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Mad Flight? The Montréal Migration of 1896 to Brazil

  • John Zucchi
Couverture de                Volume 24, numéro 2, 2013, p. 1-454, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Corps de l’article

Sarah Moody and her husband, John Poley, must have awakened well before dawn on 15 September 1896. John, an English-born Anglican living in Montréal by 1891, was a machinist in St Henri. Five years later he was listed as living on St. John Street in the old town. Sarah and John had five children, aged two months to eight years. The seven members of this family left their home that morning for the port of Montréal carrying their worldly belongings with them, as they were travelling to a new land: the Brazilian coffee plantations. We are not sure where David Fecteau, a Catholic and native Quebecer, aged 43, and his wife Eliza Paul, 34, had slept the previous night with their five children, aged four to 13. They had made their way to Montréal at some point from Sorel, where David, who unlike John was illiterate, worked as a farm day labourer. They too were leaving for the fazendas of the state of São Paulo, as was Pascal De Mars, a 35-year-old Italian-born Catholic day labourer living in St. Jacques Ward with his wife Marie Levieux, aged 23. On the morning of 15 September they left their home on 15 Marie-Louise Street with six-year-old Anna, four-year-old Rosanna, two-year-old Angelo, and baby Carmela. These 20 people were among 481 emigrants who left Montréal at 12:30 p.m. that day on the steamship Moravia to try their luck in the coffee plantations of Brazil.

The story of this migration is largely unknown. It was first brought to light in the early 1980s by Thomas Holloway in his study of immigrants in the São Paulo fazendas, and recently Rosana Barbosa and Yves Frenette have discussed the migration in several articles. [1] This paper explores why residents of Québec in 1896 would have chosen to embark on an adventure that everyone else seemed to recognize as foolhardy.

Almost 800 people had prepared to board the steamer in the port of Montréal, headed for Santos, Brazil, the main port of São Paulo. The ship manifest informs us that 776 men, women, and children had signed up for the trip, and that six more signed on the day of departure. [2] A crowd of a few thousand — estimates went from a few hundred to 10,000 — pleaded with passengers not to sail. [3] Every time someone came down the gangplank and abandoned ship, the crowd broke into a loud cheer. One episode was recounted again and again in the Canadian and international press. A man got off the boat and tried to persuade his wife to follow him. The crowd encouraged him to persist until he got on the gangplank, picked up his screaming wife, and carried her off the boat to the cheers of the crowd. [4]

This apparently was “one of the most exciting scenes ever witnessed on the wharf.” [5] The special immigration commissioner sent by the São Paulo government to Montréal, Americo de Campos Sobrinho (who also happened to be the son of the former president of the State of São Paulo) even spoke of “all sorts of violence being committed” under the seemingly respectful gaze of the local police. [6] Many individuals were convinced to get off the boat, and 481 migrants departed on the long journey to South America, meaning that 300 people had a change of mind at the last moment. [7]

The migration experience was a total failure. Some immigrants died on board the ship and some in Brazil, others became indigent labourers on coffee plantations, and yet others were reduced to begging. [8] The vast majority either were sent back to Canada or Britain with the help of British consular representatives or made their way back on their own within a couple of years.

The 481 emigrants included 286 adults and 195 adolescents, children, or infants. In all there were 101 married couples on the boat. Seventy-five men over the age of 18 were not married or were travelling without their wives. Sixty of them were single, 12 were widowers, one was divorced, and two were listed as married but their wives did not sail with them. Only eight women over the age of 18 were not married or were travelling without their husbands. One sailed without her husband and five were widows, three of whom headed families. Was their act of emigration a last-ditch attempt at staving off poverty? [9] Or did it represent an elder son’s decision to have the family try its luck elsewhere? Although it appeared from press reports that most families were French Canadian, in fact not more than 31.7 percent were French Canadian, and this estimate is probably too high. Of the 480 men, women, and children who sailed, 289 were Catholic and 192 were Protestant. Among the Catholics, I was able to isolate all migrants of Irish or British ethnicity and other ethnicities such as Italian, as well as a few individuals born in France. At least two of the passengers listed as Protestants were most likely Jewish (eight other Jewish individuals got off the boat before it sailed). [10]

Why did certain passengers stay on the Moravia, while others got off? Why did they sail? The most obvious explanation is poverty. [11] Generally, those migrants who intended to leave Québec or emigrated were certainly in the lowest socio-economic strata of Québec society. Every single person named on the ship’s manifest – husband, wife, or child – was listed as an agricoltore (Italian was used on the manifest, not Portuguese, as the transportation company and the captain were Italian) or farmer, which was definitely not the case. Of the traceable 45 heads of family who were men and whose occupations were listed, only two claimed to be farmers either in the city directory, on passenger lists, or in the 1891 census. The two most prominent occupational groups were 18 labourers and 15 skilled workers. These groups comprised semi-skilled and skilled trades, but the North American economy was in the tail end of a major recession at the time, and both categories would have been vulnerable to unemployment. Unemployment reached its apex in the mid-1890s, which suggests that at least some of the emigrants or prospective emigrants were without work and living in poverty. [12]

