaps you would like to know that we have since been successful in securing an AHRC research grant to further investigate the English Diaspora in North America. Please visit our project website for more details: http://www.englishdiaspora.co.uk/ The site also offers its own Digital Community for sharing thoughts and readers’ stories. We’re on Facebook if anyone would like to follow us.

    Thanks to everyone for their thoughts here: very interesting!

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