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.
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.