Cousin Jacks and Ancient Britons: Cornish Immigrants and Ethnic Identity

By Payton, Philip | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Cousin Jacks and Ancient Britons: Cornish Immigrants and Ethnic Identity


Payton, Philip, Journal of Australian Studies


In recent years, the `great emigration' from nineteenth-century Cornwall has become an established area of academic inquiry, prompting a number of studies of the Cornish impact and experience in Australia, the United States of America, South Africa and elsewhere.(1) There have also been attempts to analyse and explain the characteristics of Cornish emigration, to account for the departure from Cornwall for overseas destinations of some 250,000 people (with perhaps a similar number to other pans of the British Isles) between 1815 and 1914, identifying in the process the underlying `push' and `pull' factors as well as the continuities and changes during this century-long phenomenon. Similarly, there have been attempts to discern a `culture of mobility' in nineteenth-century Cornwall, one which had its roots in an earlier Cornish involvement in the first waves of imperial expansion and in the initial European settlement of America and Australia, and an attendant `emigration culture' and `emigration trade' which came to dominate Cornish life in the years after 1815. Only recently, however, has a more comparative overview been attempted, the suggestion being that -- as well as comparing more closely the Cornish experiences in the different lands to which they emigrated -- more attention should be paid to considering those experiences in the light of more general models of emigration and ethnicity.(2)

Indeed, until recently conventional wisdom insisted that the experience of emigration was essentially one of assimilation into the host society and culture, at least as far as English-speaking emigration to destinations such as America and Australia was concerned, the emigrants thrown together with folk from all parts -- Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire, and so on -- each of them attempting to conform to the norms of the new lands so that they might `get on'. Such people were the `invisible immigrants' of Charlotte Erikson's estimation, `invisible' in the sense that they soon melted into the social and cultural structures of the new lands, in the process discarding (unwittingly more than consciously) any defining features that might have perpetuated the `visibility' of `difference'.(3) As Eric Richards argued in what appeared to be an almost reluctant contribution to a collection on the Irish emigrant experience in Australia: `Colonisation was often a powerful, homogenising process and the practical realities of migration in general transcended many of the local variations that one might expect'.(4)

To this conventional wisdom was added the view that to focus on the experience of any one emigrant ethnic group is potentially dangerous, at best an antiquarian diversion into the more arcane avenues of family history, at worst an ideological device to give excessive (and unwarranted) praise to one particular group. Glanmor Williams has written of `the besetting sin of the historiography of American emigration: excessive praise of the feats and merits of one particular nation or group',(5) while in the Australian context Bob Reece has noted the inherent problems of what he calls `contribution history':

   we study the `contributions' of ethnic groups: Cornishmen, Welsh and Irish
   as well as the more recent arrivals such as Chinese, Germans, Italians,
   Greeks, Yugoslavs and so on. One of the obvious hazards here is that
   extravagant claims will at times be made for the contribution of one group
   or another.(6)

Indeed, Patrick O'Farrell, doyen of Irish emigrant studies in Australia and New Zealand, has noted that all too often the literature on the Irish overseas has been constructed in a triumphalist `me too' genre, an activity that Bob Reece has described as `an act of filial piety or nationalist and religious affirmation'.(7)

And yet, despite these unpromising perspectives, there has been of late a return to the study of emigrant ethnic groups, reflecting not only an O'Farrell-like determination to avoid the worst of the filio-pietistic and parochial pitfalls but also demonstrating a new-found recognition that by looking afresh at emigration studies new insights into the dynamics of ethnicity might be obtained. …

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