That most were in dire economic circumstances is substantiated by press reports. On 23 September, the Canadian Order of United Workmen held a meeting for those families who had signed up for passage but then declined to sail. The purpose was to assess their needs. These families were in destitute circumstances, without work, and many had no clothes, as the ship’s crew had not returned their luggage when they disembarked. Others were “being cared for by people almost as poor as themselves, people who found it a hard job to keep the wolf from their own door.” [13] Forty-two men registered that evening to find work. L. O. David, the Montréal City Clerk, claimed that “the extreme poverty which he knew to exist amongst hundreds of families in Montréal was no doubt responsible for the alleged success of the Brazilian agent.” [14]

Not all the emigrants, however, were without means. One British immigrant to Montréal who then went to Brazil, Percival Holman, had been employed in Montréal “and business being very dull, and glowing advertisements being sent through the Dominion, I gave up my occupation, sold my home and proceeded with my family to South America.” He may have been an exception as a homeowner, and he was employed as an engineer in a sugar refinery, though was no doubt feeling the effects of the recession. [15] When on 26 January 1897, 54 Canadians returned from Brazil, one “man in good circumstances” was waiting at the train station for his son and family to arrive from New York, although they did not show up that evening. His son had not left out of poverty: “Nothing could persuade him to stay, and fired with the spirit of adventure, he left, accompanied by a young wife and three small children, leaving an excellent home and situation for the uncertainty which has turned out to be disastrous.” The Gazette reporter at the train station described another emigrant “who had an excellent situation in the Verdun Asylum. All the argument in the world would not prevent him from leaving.” [16] Even if we argue that these migrants were exceptional and that most were destitute, can poverty explain the migration?

Problématique and context

This story opens an important research question that has never been investigated: why do some people migrate en masse on impulse and begin a journey that will, at least to the eyes of others, almost predictably end up in failure? Historical studies on migration normally account for successful outcomes in migration but never consider why some immigrant experiences seem destined to failure. [17] There are many examples of migrants who took calculated risks but encountered bad luck along the way, whether it was a sudden economic downturn, illness or injury, or theft. [18] But there are fewer examples of groups of migrants who decided not to seek the advice of kin, or perhaps not to heed the advice of neighbours and friends, and left for a new land with little more than vague promises from less than honest agents. Almost by intuition we can understand that poverty might be an important reason for the migration, and this Montréal to São Paulo episode certainly took place in a period of economic depression and high unemployment, involving many unskilled and skilled workers. As not all the migrants were unemployed or in difficult financial circumstances, did other factors beyond poverty influence their decision to migrate? This paper will use this case study to explore why these families chose to leave Montréal and take part in a journey that many Montrealers predicted would not end well. In the 26th Canto of the Inferno, Dante describes Ulysses’ “mad flight” beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the unknown with his companions. Need and desire may have goaded them on that adventure, but they lacked the means to navigate the Mare Nostrum[19] Those migrants who left for Brazil may have had a rationale for their passage even if their adventure would prove a failure. They too travelled to a land “beyond the pale” for Canada, without the necessary means for adapting to the local context. Can we label their enterprise a “mad flight”?

That people should suddenly decide to throw caution to the wind and migrate on impulse opens an interesting question: why would they do something that appeared to their neighbours to be so irrational? The vast trans-disciplinary literature on migration theory has grappled with the motives and contexts that lead people to migrate. [20] Scholars use the term “selectivity” to identify those individuals in a given cohort who make the decision to leave home for opportunities elsewhere. Does the decision depend on the social or occupational backgrounds of the migrants or access to capital? What role do family and gender play in the decision?  Do migrants act rationally or on impulse? Are they induced or enticed to migrate?

