EHS 2018 special: Foreign sailors in Nelson’s Navy: a forgotten story

by Sara Caputo (University of Cambridge) 


Nelson as a Midshipman, 1775. Available at <;

Few aspects of British history have attracted more patriotic enthusiasm than the nation’s naval exploits at the time of Nelson and Trafalgar. A less-known fact is that during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France (1793-1815), the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign sailors.

My doctoral research, co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Robinson College, Cambridge, aims to reconstruct these men’s experiences for the first time, as well as giving an indication of the size of the phenomenon.

A quantitative study conducted on a sample of crews, chosen among those serving the furthest away from Britain – and thus most likely to include foreigners – revealed that 14.03% of the seamen sampled (616 out of 4,392) were born outside Britain or Ireland. Aboard one of the ships stationed in Jamaica in 1813, the proportion rose to 22.83%.

These sailors came from every corner of the world, and their numbers oscillated depending on the British state’s need for skilled seafarers in times of crisis. But their presence is often forgotten in favour of nationalistic narratives of British glory. Quantitative analysis of this kind helps to confirm that the British Navy of the Age of Sail, of Nelson and Trafalgar, was far from being manned only by ‘True Britons’. If Britannia ruled the waves, it was not always entirely by her own devices.

Americans were the largest group found in the sample (176 men), followed by natives of what today is Germany, West Indians, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, Dutchmen, Portuguese and East Indians. Italians, Frenchmen (even though they were nominally the enemy), Africans and Spaniards were also well represented, and other smaller groups included Poles, South Americans, Russians, Maltese, Finns, one Greek and even – quite surprisingly – a Swiss, an Austrian, a Hungarian and a Chinese.

Previous studies have analysed the composition of crews in the eighteenth century Navy, but because no one has focused specifically on foreigners the samples had been chosen and interrogated in different ways. My research aims to cast light on changes over the whole time span of these wars, and across different geographical stations.

Three ships were chosen from each of three points in time – roughly the beginning, middle and end of the wars. The results show that the proportion of foreigners was lower in 1793, at the start of the conflict, with only 6.24% of the men in the sample coming from abroad, but went up to 14.94% in 1802, halfway through the war, and 18.49% by 1813, towards the end of it.

This is likely to be a symptom of the Navy’s increasing hunger for manpower, as the war progressed with heavy casualties and the British reserves of seamen becoming depleted.

As is often the case when dealing with matters of national belonging, the status of many of the men in the sample is potentially ambiguous: legal distinctions between ‘British’ and ‘foreign’ were complex and far from clear-cut, depending on ideas of birthplace and ‘blood’, but also on cultural aspects such as personal choice, length of service, political loyalties, social status and general usefulness to the country.

If the British armed forces today only employ UK or Irish nationals, or Commonwealth nationals with settled status, this was not always the case: 200 years ago, men we would nowadays define as foreigners were actively sought and recruited by the British monarchy, and played an important role in British society and economy at large, as well as in the construction of an overseas empire.

Modelling regional imbalances in English plebeian migration

by Adam Crymble (University of Hertfordshire)


FJohn Thomas Smith, Vagabondiana,1817

We often hear complaints of migrant groups negatively influencing British life. Grievances against them are many: migrants bring with them their language, cultural values, and sometimes a tendency to stick together rather than integrate. The story is never that simple, but these issues can get under the skin of the locals, leading to tension. Britain has always been home to migrants, and the tensions are nothing new, but two hundred years ago those outsiders were from much closer afield. Often they came from just down the road, as close as the next parish over. And yet they were still treated as outsiders by the law. Under the vagrancy laws, poor migrants in particular ran the risk of being arrested, whipped, put to hard labour, and expelled back home.

It was a way to make sure that welfare was only spent on local people. But thanks to this system, we’ve got a unique way to tell which parts of Britain were particularly connected to one another, and which bits just weren’t that interested in each other. Each of those expelled individuals left a paper trail, and that means we can calculate which areas sent more or fewer vagrants to places like London than we would expect. And that in turn tells us which parts of the country had the biggest potential to impact on the culture, life, and economy of the capital.

As it happens, it was Bristol that sent more paupers to London than anywhere else in England between 1777 and 1786, including at least 312 individuals. They did not arrive through any plan to overwhelm the metropolis, but through hundreds of individual decisions by Bristolians who thought they’d have a go at London life.

From a migration perspective, this tells us that the connectedness between London and Bristol was particularly strong at this time. Even when we correct for factors such as distance, cost of living, and population, Bristol was still substantially over-sending lower class migrants to the capital.

There are many possible explanations for this close connection. The tendency for migrants to move towards larger urban centres meant Bristolians had few other options for ‘bigger’ destinations than smaller towns. Improvements to the road network also meant the trip was both cheaper and more comfortable by the 1780s. And the beginning of a general decline in the Bristol domestic service economy was met with a rise in opportunities in the growing metropolis. These combined factors may have made the connections between London and Bristol particularly strong.

Other urban pockets of the country too showed a similarly strong connection to London, particularly in the West Midlands and West Country. Birmingham, Coventry, Worcester, Bath, Exeter, and Gloucester were all sending peculiarly high numbers of paupers to eighteenth century London. So too was Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed, despite being located far to the north and almost certainly requiring a sea journey.

