Concerning my hown Affairs

Concerning my hown Affairs

Last week’s blog concerns the first page of a letter by Joseph Hemming, dated December 1830 and sent to his brother John, and it begins ‘I tak up my pen’. This week’s blog continues with a discussion of page 2 of his letter, starting with a detailed transcription of its content. This is as close to the original as possible with regards to spelling, punctuation and layout. Its content is then discussed.

I must ^say^ A little concerning my hown Affairs I am living at Dearham forge in the County of Oxford Uper Cannady carrying on my Trade as Waggon maker and are doing much better than I could in England the Province of Uper Cannady is the best Settlement in the world for A man to live in that as to get is living by is own labourin for the Land is very fertile and little or no tax to pay and Market for Game Beef and Pork is good in fact ?traders cannot help getting Rich if the will only work there is not A Settlement in the United States that is so good to live in as Uper Cannady the Ammericans are continualy coming to settle in Cannady on event of the goodness of the Land and the Liberty man enjoys here the best of there Liberty but the ?bare the the name and ?can enjoy the Liberty there is no person that nows the Contery but will allow it to be the freest Contery in the world I must now state A bit concerning my Travels in Ammerica I Landed in New York on 4 of September 1828 stay there 2 weeks from thence to Pillidelphia

Joseph Hemming writes that he will ‘say a little’ about his own affairs. However, as often with such phrases, what follows is actually quite a lot and it goes on to the next page of his letter as well. Page 2 starts with a new topic from how page 1 ends, and it is written in a very matter-of-fact way. It details where Joseph is living, at Dearham in Oxford County in Upper Canada, and that he is carrying out his trade as a waggon maker. This would have stood him in very good economic stead in a farming area opening up to trade, and he comments on the availability of land, some aspects of farming, and that there is a ready market for meat.

The tone of Joseph’s comments in writing about Upper Canada repeatedly extol local circumstances, such as that traders “cannot help but get rich” if they just work. Also, he emphasises Liberty with a capital L and has much on this but in a rather superficial way. That is, the repetitions are there about the “freest Contery in the world”, and that the Liberty is an attraction for people presently in America, but exactly what is involved in this is not specified. And so although enthusiasm comes across, the result reads like a kind of advertisement, as though he is writing these things to persuade, to sell Upper Canada and its liberty.

Might Joseph Hemming have had an emigration agency or colony administration connection of some kind, or was he aiming for family reasons to persuade brother John to go there, or what? There are no clues about this. But as well as the likelihood that he was trying to persuade his brother, perhaps he was also presenting things in glamorous terms for his own sake, that is, to describe things in a way that shows he has come good, rather than writing anything that would give a more factual and less upbeat impression.

Remembering the December 1830 date of Joseph’s letter, the hazy sense of boundaries in his comments between the United States, Canada and Upper Canada in fact reflect hazy borders on the ground. Upper and Lower Canada were at the time British colonies along the Great Lakes area, and later more complexly became French-speaking Quebec and English-speaking Toronto and Ontario. It is now said that most of the 1830s migrants arriving there were destitute or at least on their uppers. In 1837, there was an insurrection against oligarchical British control over the colony, with its centre described as being Dearham, from where Joseph was writing.

Joseph Hemming locates himself as in Upper Canada, but when he writes that “I must state A bit concerning my Travels”, this starts “in Ammerica”, and at points elsewhere in his letter what is America and what is Canada is by no means sharply differentiated. However, he first landed in New York and therefore America in September 1828, over two years before the date of his letter, and stayed two weeks there. He then went “thence” to Philadelphia, and on the next page of his letter Pittsburgh and Ohio are also mentioned. These are long distances, particularly in the later 1820s, and it is nowhere spelled out whether he was moving around to look for a likely place to settle, or whether he already had a destination in Upper Canada in mind.

And Joseph will be left there in Philadelphia for now, having started out on his travels and the end of page 2 of his letter reached. Page 3 is discussed in next week’s blog. Before then some general observations are in order, in particular regarding what a letter from one man in Upper Canada to another in Limerick in Ireland has to do with South Africa and whiteness.

Joseph Hemming’s letter was written in 1830 and therefore near the start of the cataclysmic European mass migrations that came to characterise the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Insofar as him extolling his circumstances in Upper Canada reflected real improved life chances, what propelled Joseph’s own movement was the opportunity to do “much better than I could in England” and he was able to succeed in this. Not only for the Hemmings, but also regarding others of the white settler families who arrived in South Africa between the start of the 19th century and the 1850s, there is a similarly strong sense of an entrepreneurial or otherwise outward-going spirit wanting to find new opportunities for betterment and an equally strong conviction of their ability to do so. The Pringles, Hocklys and Townsends and other 1820 settler families, the Findlays, the Forbes in the Natal emigrations of 1850, and the Hemmings, all come under this heading. The idea that people ‘back then’ lived lives characterised by localism needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt, because for many of them their collective eye was on the main chance and the perception was that this existed in places far away.

The brother that Joseph Hemming wrote his letter to, John, was presently in Ireland, and Joseph surely hoped that John might migrate to Upper Canada. However, John too was a man on the move. In 1830 he was in a regiment which was about to be posted to India and then South Africa, and he eventually settled in the Cape. Other members of the Hemming family, like other members of the families mentioned above, went to other colonial destinations and sometimes more than one in turn, so that the Cape could be followed by Canada followed by South Australia. In this early period, the favourite destinations of these families of predominantly Scots and Irish extraction were particularly Canada, South Australia and, for a period of time and attracted by emigration schemes, the Cape and Natal. In this sense, Joseph Hemming’s letter was written and sent in the slowly opening eye of the tiger that became what James Belich refers to as the ‘settler revolution’.

In many places, and to change the metaphor, because of sheer weight of numbers this later became something like the arrival of a plague of locusts. In the case of the Cape and Natal, the numbers were much smaller than Canada, America and Australia but the locust effect was still felt.

Last updated:  7 September 2018