Historically, many cases of individuals or groups, like the Montréal migrants to Brazil, do not fit the profile of successful migrants, and their migrations cannot be explained by conventional theories. Their experience is a total failure. They have not planned their migration or acquired information through family, kin, and other networks. Rather than journey to the traditional destinations of their home regions, they respond to attractive but inaccurate inducements. In other words, they migrate en masse on impulse. This study is an attempt to examine historically why they do so by investigating the emigrants from Montréal to the state of São Paulo in 1896–7. [21]

I propose to tackle the research questions starting from sociologist Barak Kalir’s conceptualization of “migratory disposition.” His theory, which borrows from Pierre Bourdieu and has been adapted to his work on Ecuadorian migrants to Israel, tries to account for the impulsive character of some migrations. Kalir argues that the formation of a disposition toward migration “entails an embodiment, namely, a disposition constitutes an inherent part of one’s sense-making mechanism, which does not only include calculative practices but also bodily feelings, emotions, and desires.” [22] If people who might never seriously have considered migrating do so in response to enticing propositions, they act impulsively, not solely by calculated decision based on an assessment of needs and information on prospective destinations. Enticements create a disposition in them to migrate, but they do not test or verify details through the normal information networks of prospective migrants. Another sociologist, R. C. Taylor, detected a similar phenomenon among West Durham coal miners in the 1960s. Just over half of the sample of migrants he studied were what he called “resultant.” They had not contemplated leaving until they became redundant in the mines, and then migrated on impulse, aping the decisions of friends or relatives, with little information. [23] In the present study I argue that these impulsive migrants were lured by dishonest agents and influenced by the demonstration effect of neighbours who decided to migrate. My hypothesis is that their disposition to migrate was strengthened by their lack of rootedness in their society and neighbourhoods. Thus they did not test the information they were being fed by agents through the usual networks of kin and friends.

Emigration of course was not something new to Québec or Canada. Since the 1860s hundreds of thousands of French Canadians had left Québec parishes to work in the mill-towns of New England, particularly in Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. [24] A similar number of English Canadians had crossed the border to work throughout the American northern states. Significant movement for either temporary or permanent employment also took place in the opposite direction over the 49th parallel, as the border was rather fluid, but Canada suffered a net loss in cross-border migration. [25] In 1896 Canada was on its way to becoming one of the significant immigration destinations in the world, though certainly well behind the United States in annual intake. In the recession of the mid-1890s Canadian immigration figures also lagged far behind those of Brazil. If 167,000 and 157,000 immigrants entered Brazil in 1895 and 1896, Canadian immigration in the same years totaled only 18,800 and 16,800. That Canadian migration to Brazil should surge was an alarming prospect for officials in the Ministry of the Interior, where the Department of Immigration was housed. Canada was importing farmers and, according to immigration officials, it made no sense that Canadians should travel to Brazil to work as labourers on coffee plantations. Brazil was suitable for Europeans, Italians, Portuguese, or Spaniards, according to British consular officials among others, and Canadian officials reiterated the idea in their own correspondence and communiqués. Brazil was not a suitable place for “Nordic” immigrants and hence Canadians, they argued, and they insinuated that it was not a “civilized” land for British subjects. The tropical climate harboured all sorts of disease, in particular yellow fever, agricultural practices were different, immigrants were prey to dishonest agents, and the food available would be unpalatable to a Canadian. The press picked up the same ideas. [26] There was plenty of “proof” that Canadians would not be able to survive. In 1891 and 1892 about 1,500 emigrants left a number of British and Irish towns, many of them from Bradford, and headed for Brazil; almost all had to be sent back to Britain in destitute circumstances with the help of British consular officials in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Santos. [27] The British and Canadian episodes were connected. The British consuls in Rio and Santos warned Canadian officials about Brazilian immigration agents headed for Canada. They predicted that many gullible people would end up like the Bradfordian emigrants; indeed, Canadians were soon asking British officials in Brazil for help to return home. [28]

The agents who lured the migrants were the terminal points of a system that sustained the Brazilian and, in particular, the São Paulo economy. From the mid-nineteenth century, Brazilian coffee production expanded from Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais into São Paulo to the extent that the province accounted for half of the world’s coffee production by 1900. The fazenda was the main production unit. A class of producers maintained these massive plantations whose only purpose was to export coffee for the world market. Coffee farming was labour-intensive, and the early source of that labour had been slaves. Slavery ended in 1888, after a gradual decline in preceding decades. The province of São Paulo responded by attracting immigrants to replace slave labour from the early 1870s. A Sociedade Promotora da Imigraçao (Immigration Promotion Society) was created in 1886, whose work from 1895 on was taken over by the Secretaria or Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Public Works. The planters controlled the province of São Paulo and thus decided on the political programme of heavy subsidies to enhance immigration. As Thomas Holloway has noted, “From 1889 to the turn of the century nearly three-quarters of a million more foreigners arrived in São Paulo, of which 80 percent were subsidized by the government.” [29]

Subsidies meant that those immigrants who did not have the means to emigrate could receive free steamship passage to Santos, rail passage to São Paulo, and eight days in an immigration centre or hostel (the Hospedaria São Paulo) before being engaged on a fazenda. The subsidies were paid in the form of a grant for each adult in a family group to contractors who would provide the immigrants. The most significant of these contractors and the one ultimately behind the Montréal expedition was Angelo Fiorita & Company, a Brazilian contractor who had been in the business at least since the 1880s. [30] The immigration contracting company made its profit by pocketing the difference between the government subsidy and the cost of doing business, which included free passage for qualifying immigrants. The immigrants had to be a family with at least one working-age male. The conditions regarding the family make-up were quite detailed. Significantly, the immigrants had to be farmers or agricultores, although, as Holloway notes, “state officials commonly assumed that many people of urban origin misrepresented themselves as farmers in order to qualify for free passage.” [31] Most Montréal migrants followed this pattern, and the transportation company and agency turned a blind eye.