But not everywhere saw London as a draw. Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire – a band of counties within walking distance of the sprouting mills of the industrialising North – all sent fewer people to London than we would expect. This suggests that the North was able to retain people, uniquely acting as a competitor to London at this time. It also means that places like Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne may have had a bigger impact on the culture of the metropolis in the eighteenth century than places such as York and Sheffield. And that may have had lasting impact that we do not yet fully understand. Each of these migrants brought with them remnants of their local culture and belief systems: recipes, phrases, and mannerisms, as well as connections to people back home, that may mean that the London of today is a bit more like Bristol or Newcastle than it might otherwise have been. There is more research to be done, but with a clear map of how London was and was not connected to the rest of the country, we can now turn towards understanding how those connections sculpted the country.

To contact the author on Twitter: @adam_crymble

The making of New World individualism and Old World collectivism: international migrants as carriers of cultural values

by Anne Sofie Beck Knudsen (University of Copenhagen)



The Sunday magazine of the New York World appealed to Immigrants with this 1906 cover page celebrating their arrival at Ellis Island.

Although a hotly debated topic, we know surprisingly little of the long-term cultural impact of international migration. Does it boil down to the risk of clashes between different cultures; or do we see cultural changes in migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries along other dimensions as well?

Using novel empirical data, this research documents how past mass migration flows carried values of individualism across the Atlantic ocean from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. This inter-cultural exchange was so significant that its impact is still observed today.

When talking about individualism versus collectivism, this study refers to the emphasis on independence from society that is prevalent in these cultures. With this in mind, it becomes clear why it has a role to play. The act of migration involves leaving familiar surroundings to embark on a journey where you are bound to rely on yourself. An individual with strong ties to the surroundings will be less likely to undergo this act. Collectivists are thus less likely migrate, while the opposite is true for individualists.

To test the idea of individualistic migration and its long-term impact empirically, this research constructs novel indicators of culture, which allow to go back and study the past. It looks at two everyday cultural manifestations: how we name our children; and how we speak our language.

Giving a child commonplace names like ‘John’ reflects parents of a more conformist motivation as they, perhaps unconsciously, are more concerned about their child fitting in rather than standing out. Likewise, the relative use of singular (‘I’, ‘mine’, ‘me’) over plural (‘we’, ‘ours’, us) personal pronouns tells us something about the focus on the individual over the collective.

The study constructs historical indicators of culture from the distribution of names in historical birth registers and from the written language of local newspapers at the time.

With new data in hand, the research can document the prevalence of individualistic migration during the settlement of the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. Among inhabitants of major migrant-sending countries like Norway and Sweden, only those with more uncommon names were more likely actually migrate to. This cultural effect remains even when considering a host of other potential explanations related to economic prospects and family background.

If more individualistic types are more likely to migrate, we would expect to observe an impact on the overall culture of a given location. That is exactly what this research finds. Districts in Sweden and Norway that experienced high emigration flows of people with an individualistic spirit did indeed become more collectivistic – both in terms of child naming trends and in written language pronoun use.

This leaves with the question of whether an impact from this historical event is still visible today. Does international migration have long-term cultural consequences other than the risk of producing cultural clashes?

In this study, this seems to be the case. Scandinavian districts that experience more emigration are still relatively more collectivist today than those that experienced less. Moreover, it is widely agreed that New World countries like the United States are the most individualistic in the world today – a fact that seems to be explained by the type of migrants they once received.

THE HEALTH AND HUMAN CAPITAL OF WAR REFUGEES: Evidence from Jewish migrants escaping the Nazis 1940-42

by Matthias Blum (Queen’s University Belfast ) and Claudia Rei (Vanderbilt University)


At Europe’s doorstep, the current refugee crisis poses considerable challenges to world leaders. Whether refugees are believed beneficial or detrimental to future economic prospects, decisions about them are often based on unverified priors and uninformed opinions.

There is a vast body of scholarly work on the economics of international migration. But when it comes to the sensitive topic of war refugees, we usually learn about the overall numbers of the displaced while knowing next to nothing about the human capital of the displaced populations.

Our study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference in London, contributes to this under-researched, and often hard to document, area of international migration based on a newly constructed dataset of war refugees from Europe to the United States after the outbreak of the Second World War.

We analyse holocaust refugees travelling from Lisbon to New York on steam vessels between 1940 and 1942. Temporarily, the war made Lisbon the last major port of departure when all other options had shut down.

Escaping Europe before 1940 was difficult, but there were still several European ports providing regular passenger traffic to the Americas. The expansion of Nazi Germany in 1940 made emigration increasingly difficult and by 1942, it was nearly impossible for Jews to leave Europe due to mass deportations to concentration camps in the east.

The Lisbon migrants were wartime refugees and offer a valuable insight into the larger body of Jewish migrants who left Europe between the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in January 1933 and the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

The majority of migrants in our dataset were Jews from Germany and Poland, but we identify migrants from 17 countries in Europe. We define as refugees all Jewish passengers as well as their non-Jewish family members travelling with them.

Using individual micro-level evidence, we find that regardless of refugee status all migrants were positively selected – that is, they carried a higher level of health and human capital when compared with the populations in their countries of origin. This pattern is stronger for women than men.

Furthermore, refugees and non-refugees in our sample were no different in terms of skills and income level, but they did differ with respect to the timing of the migration decision. Male refugees were more positively selected if they migrated earlier, whereas women migrating earlier were more positively selected regardless of refugee status.

These findings suggest large losses of human capital in Europe, especially from women, since the Nazi arrival in power seven years before the period we analyse in our data.

The civil war in Syria broke out six years ago in March 2011, making the analysis of the late holocaust refugees all the more relevant. Syrian refugees fleeing war today are not just lucky to escape, they are probably also healthier and coming from a higher social background than average in their home country.