History of British Emigration

Apart from the British population movements between the several nations of the British Isles who look on these islands as their home, there is a vast diaspora who likewise look to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as their countries of origin.

The Navy led the way abroad as is to be expected for an island nation such as ours. The rise and rise of the Royal Navy began with Henry VIII, “The Father of the English Navy”, who founded it in Portsmouth in 1495. When he came to the throne there were just five official naval ships, but by the end of his reign in 1547 there were around sixty. What was ostensibly a coastal defence force grew, both by construction and by purchasing vessels from other countries, into a formidable force that included in its ranks not just sailors but also, by 1513 a force of 5000 combat marines.

Henry opened schools for navigation, established the ranks of naval officers and the structure of command. This intimidated the neighbouring French who, although embarking on a naval expansion of their own, could not match the belligerence and military order of the British. They kept a standing navy even after defeating the French and built shore facilities to service the ships.

The navy continued to grow under Elizabeth I and she prioritised its modernisation, and although Spain and France overtook the sheer number of vessels, English shipwrights produced the superior ships and the well trained navy the skills to dominate the waves. Primarily concerned with defence of the realm, the Royal Navy and the mercantile fleet turned its attention to rivalling France, Spain, Portugal and the Dutch Republic which had established trading posts and ports in North and South America, west Africa and as far afield as China.

Starting closer to home the Tudors began by establishing plantations in Ireland and then after Columbus sighted the West Indies permanent settlements began there and along to eastern seaboard of America and Canada. Sir Francis Drake and others made claims to other lands such as present day California and Newfoundland but then usually took to their ships and sailed home leaving no settlers behind.

Some people below deck on an old emigrant ship

Below deck on an emigrant ship.

Australia to Zimbabwe: A Guide to the British Abroad

United States

Colonists followed, notably to Jamestown in 1607 for glory and riches and, because of religious persecution, the Puritan Pilgrims colony was located in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. From here they spread out across the continent displacing Native Americans and waging war against their old foes the French in the north and the Spanish in the south. By the 1680s the British were coming in their tens of thousands.

Landowners required labour and from the earliest beginnings in 1587 up to the 1680s the primary source of labour and a large portion of all immigrants were indentured servants who were bound to their master for 5 or 7 years, given food and lodging and taught farming and household duties. Many were abused and used as slaves to differing degrees. Most of them were teenage paupers from England whose father’s signed them to unpaid work for many years in exchange for their free passage, paid for by American landowners. Many died before their release from servitude.

Another substantial swathe of immigrants to North America from 1610 were criminals transported to clear the streets of England, and later Britain as a whole, of the criminal classes. It was an alternative to execution for more trivial crimes such as horse stealing and considered a mercy for those committing a felony and was a pardon conditional upon staying overseas. Many offenders remained in America upon release from their sentence. Transportation was initially selective, based upon the physical strength of the prisoner and whether he (and it was mainly males) would be useful in the colonies. Cromwell used the system of transportation to deport large swathes of his military enemies far away from the possibility of posing a further threat to him.

Throughout the 18th century more and more felonious acts attracted the sentence of 7 years transportation. Many stayed on rather than make their own way back to Britain. The colonists, now well established, objected to this influx of large numbers of villains, but their pleading was denied. Estimates about numbers are difficult but at least 50,000 and probably as many as 100,000 prisoners were transported between 1680 and the American Revolution of 1776 when transportation came to a shuddering halt. This large scale emigration has led to millions of Americans who are able to claim British descent living there today. They share many of our own traditions and have many of the same sayings and although, as George Bernard Shaw observed, “ England and America are two countries divided by a common language”, this emphasises the closeness of our special relationship.

Today over 34,000,000 Americans claim British ancestry.


The British and French had settled in Eastern Canada since the 1500s but it was not until 1763 that Britain, having won the Seven Years War gained control of almost all of the colonised areas and eventually these were united to form Canada when Newfoundland and Labrador.