The majority of the late nineteenth-century immigrants to São Paulo were Italians, 73 percent between 1887 and 1900. [32] The preponderance of one ethnic group, though useful for the fazendeiros, also kept them reliant primarily on one source of labour. On a number of occasions, Italy suspended migration to Brazil because of either diplomatic incidents or reports of fraud and abuse of Italian immigrants. For this reason, the Secretaria, in tendering its immigration contracts, included quotas on specific ethnic groups. The contract tenders involved an act of the State of São Paulo, as the subsidies were an allocation of resources. Law 356 of 29 August 1895 specified the introduction of 55,000 immigrants to the state, 45,000 of whom would arrive from Europe and 10,000 from Québec and Puerto Rico (though it appears that Puerto Ricans were not solicited). [33] The Europeans were to be Italian, Dutch, Swedish, German, Norwegian, English, Austrian, Portuguese, or Spanish. On 7 March 1896, Dr. Bernardino do Campos, the State President, and his Secretary of Commerce, Agriculture and Public Works Theodoro Dias de Carvalho Junior signed a contract with Angelo Fiorita & Comp for the “delivery” of those 55,000 immigrants. [34] According to the contract (clause 14), Fiorita would be paid the transportation subsidy for travel from Canada of £9 for adults over the age of 12, £4.10 for children aged seven to 12, and £2.5 for children aged three to seven. The corresponding rates for Italian immigrants were £4.16, £2.8, and £1.4. Fiorita sub-contracted the shipping of those migrants to the Genoese transportation firm La Ligure Brasiliana, owned by his son-in-law Gustavo Gavotti, and thus had transported hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Genoa to Santos in previous years. [35]

The Brazil migration campaign in Québec

Gavotti’s managing director in Montréal was an Italian soldier of fortune, Francesco Antonio Gualco, a former contractor on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Apparently, in the mid-1890s he communicated with Bernardino de Campos, the President of the State of São Paulo, regarding the possibility of deflecting French-Canadian migration to New England in the direction of Brazil as a means of compensating for the instability of Italian migration. [36] In less than three months following the signing of Fiorita’s contract, Gualco had opened an office on Commissioners Street in Montréal, spread news that he wished to open a steamship line between Halifax and Santos in winter, and began advertising in at least one English- and one French-language newspaper.

Advertisement for farm labourers for Brazil by the Ligure Brasiliana in Montreal Daily Star, June 1896.

Advertisement for farm labourers for Brazil by the Ligure Brasiliana in Montreal Daily Star, June 1896.

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These advertisements in the “situations vacant” (what we now call “want-ads”) came to the attention of a priest by the name of Charles-Ernest Trudel. The abbé Trudel was born in Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan in 1851 and was ordained for the diocese of Rimouski in 1876, and was thus certainly well aware of the colonization movements promoted by the clergy in the late nineteenth century to persuade French Canadians to stay on the land in Québec and not to migrate to the United States. In 1878, he is said to have founded the village of Routhierville in the Matapedia Valley and became its first priest. [37] Trudel served as an English professor in the Rimouski Seminary from 1878 to 1881 and was then a pastor at Saint-Pierre and at Saint-Georges-de-Malbaie, vicar at Trois-Pistoles, curé at Sainte-Françoise, and finally curé at New-Carlisle. Church officials had some concerns about the young priest, and, after a year’s leave of absence in 1889–90, he ended up near Fargo, North Dakota, for a couple of years. He went to Europe and then Ogdsensburg, New York, where he served as an assistant pastor until 1894. At this point Trudel seems to have returned to Québec as pastor of a parish in the diocese of Valleyfield. [38] Some reports referred to him as a defrocked priest, and he was certainly a renegade who caused his bishop endless trouble. [39]

