The way lies west, 1818
From Wales to Canada, Part 1
There are no rents or taxes here, Everyone owns his own property. O that all the poor people of Wales Could be here, all of them! Which do you think is best, To stay at home poor in Wales, Or to come here to Columbia land And say farewell to everyone?
– Cân Sef Hanes Y Brig Albion, 1819
Today almost 450,000 people in Canada are estimated to be of some Welsh descent. Welsh migration to the country began sporadically in the 17th century, although the most successful communities were founded in the 19th century.
One of the first efforts to encourage Welsh emigration to Canada began in 1812, when Welsh native John Mathews endeavoured to bring his family to Canada. Mathews left home at a young age and went on to become a successful businessman in the United States. When he returned to Wales, he found his family living in poverty and became convinced they should emigrate to Canada.
In 1817 his family settled in the township of Southwald, near what is now London, Ontario. By 1812 he had brought over more relatives and the colony attracted 385 Welsh settlers by 1850, retaining its predominantly Welsh character until the late 1870s.
Many other Welsh people were driven to look westward in the 1810s due to famine and unemployment – and with the hope that their identity would be more recognised in a new land than in Britain, where even their language had no legal status. In some cases early travellers and settlers left first-hand accounts, which reveal fascinating details of the pioneer life.
One of the most interesting accounts concerns the passengers of a brig (a two-masted, square-rigged ship) named Albion, which sailed from Wales to North America – other ships which took emigrants between 1818 and 1822 included the Fanny, Active and New Cambrian. In 1818, the Albion took emigrants from Caernarfon to New York, whence most of them travelled north by land; and in 1919 it sailed from Cardigan (Aberteifi) directly to St John’s, New Brunswick. Of 180 passengers, around 150 are estimated to have travelled on to Fredericton, and then founded Cardigan Settlement around 17 miles away.
Accounts of both voyages have survived, both allegedly written (in Welsh) by the Albion’s captain, Llewelyn Davies – one (Hanes Mordaith Y Brig Albion O Aberteifi) is a diary of the first voyage, and the other a ballad (Cân Sef Hanes Y Brig Albion) about the second.
The definitive account of these voyages and the subsequent Welsh settlements in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is Strangers from a Secret Land (1986), by Peter Thomas. Here I give you a selection of the first-hand accounts to be found there and elsewhere which reveal the lives of the early 19th century Welsh pioneers in Canada.
The original 1818 account of the Albion’s voyage from Caernarfon to New York, apparently by Captain Llewelyn Davies (there is some scholarly doubt as to the authorship), was written in Welsh. It was translated into English by the Welsh poet and novelist Dr Llewelyn Wyn Griffith (1890–1977). He drew upon the material for his novel The Way Lies West (1945); the full translation was first published in the journal Maritime Wales in 1980. In this first extract, an early passage evokes the wistfully optimistic spirit of the emigrants as they sailed past Fishguard and onward:
Before turning in for the night we saw St David’s Head – the last that many of us, perhaps, will ever see of the old country, and the sound of our footsteps will never more be heard on its soil. Many were our troubles and griefs in it; but now farewell: good fortune to its peoples and a blessing on their endeavours, peace within its walls and prosperity in its mansions.
Oh! our old country and its inhabitants – you reared many men and women, and now we, from within you, are leaving in search of prosperity, etc. We ate the bread of bitterness and drank the water of sorrow oft times: low wages, many a poor meal we had, but now we depart from you and all hardships and oppression, but we wish you a better future. The land we seek is fertile and peaceful, with little taxation and no tithe: no different ranks of society there, and as much respect for the honest and poor commoner as to the rich, no harsh laws to maintain high rents and the high cost of food, but plenty of scope for the industrious to prosper.
But although most of us felt like that, there were some who spoke otherwise as they looked their last on their old country, admitting that they had many blessings there, some of them longing for treasures there the world thought little of, lamenting their Kin…
[The 1818 Albion voyage took from 18 May to 8 July. Much of it was uneventful, although inevitably there were some choppy waters…]
2nd June. Wind changing, west to north, the sea rough, the waves breaking against the sides, some thinking the ship would break up, so that what with sickness and fear they cried ‘Oh, for a foot of dry land for once – what drew me into this sorrow? I could have been happy enough at home but for this craving for cheap land and good living in America! Here I am, breaking up, can’t eat, and all but throwing my inside up! What shall I do?’ And others said ‘I’d be happy enough if only I could land somewhere in Ireland! I vow I’d never embark on such a venture once I got there and I’d sacrifice all the money I paid for this voyage.’
3rd June. Less wind most of the day, and a quiet night. Many complaining, some constipated, others the reverse. The Captain dosed many of them and they improved: hot vinegar poured on the boards and beds to sweeten them. Midday we saw a ship approaching on its way to England: the Captain asked if anyone would like to join her, but no one wanted to.
[There was sadness too, though…]
12th June… At midday, the sound of weeping and someone came to the Captain and said that John Lloyd’s child aged 14 months had died – her mother had been ill for some time and unable to eat much. The Captain ordered a coffin to be made as there were planks on board – this is not customary at sea where it is usual to wrap the body in a blanket in a weighted sack.”
[The narrative also records various squabbles among the voyagers. For example:]
19th June… A complaint this evening against two women. They were called up before the Committee, with witnesses on both sides. One woman had put her clothes up to dry, the other put hers up where they dripped on the other’s which incensed the first so much that she struck the other woman twice. The two were found guilty. They were sentenced to wash the lower deck unaided for three mornings. One very obstinate and full of excuses — she was threatened with the irons until she obeyed.
[The first Albion narrative ends with the arrival in New York:]
8th July… We landed in New York and found many Welsh people, some here over 15 years, others new. They told us that some Welsh people from Liverpool were boarded and robbed by pirates, and that some had died from drinking cold water in hot weather. Young girls of good character much in demand for domestic service, 6 dollars a month and their keep – more money if they spoke English… 2000 houses built here this year. Much boasting about their progress, high wages, etc., but we didn’t hear much about the poor people and the high cost of living, and how they suffered since the war with England.
We learnt that we have 165 miles to go to Albany, and thence 80 miles by land to Utica, and thence 15 miles to Steuben – the land there costs 2 dollars an acre, wooded land and uncleared: the farmers keep cows and make butter to send to New York for which they get 20-30 cents a pound.
Next week, I will follow up this story with another writer’s account detailing the daily life the Welsh emigrants experienced when they finally got to Canada.
Thanks for these appetizers and the whetting of appetite for further research!