After the American Revolution those British that chose not to live under the American flag had an option to remain in North America. These Loyalists moved north to Canada and their heritage often passes back to Britain by way of the USA. There are upwards of 10,000,000 Canadians of British descent.

Notable exceptions to this are the Scots who emigrated directly to the area around Nova Scotia for many years right into the 19th century.

West Indies

Just before America was colonised the islands of the Caribbean were settled by many aristocratic landowners looking to make a fortune from plantations there. The Treaty of London of 1604 which brought peace at last between England and Spain permitted the settling of any islands not at the time occupied by the Spanish. Initially this meant footholds in St Kitts and Grenada and more permanent settlements in Barbados, Nevis, Montserrat and Antigua.

The population of Montserrat was 75% Irish in the late 1600s. English and Irish settlers were more plentiful than Scots until the 18th centuries in most of the other islands. Cromwell added greatly to the Irish population in the area when he transported thousands of Irish prisoners to Jamaica after he took the island from the Spanish.

It was tobacco and sugar produced by slaves on the plantations that drove the economy. Planters, merchants, and investors came from the British Isles. The islands changed hands frequently during wars between the European super powers. The Caribbean islands became overcrowded with 100,000 immigrants coming mainly to Jamaica and Barbados and many of the white population moved to the Carolinas. Eventually though, economic competition from the American states and territories and the problems of overcrowding made the mainland a more attractive destination.

Around 80,000 West Indians can trace their roots back to Britain although the vast majority have an African background.


Once independence came to Americans by way of the successful ousting of the British they had no need to take the social detritus from British streets when they had plenty of their own to deal with. Long used to shipping this particular problem out of sight and out of mind, the British judiciary had to find other means to punish criminals. After all if you have a criminal system based on the removal of felons from society then you have to have somewhere to put them. For a short time prisoners were held in filthy disease ridden hulks on the Thames, but when it became clear that this was not practical in the long term there was a failed attempt to use facilities in West Africa. Eventually the gaze of the authorities fell on the east coast of faraway Australia, recently charted by James Cook in 1770. The First Fleet arrived in 1787 and founded a colony in Sydney Cove. There were around 1400 souls in the 11 ship fleet of which around 750 were convicts.

Between 1788 and 1868 around 162,000 convicts were transported from Britain and Ireland. A further wave of immigration, over a million and a half strong, were the “£10 poms” who for that fee received an assisted passage to a new life in Australia between 1945 and 1982. The policy was that only white people need apply. This was planned migration was the result of the governments of the two countries sharing a desire to populate the vast country. Many returned to Britain after 2 years, shocked by some of the conditions they found and the attitude of the existing Australians to “whingeing poms”. Many stayed and they and their descendants still have living relatives in the UK. So it is that over 10,000,000 of the present day population claim to have British or Irish ancestry. This is probably nearer double this number since although a large number identified as Australian in the 2016 census the official census bureau has stated that most of these are of Anglo-Celtic colonial stock.

New Zealand

In the 1830s the British, Irish and Australians started arriving in New Zealand in a fairly disorderly manner which appalled the Maori chiefs who ruled the islands. They coerced the indigenous people into land deals and there was no governance of their actions. The French were awaiting an opportunity and so a fairly reluctant British government felt they had to annex the country to stabilise the situation. This resulted in the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the British and the Maori. Immigration increased and by 1860 there were more than 100,000 English speaking settlers, mainly in the sparsely populated South Island. This grew through sponsored movements of settlers from Britain and the Cape Colony in South Africa, especially to the North Island as the Auckland authorities sought to consolidate their strength with regard to the Maori.

Two and a half million, 60% of the population of New Zealand, are of British descent and they still identify very strongly with the old country with similarity of land use and climate, especially in the South Island, the northern parts being more Mediterranean in temperature.

There are a great many people of Scottish decent in New Zealand, especially in the south of the South Island.

