The Migrants View:

Seeing an Eighteenth-Century Diasporic World through a Network’s Eyes


By Doug Catterall





In the early 1730s, Charles Irvine, an Aberdonian Scot with a long career in French mercantile circles, pulled up stakes to join the Swedish East India Company and became involved in Sweden’s entry into the race for riches in the Far East. Soon this younger son of a Scots laird found himself sailing for China to make his fortune. Other Scots also served in the companys ranks, often in its upper echelons, supplying expertise and elan to this Scandinavian late-comer to the game of state-sponsored commerce. What makes Irvine unusual is the documentation of his life and his personal network that has survived, which enables a reconstruction of the lives and worldviews of Charles Irvine and his circle as a means to understanding the interconnected stories of migration and cultural change in the early modern world.


Understanding migration’s cultural dimensions is at the heart of this project.  The project builds on the past two decades of historical research on migration, which has demonstrated the increasingly global context of migration in the eighteenth century.  For while much has certainly been done in the area of migration, establishing its cultural impact has proved more difficult. 


Fortunately, Charles Irvine’s personal/professional network was in many ways a microcosm of European society, enabling us to understand how a cross-section of Europeans participated in, thought about, and experienced the processes of global migration.  Thus, rather than viewing migration primarily as the summed actions of governments, institutions, or migrating (and indigenous) groups, I am looking at it in terms of everyday life in order to comprehend larger processes through individual experiences.


The core of Irvine’s network encompassed a group of Scots families whose members lived and worked in Europe, Asia, North America and the Caribbean. At is furthest extent, it crossed national and cultural boundaries from Charleston and St. Kitts to Cadiz and Canton. Nor does this project examine only those at the top of European society.  Irvine and many of his mercantile circle hailed from landowning families. Irvine’s older brother, for example, was the laird of Drum, and his family was prominent in Aberdeenshire and Nairnshire, counties hugging the coast of northeastern Scotland. These men nevertheless took part in the increasing mobility that characterized an amalgam of European working middle class and middling sort men and women.  Others in the network bore this stamp even more clearly.  As doctors and solicitors they counted themselves among Europe’s professional men.  Still others began and some finished their lives as shipwrights, ships carpenters, journeymen sailors, and minor functionaries who had no chance of rising to (let alone maintaining) a higher status.  Non-Scots members of Irvine’s network represented a similar range of social class among their number.

Migration and the History of Mentalities.


One of the major objectives of this study is to push the boundaries of current historical conceptualizations and models of migration in the early modern period by probing the migrants’ mentalities.  Historians of migration often classify and categorize migrants according to their intentions, the distance they travel, and the frequency of their migrations.  Instead of trying to classify migrants’ movements, this project explores the range of life strategies they pursued and asks how they thought about those strategies and migration’s place in them.  For Irvine and many other Scots, migration was a way to further one’s chances and make one’s fortune.  His chief correspondent in London, George Ouchterlony, thought of it in terms of ambition.  Those who were ambitious and seeking to rise, would migrate.  Those with less aspiration would, like Ouchterlony, choose not to.  Not all saw the world in this way, and this outlook did not fully encompass Ouchterlony’s mentality of migration.  But like Ouchterlony, they inhabited flexible conceptions of migration and its place in their lives.  It is these broader conceptions or mentalities that this project is capturing.


Perceived distinctions between migration experiences, such as those of the sojourner and the emigrant, elide with the mentalities that informed migrant actions.  Inter-relating these seemingly separate migration strategies, the project is revaluing the place of global migration within European culture to include the impact of non-European cultures, often neglected in early modern Europe’s migration story.  Since the events  on which the project relies emerge from the migrants themselves, this approach is also offering new interpretations of the place of the migration narrative in early modern lives.


Scots and Communities of Migration in the Early Modern World.


The project also seeks to link individual lives more surely to the larger concerns of migration’s cultural impact, and looks comparatively at the effects migration had on a broad spectrum of communities and senses of community. In the spirit of recent work on the Atlantic world and the Indian Ocean trading zone, the project is exploring the connections of Irvine and his circle to the communities and concepts of community with which they engaged.


Broadly speaking there were four kinds of community in Charles Irvine’s world. The most prominent among these various communities from the standpoint of scholarly work are the nation and the ethnic group.  At a completely different level, historians have also examined migration’s influence on individual communities: cities, towns, villages, and even larger collectivities like colonies or regions. Across between these previous two communities, the ethnic enclave, has also been important in the historiography of early modern migration. Finally, a fourth kind of community has also featured in the world of the migrant, although scholars have not always recognized it as a community: trading companies like the Austrian Netherlands, Dutch, English, French, and Swedish East India Companies. These companies were much more than political and economic extensions of the states that sponsored them, as recent work on their cultural impact has shown.


Because Scots commonly went abroad as part of their life strategies, they maintained regular and often very intensive engagements with these four types of community.  Fortunately, the breadth of Irvine’s network permits a deep understanding of the ways migration’s influence invested each of these community constellations through the life stories of the individuals involved.


The extent to which this study’s design makes such comparisons possible is one of its great strengths.  By looking at such inter-relationships this study is shedding new light on the relationships between the European metropole and the increasing number of non-European communities connected to it.  This comparative perspective is also drawing out the relative importance of different kinds of community to migrants and to migration, putting them more fundamentally in the migration narrative.  Lastly, the study shows more clearly the role in early modern migration of insider-outsider status within migration systems, a phenomenon whose impact remains as yet unresolved.


luecelticicon.gif (2210 bytes)



To the Projects Page