Trudel had met the former Brazilian Consul in Montréal (from September 1892 until December 1893), J. C. Alves de Lima, who gave the priest information on Brazil as a land of immigration. Alves de Lima had signaled his government about the growing local interest in Brazil as early as May of 1893, just a few months into the deep economic recession that would last three years. He wrote the São Paulo President Bernardino de Campos, stating that in Montréal “not a day passes by without a request for information on Brazil. Almost everyone asks for detailed news on our country.” He went on to ask if he might be sent suitable literature from the Sociedade Promotora de Immigraçao to hand out in Montréal. As a consequence, in August 1893 the Inspector-General of Lands and Colonization authorized him to collect information on possible emigrants to Brazil. [40]

Perhaps the two met in New York State while Trudel was in Ogdensburg and Alves de Lima in Syracuse. Alves de Lima was the first Latin American student to graduate from Syracuse University, in civil engineering in 1878. He gave a public address on Brazil in 1877 as a student and published other articles regarding coffee, rubber, energy, and possible Brazilian-American cooperation. [41] Trudel, in consultation with him, wrote a proposal in late May 1896 to the President of the State of São Paulo to establish a settlement of French Canadians in São Paulo. [42] Intrigued by a booklet that Alves de Lima had written on the province and its coffee culture and pointing to the large migration to the United States and the lack of work there because of the recession, he inquired about economic possibilities for French Canadians in Brazil. [43] “We are very proud of our language and our religion,” he wrote, “and if we knew that Brazil had such a rich and fertile land, a government liberal enough to protect us in the present and in the future we would not hesitate for a moment to take up the foundation of a permanent colony in your State.” If coffee was king in Brazil, what could the immigrants from Québec bring to the new colony? Grains and vegetables, butter and cheese. Would the São Paulo government be willing to sell 6,000 hectares of fields and forests for a French Canadian colony of 500 families, with a 15-year time frame for payment? Would the government also cover the costs of building a church and schools, and the priest’s salary until the colony could assume the responsibility? Trudel posed these questions to the São Paulo president and entrusted the document with Alves de Lima, who was supposed to deliver the petition personally to do Campos. [44]

It is difficult to tell whether Charles Ernest Trudel had already met Gualco when in early June of 1896 the abbé, under the pen name of Alves de Santo, wrote a scathing article in La Presse attacking Gualco’s advertisements recruiting French Canadians for Brazil. While Trudel was attracted to the idea of French-Canadian colonies in “a land of the same race and religion,” especially because they were “suffering from the persecution and the tyranny of an ungrateful people determined to destroy our language and our faith,” he warned his people to guard “against certain agents who could buy you as formerly African negroes were brought to be transported to the coffee plantation of Brazil where they became the slaves of the planters.” [45] Gualco responded a couple of days later saying there was no such person as Alves de Santo and that the writer, he suspected, was one who had sought employment with his company. [46] Mysteriously, within a few days, Trudel retracted his comments, saying that the Ligure Brasiliana was a trustworthy company and that the ex-Consul de Lima had mistakenly raised doubts with him about Gualco’s enterprise. This is probably untrue, as Alves de Lima remembered Gualco in his memoirs as “um homem de visão,” a man of vision. [47]

Alves de Lima never handed the petition to de Campos, and he returned it to Trudel, who sent it to Angelo Fiorita. He likewise should have handed it to Campos but did not. Eventually it ended up on the president’s desk when Trudel sent it to him from within Brazil. On 15 June, Gualco and Trudel began cooperating. The abbé Trudel became a representative of the Ligure Brasiliana among French- and Irish-Canadians who had established themselves in Brazil. [48] Evidently, Gualco found it useful to employ a priest as a drawing card for his venture, and Trudel was able to follow his dream.

As noted earlier, Gualco carried out an advertising campaign over the summer months with a view to attracting a full boatload of emigrants. Remarkably few members of the public took note of the campaign or the fact that Gualco had begun to look for agents to comb Québec for “farmers” who could be lured to Brazil. He was able to stay out of the limelight and thus not draw too much negative publicity over the summer. The consular officials in Rio, Santos, and São Paulo had gotten wind of plans to attract French-Canadian immigrants, and Percy Lupton, the Consular Agent in São Paulo, had warned Canada, through the Colonial Office and the High Commissioner, that such plans were afoot. The Deputy Minister of the Interior informed the Secretary of Agriculture and Colonization in Québec in June, but there was no follow-up until September, just a few days before the Moravia set sail. [49]

