British is an imprecise but useful term to describe four major ethnic groups that inhabited the two largest of the British Isles, Britain and Ireland. In ancient times, the islands were inhabited by Celtic peoples, who were the ancestors of the Scots, Welsh, and Irish. After 500 years of Roman rule, in the fifth century, Britain was overrun by the Nordic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who formed the basis of the modern English peoples. In the medieval period, the islands were ruled by various Irish, English, Welsh, Scottish, and Danish (Viking) kings. During the 11th century, French-speaking Normans conquered England but were gradually absorbed into the old Anglo-Saxon traditions of the country and by the 15th century had become fully English in culture. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, English kings consolidated control over the Danes and Welsh, gained considerable influence over the Scottish monarchy, and made inroads into eastern Ireland. During the 17th century, England expanded into the New World, establishing colonies along the Atlantic seaboard of North America and throughout the Caribbean, as well as in the Indian Ocean. England also finally brought northeastern Ireland (Ulster) under its control, formally annexing the region in 1641. As early as the 16th century, the English government began parceling out confiscated Irish lands to caretakers willing to undertake the settlement of loyal English or Scottish farmers, though their numbers remained small until the 17th century. Between 1605 and 1697, it is estimated that up to 200,000 Scots and 10,000 English resettled in Ireland. Most settlers in the early stages were poverty-stricken Lowland Scots. From the 1640s, however, an increasing number were Highland Scots.
In 1603, the Scottish and English crowns were joined under James VI of Scotland (James I of England), and by 1707, Scotland and England agreed to The Act of Union, creating a new state named Great Britain. After the disastrous loss of the thirteen colonies during the American Revolution (1775–1783) and a brief period of Irish legislative independence from 1782, Ireland’s parliament was abolished, in 1801 and the country was administratively united with Great Britain, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Between the late 18th and the mid-19th centuries, Britain was the leading industrial and economic power in the world, which in part led to the creation of the largest colonial empire on earth. At the start of the 20th century, Great Britain ruled Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, much of tropical Africa, India, and island and coastal regions throughout the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas. As a result of the Anglo-Irish War (1919–21), the Irish Free State was created in southern Ireland, nominally under British direction but gradually emerging as a fully independent nation, the Republic of Eire, by 1937. The devastation of two world wars led to a relative economic decline during the 20th century and a gradual dismemberment of the empire between the 1940s and the 1960s. The United Kingdom, or UK—often referred to simply as Britain or Great Britain—joined the European Community in 1973. The weak economy of the 1970s gave way to a booming growth in the 1980s under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
There was no typical British immigrant to North America. Immigrants were English, Welsh, Scots, Scots-Irish, and Irish. Some came as proprietors or representatives of the government, some as soldiers, some as seekers of religious freedom, some as indentured servants (see indentured servitude), and some as paupers. Most came to better their economic circumstances in some way, driven by overcrowding and poor economic conditions in Britain. The British came in four waves, each prompted by a peculiar set of circumstances. After unsuccessfully seeking reforms in the Church of England, about 21,000 Puritans migrated to Massachusetts, mainly from East Anglia, during the 1630s. During the mid-17th century, about 45,000 Royalists, including a large number of indentured servants, emigrated from southern England to Virginia. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, about 23,000 settlers, many of them Quakers, emigrated from Wales and the Midlands to the Delaware Valley. Finally, in the largest migration, during the 18th century, about 250,000 north Britons and Scots- Irish immigrated, more than 100,000 of them from Ireland, many settling along the Appalachians.
