Historians at Northumbria University are embarking on a ground breaking project to explore why “Englishness” has been overlooked in America, while other ethnic groups are celebrated and well-known.
The team, led by Professor Don MacRaild, Dr Tanja Bueltmann and Dr David Gleeson, argue that the existence of English cultural communities in North America has been largely ignored by traditional historians who see the English as assimilating into Anglo-American culture without any need to overtly express a separate English ethnicity.
Their initial research has found that from the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, North American towns and cities boasted organisations such as the Sons of St George, where traditional English food and folk culture were maintained. The evidence suggests that the English were distinctly aware of being an ethnic group within the emerging settlements at the time, exhibiting and maintaining their ethnicity in similar ways to the Irish, Scottish and German colonists. Yet this does not appear to be recognised in history.
The three-year project entitled ‘Locating the Hidden Diaspora: The English in North America in Transatlantic Perspective, 1760-1950’, has received £286,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It aims to take a fresh look at English ethnicity using thousands of untapped sources, including manuscripts and newspaper articles from this period. The team believes that their research will have wider reaching implications in shedding light on current debates in UK identity politics and Englishness.
Professor MacRaild said: “It struck us as highly surprising that, though the English in North America formed an array of ethnic clubs and societies, such as the St George’s Society, no one has shown much interest in these associations, their activities and English cultural legacies.
“The English were one of the largest European groups of immigrants in the US yet, while they settled alongside the other migrants who powerfully exerted ethnic awareness, the English are not ascribed the attributes of ethnicity associated with other immigrants.
“The Irish, Scots, Germans, and many other European ethnic groups have been subjected to dozens if not hundreds of studies, but not so the English. The standard historian’s answer has been that the English assimilated more easily to Anglo-American culture so removing the need for ethnic expression. However, far from being an invisible group within a world of noticeably ethnicised European immigrants, the English consciously ethnicised themselves in an active way.”
Evident expressions of Englishness are found in English immigrants to America celebrating St George’s Day, toasting Queen Victoria, marking Shakespeare’s birthday, and Morris dancing. Benevolence was also of great importance, with many English associations being involved in providing charity – from meal tickets to ‘Christmas cheer’ – towards English immigrants experiencing hardships.
The team believe that Englishness has been overlooked by historians because, as the founding colonists, the English were the benchmark against which all other ethnic groups measured themselves.
Ironically, England’s relatively recent decline in global influence and the cultural changes produced by mass immigration and regional devolution has sparked increasing attempts to rediscover and define Englishness – seen in calls to celebrate St George’s Day as a national holiday and the rise in the English Defence League (EDL).
“At present,” Professor MacRaild argues, “Englishness in England is bedevilled with fears about right-wing extremists, football hooligans, and the uses and abuses of the now prevalent St George’s flag. We hope a project which will demonstrate the vibrancy of Englishness beyond England’s shores will contribute to debates about how Englishness fits into today’s multi-ethnic and increasingly federal political culture.”
Dr Tanja Bueltmann, an expert in the history of ethnic associations in the Scottish and English diasporas, added: “The growing movement for an independent Scotland has raised the issue of “Britishness” and “Englishness” in the wider society and influenced national debate about identity.
“Englishness as an ethnicity is now being rediscovered as a result of a crisis of confidence, partly influenced by the increasing fluidity of national borders and migration. Englishness is again being defined in opposition to other competing groups.”
Dr David Gleeson, historian of nineteenth-century America, said: “The project also has implications for the other side of the Atlantic. Recognising the English as a distinct diaspora gives us a clearer picture of the development of an American identity in that it complicates the idea of a coherent ‘Anglo’ cultural mainstream and indicates the fluid and adaptable nature of what it meant and means to be an American or Canadian.”
The research project will produce books, articles, an exhibition, and a series of public lectures to expatriate community groups throughout North America. The team will also work with local folk groups, including the Hexham Morris Men, and Folkworks at the Sage, Gateshead, to disseminate their findings to the wider public. International partners also working on the project are based in Guelph and Kansas Universities and from the College of Charleston.
Dr Gleeson added: “Perhaps English-Americans and Canadians will make a ‘Homecoming’, similar to the one organised by the Scottish government in 2009 for those of Scottish background, to re-establish connections with the land of their ancestors.”
Past Horizons. 2011. "In Search of English". Past Horizons. Posted: May 27, 2011. Available online: http://www.pasthorizons.com/index.php/archives/05/2011/in-search-of-the-english