One cleric did take notice in early July of the work of the Ligure Brasiliana. The abbé Georges Dugas was a well-known writer who had spent much of his life in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, and then retired to his brother’s home in the rectory of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines in Québec. There he wrote about the history of the Canadian west and early in 1896 published the original French version of The Canadian West[50] In the fifth chapter Dugas described how recruiting agents of the North West Company had enticed voyageurs from their lands with exaggerated promises regarding life in the upper country. [51] He found an analogous situation in 1896. In an article in Le Soir, he lashed out at the competition among agents to draw French Canadians to a land unfit for them. Like the old fur trading company agents, who snatched the voyageurs from their land to “turn them into slaves out there, promising them happiness and riches,” these modern agents were preventing French Canadians from fulfilling their destiny at home. The abbé Dugas noted that the previous day (9 July) he had met a priest from the United States who had related the disappointing news that he was leaving for Brazil with 200 Canadien settlers. Dugas did not mention that the cleric recently arrived from Ogdensburg was a fellow French Canadian, no other than abbé Trudel. [52]

The Moravia had a capacity of about 700 passengers, although Gualco claimed that up to 1,400 people could fit in the ship, as the first and second cabins had been converted to steerage. His and Trudel’s efforts were focused on filling the boat to capacity, as this would ensure that with subsequent trips they would reach the complement of 10,000 immigrants. [53] They printed fliers that were posted on church doors or passed around on the street. The abbé Trudel claimed that “without flattery and in all sincerity I can declare with assurance that without my participation these gentlemen [Gualco and Gavotti] would never have been able to see their first ship leave the port of Montréal. It’s thanks to a circular printed under my signature by which the Company solemnly committed itself to have this first contingent accompanied by a French-Canadian priest, whose mission it would be to deal with your Government to find convenient settlement means at least for our Catholic families.” [54] The radical liberal Montréal review, Le Reveil, argued predictably, a few days after the emigrants departed, that “clerical submission played a great role. The presence in the canvassers’ offices of a priest in his soutane is the bait that attracted the dupes [les gogos]. This is monstrous, if you will, but alas the fact exists: the soutane in Canada is the best decoy [miroir à alouette] that one can imagine.” [55] Gualco and Trudel had already understood that fact. In mid-July, Francesco Antonio Gualco claimed that his venture had the approbation of Archbishops Fabre and Bégin of Montréal and Québec, and of the Papal Nuncio in Rio de Janeiro. Mgr. Fabre denied this, saying that he and Bégin had neither encouraged nor discouraged Gualco when he told them about his work. [56]

The advertising was ultimately not false but misleading. Prospective immigrants were offered free passage by “the Government of Brazil” and, on arriving at Santos, would be transported to an immigration centre in São Paulo, a “large and healthy dwelling,” [57] where they would be housed for eight days. They would then be hired on a coffee plantation where they would receive a house, seeds, tools, and food to get started. The Ligure Brasiliana’s prospectus claimed that a family could easily care for 4,000 coffee trees and would make about 200 dollars a year. They could supplement this with gardening for both personal consumption and market and could also raise animals on their farms. The offer sounded ideal: “The families do not run any expenses whatever, Their passage is paid, house, implements and seed are furnished free, and food is provided for a year.” [58] Only some of these conditions would be met. The emigrants were transported to Santos at no charge on what appears to have been an average immigrant ship, although it was unusual that three of the passengers should have died in transit. They were taken by barge and then rail from Santos to the state capital, where they spent eight days in deplorable conditions in the immigrant hostel, the Hospedaria, a terribly overcrowded building with very unappetizing food. However, almost none of the other emigrants really got to test the other aspects of the offer, as few were suitable for work on the fazendas and most were therefore not hired. Those who were hired were generally deemed unfit for their tasks, did not receive seeds and farm implements, were poorly fed, and were housed in what were little more than sheds, “scarce worthy of the name, consisting merely of walls and a roof, with no windows.” [59] Canadians in Brazil were forced to beg on the streets and to plead with the British consular offices for passage back to Canada.

Towards the end of the summer, politicians and newspapers began to take note of the large numbers of Quebecers who had signed up for departure on the Moravia. Rumours referred to a thousand people. As their imminent departure threatened to turn into a political problem, the federal government worked behind the scenes with newspapers, the mayor of Montréal, the vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Montréal, and through him the clergy to persuade those who had registered to change their minds. The problem was also raised in the House of Commons and the Senate. The episode was deemed unfortunate, but liberal principles precluded any legislation that might prohibit freedom of movement. [60]

In the days preceding the departure of the Moravia, awareness of the impending voyage increased among Montrealers. Newspapers began a writing campaign to dissuade those who had signed up from leaving. La Presse worked very closely with the Ministry of the Interior’s immigration department, which fed information continuously to the newspaper. The department went so far as to assist the publisher of La Presse, Trefflé Berthiaume, to gather evidence for his defence in a criminal libel case launched against him by Gualco. [61] The Montreal Daily Star also spoke out against the emigration. These rival newspapers were probably the most outspoken; yet from 20 May until 28 June they had each published numerous advertisements for the Ligure Brasiliana, enticing readers to emigrate to Brazil. [62] The irony was not lost on the editor of Le Reveil, who noted that “pendant des mois et des mois” – he exaggerated – the city press had published advertisements to lure immigrants. Some Montréal newspaper editors had even attended a champagne cocktail party with the Brazilian Consul John Magor just a few days before the ship sailed. “The champagne had only just been downed before everything turned sour and the counter-campaign began,” he wrote. [63]