It is estimated that more than 300,000 Britons immigrated to America between 1607 and 1776, and a large natural increase led to a white population of some 2 million by the time of the American Revolution, half of them English and most of the remainder Scots, Scots-Irish, or Welsh. Neither the French before 1763 nor the British in the following two decades had much success in attracting settlers to the Canadian colonies. The population of the entire Canadian region at the end of the American Revolution was about 140,000, most of whom were French and accounted for by a high rate of natural increase. But Britain’s loss of the American colonies led to a dramatic demographic shift in its remaining North American colonies. Before the end of the 1780s, 40,000–50,000 Loyalists left the new republic for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In addition, another several thousand Americans seeking better farmlands moved to western Quebec. As a result of this great influx of largely English-speaking settlers, in 1791, Quebec was divided into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), roughly along British and French lines of culture.
The French Revolution, French Revolutionary Wars, and Napoleonic Wars (1789–1815) led to a lull in immigration, but economic recession in England and Ireland led to a steady immigration from the 1820s, culminating in the mass migration of the 1840s and 1850s in the wake of a potato famine in Ireland. Between 1791 and 1871, the population of British North America jumped from 250,000 to more than 3 million, more than one-quarter of it Irish. By 1851, the largely British population of Upper Canada finally surpassed that of Lower Canada, and 10 years later, the French-Canadian population of Lower Canada dipped below 80 percent.
Despite the vast influx of immigrants, emigration from Canada to the United States was a routine feature throughout the 19th century. Agricultural crises, rebellions, and the difficulty of obtaining good farmland led more than 300,000 people to migrate south of the border. The outmigration became even more pronounced after 1865. Despite government policies actively encouraging British immigration, until the turn of the 20th century, more emigrants left Canada than those who entered, and a large number of these emigrants were British. Beginning in 1880, control of immigration fell under the auspices of the Canadian high commissioner, who began to promote immigration more aggressively, sending out immigration agents, who arranged lectures and organized fairs, and advertising throughout Britain. Though less successful than hoped, the program did lead to some 600,000 British immigrants between 1867 and 1890. They continued to come in large numbers after 1890, more than 1 million between 1900 and 1914 alone. The percentage of British immigration declined to 38 percent by 1914, as larger numbers of southern and eastern Europeans chose to settle in Canada, but British immigration continued to be the largest of any country. Between 1946 and 1970, 923,930 Britons settled in Canada and another 311,911 Americans, many of British descent. After 1970, numbers declined each decade as non-European immigration took off. Between 1996 and 2000, immigration from the United Kingdom ranked 10th as a source country for immigration to Canada, averaging about 4,600 immigrants per year, about 2.2 percent of the total, although immigration dropped steadily from the 1950s. Of almost 632,000 immigrants from the United Kingdom and Ireland (Eire) in Canada in 2001, 62 percent (392,700) had entered the country before 1971.
Following the American Civil War (1861–65), the United States received a steady stream of British immigrants from both Europe and Canada. Though they constituted the largest national immigrant group by decade until 1900, their numbers peaked in three periods: from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s, from 1863 to 1873, and from 1879 to 1890. Many were escaping famine in Ireland and economic hardship elsewhere, but the rapidly industrializing United States also lured large numbers of skilled workers, machinists, and miners to help drive industrial development. In 1860, more than half of America’s foreign-born population was British. By the turn of the 20th century, British immigration to the United States was declining, as an increasing percentage of British immigrants chose to go to Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Inexpensive land had become difficult to find and the specialized skills of British workers were less needed as industry became more mechanized. This, in conjunction with Britain’s passage of the Empire Resettlement Act (1922), which assisted migration within the empire, played a major role in the decline. After World War II (1939–45), British immigration to the United States rebounded, aided initially by wartime evacuations and the entry of 40,000 British war brides, and then by a burgeoning economy. Between 1950 and 1980, about 600,000 British and Irish citizens immigrated to the Unites States; about 310,000 immigrated between 1981 and 2002. Average annual immigration to the United States from the United Kingdom and Ireland (Eire) between 1992 and 2002 was almost 20,000. California became home to more British immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s than any other state, in part because of the movie, music, and computer industries centered there.
See also American Revolution and immigration; Canada—immigration survey and policy overview; Irish immigration; Scottish immigration; United States—immigration survey and policy overview.