South Africa

The Cape Colony in South Africa was established in the late 18th century although the British had been coming to the area for many decades for exploration or to exploit the local population for slavery. The discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 19th century hastened colonisation and rivalry with the Boers created tension and several wars.

There are in excess of 1,600,000 English speaking South Africans in the country including around 200,000 British Citizens, over 80,000 of which draw a British state pension.


Rather surprisingly some 4% of the population of Chile, around 770,000 people, can claim British, Scottish, Welsh and Irish descent from the more than 50,000 British emigrants who arrived in Chile between 1840 and 1914. Most, some 32,000 English settled in Valparaiso, a city with a mild Mediterranean climate half way down the long Chilean coastline. Many Scots settled in sub-polar Punta Arenas. Even today British influence is apparent in areas, such as the banking and the navy, as well as in social activities, such as football, horse racing, and the custom of drinking tea. During the Chilean independence movement (1818), it was mainly the British who formed the Navy. Many Chileans have British forenames.


There are probably in excess of 1,000,000 people of British, Irish and Anglo-Irish descent in Argentina. Some of these are of Welsh origin since there was a well planned and successful colonisation of a part of Patagonia in Southern Argentina which came about in 1865 when a group of 150 Welsh speakers left Liverpool for Argentina with the aim of preserving overseas a language and culture that they believed was being over-run by the English in their home country.

Unfortunately, they did not find the lush green lowlands they had been told to expect, but windswept pampas. They trekked from their landing point at Puerto Madryn to the Chubut Valley, where with the aid of irrigation they were able to establish farms over many years. Eventually they were joined by a further party of 485 settlers who helped establish a railway line and further colonies on fertile land inland at the foot of the Andes. Today after a decline in Welsh speaking there has been an upsurge in interest in both the language and culture of the Welsh in Patagonia and there are over 5,000 Welsh speakers on Chubut among 20,000 descendants of the Welsh settlers.

There are around 100,000 Anglo Argentines living a well preserved British lifestyle in Argentina. Mainly of English origin, they have not assimilated in the way that the Welsh have further south. They are 3rd and 4th generation descendants of younger sons and ex-military men who, a hundred or so years ago, came to the Argentine to make their fortunes. They are not from a poor, persecuted or penal background. The 40,000 or so who lived in Argentina in 1914 looked to Eton and Harrow, Harrods and the Hurlingham Club and maintained an Englishness right up to the Falklands War in 1982 when they supported Britain, but their children, more steeped in Argentinian culture, largely did not. Their English way of life has since gradually been eroded as younger generations have integrated with locals of Spanish origin after a century and a half of isolated social conditions.

There are half a million Irish-Argentines descended from working class emigrants who began arriving in the 1820s and settled around Buenos Aires. They took to labouring and farm work, but always with the hope of acquiring some land of their own in this vast country.

Scots started coming to Argentina in 1825. They founded great ranches, established Presbyterian churches, raised large families, and through hard work became wealthy. Their descendants number in the tens of thousands.


Cecil John Rhodes and his British South Africa Company controlled this territory, formerly Mashonaland, from 1890 until its annexation by Britain in 1923. In 1890 a wagon train of barely 500 settlers and protection force founded 3 towns in the heart of the territory. White settlers continued to arrive to farm the fertile land.

The global economic recession of the 1930s gave way to a post-war boom in what was then Southern Rhodesia and prompted the immigration of about 200,000 white settlers between 1945 and 1970, taking the white population up to over 300,000.

A large number of these immigrants were of British working-class origin. More settlers from the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and later Angola and Mozambique as well as increased birth rate, raised the Rhodesian white population to 600,000 by 1976.

However, years of social problems and endemic inequality, much of their own making, created an environment hostile to white Zimbabweans and the late 20th century saw a decline in population as many left for other Commonwealth countries, especially South Africa. Today there are barely 30,000 of British descent remaining.