Thus in the end 481 emigrants actually departed from Montréal, and 301 passengers disembarked, many without their luggage. [64] There was some discrepancy with the arrival records in Santos, as passengers also disembarked at Québec and perhaps at other ports on the way down the St. Lawrence. Almost 40 percent of the subscribed passengers never sailed. Together the immigrants constituted 115 families, all falling within the purview of family members allowed to migrate according to the contract between the State of São Paulo and A. Fiorita & Company: a married couple no older than 45 years with no children; a married couple no older than 50 with children; a widow or widower not older than 50 with at least one child fit to work; brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, or sisters-in-law of the head of family, no older than 45 and who had previously lived with the family; parents and grandparents or young orphans who had been adopted by the family. Virtually all of the adults were mothers, fathers, widows or widowers, or brothers- or sisters-in-law. The two Italians on the Moravia were identified as Canadians, probably to help comply with quotas in the contract on the numbers of immigrants allowed to São Paulo from the main source country in 1896, Italy. Passengers also included a Jewish couple and a number of English, Scottish, Irish, and French immigrants. [65]

Why Did They Migrate?

Migration historians have argued that poverty alone cannot explain the decision to migrate. [66] Migration is a selective process; although poverty rates in Montréal were very high in 1896, not all the poor left, neither for New England (which in any case was out of the question in 1896, given the economic recession) nor for Brazil. That some of the migrants were not in dire straits suggests that there might have been other reasons for their impulsive departure.

One important reason for the ability of the Ligure Brasiliana to attract immigrants from Montréal to Brazil was its aggressive campaign. Had these migrants made a rational decision or were they simply “induced” to migrate by this transportation company? Dudley Baines has noted that studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Swedish and Italian shipping companies show that they were not aggressive in their marketing and that “agents were following, not leading, the market for emigrants.” [67] In Montréal in 1896, however, the Ligure Brasiliana was leading the market with the offer from São Paulo of free passage, a house, agricultural implements, and food and an aggressive campaign from its agents that convinced many people to sign up for the adventure to an unknown land.

Was even aggressive recruitment sufficient to induce the prospective migrants to leave? In studies of out-migration from Europe in the last two centuries, one of the important factors has been the discussion that preceded migration. Simone Wegge and others have emphasized again and again the importance of social and family networks and migration chains in the decision to migrate. Over half of migrants from the German principality of Hesse-Cassel in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, belonged to a well-defined family network of migrants. [68] However, there was no migration chain from Montréal to Brazil. More recent migrations have found family and friendship networks to be very significant in the decision to migrate. [69] In the early 1970s, John J. Baxevanis found that, for his informants discussing migration from the Peloponnesos of Greece, more than 84 percent “stated that their decision to migrate had been thought of, discussed and studied in economic terms beforehand. The point at which a positive decision is made [to migrate] apparently occurs when an additional source of dissatisfaction raises the magnitude of malcontent to new levels.” [70] For those migrants who eventually left for Brazil, three years of severe recession with high unemployment had increased their “magnitude of malcontent” and convinced them to leave Montréal. Did these migrants make their decisions to migrate in a rational manner, however? Did they discuss their migrations and seriously weigh the advantages and disadvantages of migrating? Did they seek counsel from family and kin?

It is difficult to answer these questions. Newspaper reports of families and friends who pleaded with the emigrants to get off the Moravia suggest they had neither been consulted nor heeded. There is perhaps another way in which we can assess whether these migrants had made a rational decision. Most were residents of Montréal, but how rooted were they in the city? If they had been in the city for a long time or were born there, then one can surmise that they had an extended family and kin network with which to consider the prospect of migrating. If they had been in the city for only a short time, then it would be difficult for them to have developed a network of meaningful relationships through which they could seek the advice of people they implicitly trusted. Were they “plugged in” to networks, or were they “disaffiliated,” to borrow from the French literature? [71] To examine this question, I used a simple methodology: tracing the migrants in the 1891 manuscript census to deduce whether they had been in Montréal for at least five years. With my research assistants, I also traced heads of families in passenger lists and in Lovell’s city directories. Among the 115 families, we were able to trace heads of 16 families in either the census records or passenger lists through the www.ancestry.com website or in the 1890s city directories.

