'Seal the border, stop the invasion, save our country'...1709

The German Palatines were early 18th Century emigrants from the Middle Rhine, a region of the Holy Roman Empire. Towards the end of the 17th century and into the 18th, the wealthy region was repeatedly invaded by French troops, which resulted in continuous military occupations, widespread devastation and famine. The ‘Poor Palatines’ were some 13,000 Germans who migrated to England between May and November 1709. Their arrival in England, and the inability of the British Government to integrate them, caused a highly politicised debate over the merits of immigration, which mirrors todays debates on the viability of multiculturalism. The English tried to settle them in England, Ireland and the Colonies.
The depredations of the French Army and the destruction of numerous cities created severe economic hardship for the inhabitants of the region, exacerbated by harsh winters and poor harvests that caused famine throughout Germany and much of northwest Europe. What triggered the mass emigration in 1709 of mostly impoverished people to England was the Crown's promise of free land in the American colonies. Parliament discovered in 1711 that several ‘agents’ working on behalf of the Colony of Carolina had promised the peasants around Frankfurt free passage to the plantations. Spurred by the success of several dozen families the year before, and driven by the destitution of their homeland, thousands of German families headed down the Rhine to England and the New World.
The first boats packed with refugees began arriving in early May 1709. The first 900 people were given housing, food and supplies by a number of wealthy Englishmen. The immigrants were called “Poor Palatines. Throughout the summer, ships unloaded thousands of refugees, and almost immediately their numbers overwhelmed the initial attempts to provide for them. By summer, most of the Poor Palatines were settled in Army tents in the fields of  Blackheath and Camberwell. A Committee dedicated to coordinating their settlement and dispersal sought ideas for their employment. This proved difficult, as the Poor Palatines were unlike previous migrant groups — skilled, middle-class, religious exiles such as the Huguenots or the Dutch in the 16th century — but rather unskilled rural labourers, neither sufficiently educated nor healthy enough for most employment.
During the reign of Queen Anne (1702–1714), political opposition to the Palatines increased. For the Whigs, who controlled Parliament, these immigrants provided an opportunity to increase Britain’s workforce. Only two months before the German influx, Parliament had enacted the Foreign Protestants Naturalisation Act, whereby foreign Protestants could pay a small fee to become naturalised, and become British citizens. The rationale was the belief that an increased population created more wealth, and that Britain’s prosperity could only increase with the accommodation of certain foreigners. Britain had already benefited from French Huguenot refugees, as well as the Dutch exiles, who helped revolutionize the English textile industry. Similarly, in an effort to increase the sympathy and support for these expatriates, many Whig tracts and pamphlets described the Palatines as ‘refugees of conscience’ and victims of Catholic oppression and intolerance. Louis XVI of France had become infamous for the persecution of Protestants within his realm. The invasion and destruction of the Rhineland region by his forces was considered by many in Britain as a sign that the Palatines were likewise objects of his religious tyranny.
The Tories were dismayed by the numbers of Poor Palatines amassing in the fields of Southeast London. Long-standing opponents of naturalisation, the Tories condemned the Whig assertions that the immigrants would be beneficial to the economy, as they were already an acute financial burden. Similarly, many who worried for the security of the Church of England were concerned about the religious affiliations of these German families, especially after it was revealed that many (perhaps more than 2,000) were Catholic. Though the majority of the Catholic Germans were immediately sent back across the English Channel, many English thought their presence disproved the religious refugee status of the Poor Palatines.
Not long after the Palatines' arrival, the Board of Trade was charged with finding a means for their dispersal. Contrary to the immigrants, who wanted to be transported to the colonies, most schemes involved settling them within the British Isles, either on uninhabited lands in England or in Ireland, where they could bolster the numbers of the Protestant minority. Most officials involved were reluctant to send the Germans to the colonies due to the cost, and to the belief that they would be more beneficial if kept in Britain. Since the majority of the Poor Palatines were agricultural labourers, it was widely felt that they would be better suited in rural areas. There were some attempts to disperse them in neighbouring towns and cities.  Ultimately, large-scale settlement plans came to nothing, and the government divided the Palatines between various regions in England and Ireland. These attempts mostly failed, and many of the Palatines returned from Ireland to London within a few months, in far worse condition than when they had left.
The commissioners finally acquiesced and sent numerous families to New York to produce naval stores. The Germans transported to New York in the summer of 1710 totalled about 2800 people in ten ships, the largest group of immigrants to enter the colony before the American Revolution. Because of their refugee status and weakened condition, as well as shipboard diseases, they had a high rate of fatality. Another 300 Palatines made it to the Carolinas. Despite the failure of the Naval Stores effort and the unfulfilled promises of land to the Palatines, they had reached the New World and were determined to stay. Their descendants are scattered across the United States and Canada.
Palatines settling in the Americas
The experience with the Poor Palatines discredited the Whig philosophy of naturalisation, and figured in political debates as an example of the destructive effects of offering asylum to refugees. Once the Tories returned to power, they retracted the Act of Naturalisation, which they claimed had lured the ‘plague’ of Palatines to England, though few were naturalised. Later attempts to reinstate an Act for Naturalisation would suffer from the tarnished legacy of Britain’s first attempt to support mass immigration of foreign-born peoples.  This event mirrors the outcry that emanated from the acceptance of Britain’s former colonial subjects into the mother country. The hostility to the Palatines, despite religious homogeneity, aptly demonstrates one of the most common British responses to migration, the desire to keep 'Britain for the British'.  The cultural similarities illustrates that this is not founded on fear of religion or ethnicity, the Palatines had much in common with the English populace.  It is a deep rooted fear of the different, which is embedded in the English national character.  This is paradoxical given that all Englishmen are a fusion of several waves of migrants, and also because of our pride in liberal values and institutions, which offer extensive freedom for all.      


Bloody Foreigners’ – Robert Winder


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