A Narrow Sea - Episode 36
‘In America they may get good land’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
So that the Bible could be privately consulted every day for guidance, the Presbyterian Church laid great emphasis on teaching its members to read.
Incoming Scots did much, therefore, to make Ulster the most literate corner of Ireland. Presbyterians here could also read handbills advertising the opportunities awaiting them across the Atlantic.
In 1729 the Justices of Assize for the North West Circuit of Ulster remarked on the lure of the New World for Protestants aggrieved at rent increases. They noted the success of agents sent around the province by ships’ masters who assure them that in America they may get good land to them and their posterity for little or no rent, without either paying tithes or taxes, and amuse them with such accounts of those countries as they know will be most agreeable to them.
British settlers in North America had found that flax grew readily there and they raised crops every year, letting the plants mature well into the autumn. Then, in a process known as ‘rippling’, they drew the sheaves of flax through large fixed combs to detach the seeds. At this stage their flax was no longer good for making fine linen, but the seed commanded a ready price.
Hogsheads of flaxseed were bought by travelling dealers, known as ‘scowbankers’, and taken down river to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other ports.
In Ulster, flax was pulled in late summer, before the seed was set, in preparation for it being retted, broken, scutched, hackled, spun, wound, woven, beetled and bleached into fine linen for sale at regular markets in Lurgan, Armagh, Dungannon, Lisburn, Banbridge and elsewhere.
But for a yearly supply of raw material, those making linen in their homes needed seed. This was supplied by the American Colonies.
In 1743 the Philadelphia merchant, Samuel Powel, wrote that ‘the call for flaxseed to Ireland continues & increases… It puts our people to sowing a great deal’.
By 1751 Philadelphia alone was shipping out more than 69,000 bushels of seed a year, all of it destined for Ireland. In turn, settlers in America were eager to buy Irish linen with the money they had raised in selling flaxseed.
By 1760 Ulster was exporting 17 million yards of linen a year, most of it bound for the Colonies.
Costly fine linen did not take up nearly as much room as seed on the return journey. Ship owners, therefore, competed with each other to fill the vacant space with passengers. The flaxseed trade and the emigrant trade were thus two sides of the same coin in this transatlantic commerce. Those who could, paid a fare of around £4 a person for the passage. Since labour was scarce in America, merchants there put up money to pay for passengers who, in return, signed indentures before the mayor of the port of embarkation to work for no pay for around four years.
The services of these ‘indentured servants’ were then sold, usually to farmers, for about £12 each, Pennsylvania currency. Other passengers, who ran out of money on the passage over, were known as ‘redemptioners’. They also had to sign agreements and were allowed ashore to seek out friends and relations to find the cash owed. Redemptioners caused a good deal of trouble as frequent insertions in the press indicated:
This is to desire Thomas Smiley, George Caldwell, Henry Robinson, and James Henderson, who came Passengers from Ireland with Capt. James Aspinall, in the Snow Frodsham, in the year 1735, that they would immediately pay the respective Sums for which they stand engaged, to James Mackey of Philadelphia, or they may expect to be arrested.
Most of the emigrants, setting out from Derry, Belfast, Larne, Newry, Coleraine and Portrush, disembarked at Delaware, Philadelphia, New York or Boston.
Arthur Dobbs, from Castle Dobbs near Carrickfergus, had become Governor of North Carolina and he made energetic attempts to attract the Scotch-Irish to settle in his colony.
In 1761 the South Carolina Assembly voted to pay four pounds sterling to ships’ captains for the passage of each poor Protestant brought to the colony. In the Low Country here, enslaved Africans were in a majority and plantation owners feared slave insurrections if Europeans were too few in number. Also, they felt, rightly, that the Scotch-Irish would be particularly skilled at colonising the ‘backcountry’, or hinterland.
Charleston merchants, John Torrans and John Poag, engaged John Greg from Belfast to rustle up Ulster emigrants. Greg’s ship Falls of Belfast, and the Prince of Wales, owned by Mussenden, Bateson and Company of Belfast, soon filled with passengers. They also hired the Success, a brigantine of 85 tons built in Philadelphia and part-owned by William Caldwell from Derry.
Soon these Scotch-Irish would be busy opening up the back country and coming into armed conflict with native Americans, just as their forbears had done with the native Irish in the previous century.