We traced with certainty 11 male heads of family to the 1891 census, accounting for 68 individuals. Ten had been in their city or town of residence in 1896 for at least five years, accounting for 58 individuals. Thirty-nine of those individuals were from Montréal. We also traced five male heads of families through passenger lists. All five had landed in Canada between 1890 and 1896. Another emigrant had arrived from Scotland in 1892. [72] If we include family members, this group accounts for 29 individuals. Thus 39 of 97 traceable individuals, or 40 percent, had been in their town at time of emigration for less than five years. This sample of 20 percent of all the passengers does suggest that at least a significant minority of migrants had not been living in their city or town of residence in 1896 for more than five years and therefore had not developed important networks of friendships.

If a significant number of the migrants did not have family networks, how about those with relatives and friends? One interesting piece of evidence in the puzzle is the crowd that presented itself at the Port of Montréal on the morning of 16 September. Newspapers reported crowds of from several hundred to 10,000 people, and the wide variation in estimates is a curious fact in itself. One newspaper noted that many people in the crowd were relatives of the migrants, which suggests that the emigrants did in fact have family networks. La Presse’s report of the emigration included a drawing of onlookers at the port on the morning of 15 September that showed many well-dressed men and a couple of women and a boy, all of whom would appear to be from the middle classes. The depiction would suggest that these onlookers were not there to see off friends or relatives but were merely assisting at a spectacle. Even if many of the people at the pier did have personal ties to the migrants, the mere fact of having relatives or even neighbours is not the same thing as being affiliated to a network. A family relationship might place one in a reseau, but one is free to ascribe meaning to that relationship — or not. Does the tie bear any weight in making meaningful decisions in one’s life? On the day the Moravia sailed, the crowd was crying out to passengers to get off the boat. In a sense, that cry can be read as a call to those migrants to listen to reason, not to give in to their whims but to ascribe meaning to their relationships and to listen to an objective voice. This was the crowd’s last-ditch attempt to remain connected to the migrants, who seemed to be drifting off in more ways than one, physically to Brazil but also into a world lacking realism. Everyone knew that the migrants were off on a foolhardy adventure. The papers were filled with warnings. The migrants chose not to listen. [73] They chose not to trust the voices of people with whom they had meaningful links but to follow the leaflets, advertisements, and lures of an agent or a questionable priest. As The Witness reporter put it, “Unfortunately, all have not heeded the sound advice given them; they preferred promises that were evidently exaggerated, not to say more.” [74]

Onlookers at the Hamburg-America pier, Port of Montreal, September 15 1896.

Onlookers at the Hamburg-America pier, Port of Montreal, September 15 1896.

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This episode of the Moravia leaves us with more questions than answers. Although quantitative data can help us to perceive why some residents of Québec chose to leave and others did not, it is more difficult to decipher the deeper reasons. I have hypothesized that those who left were either disaffiliated or chose not to trust their networks. This leads me to question why this should have been the case. Did disaffiliation result from the increasing class and economic segregation of society? Did the economic recession take its toll and leave people unemployed and uncertain about their futures? Was migration merely a desperate attempt to resolve the problem or the prospect of unemployment? Can these materialistic motives alone explain the decline in trust in those migrants’ networks or in the migrants’ unwillingness to listen to families and friends? Or does the breakdown of the bonds of trust, the unwillingness to heed advice, or the disaffiliation reflect a decline in neighbourliness in the late nineteenth century? [75] Do these factors reflect social unease following the economic problems of the 1890s and the political acrimony over the schools questions in those same years? While beyond the scope of this paper, these questions ultimately are connected to why 480 emigrants left the Port of Montréal that day. They also suggest that this preliminary hypothesis and its findings are only a first step in a response.

Was the episode of the Moravia a “mad flight?” In many ways it was typical of so many migration stories of the late nineteenth century. Unskilled and skilled labourers facing unemployment, particularly during an economic downturn, were prone to taking risks, and at times the risks could appear to be extravagant and unrealistic. It was not unusual for migrants, in particular single male migrants, to fail in their endeavours. Consider the many stories of unsuccessful adventurers who joined a gold rush or travelled to work on the railroads in Canada on the cusp of a recession. What was unusual about the Moravia emigrants is that they were families who in a brief period of time — a matter of weeks or days — decided to leave and thus sold their belongings. They arrived in a land unsuited to their abilities and found themselves ill-equipped to perform the work expected of them. As one witness to their plight noted in her travel journal in Brazil, they had arrived in “this ‘Land of Warmth and Sunshine,’ knowing nothing of agriculture, half-skilled in some trades, or well-skilled in trades useless to Brazil.... They sickened. Their feet festered with jiggers. They could not speak Portuguese. They were helpless.” [76] In that sense their story takes on the tragic tones of the Dantean account of Ulyesses’ “mad flight.”

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