A story of German migrants

While researching for my article on Martin Niemoller, I learned that after World War I, Niemoller considered migrating to Argentina with his family, to escape extreme poverty. He was attracted by reports he had read about Argentina.

That led me to recall that there are many Americans who are ethnically German. I researched how and when they’d got to the USA.

Three centuries ago, there was “the Palatine migration of 1709.” Thousands of German-speaking people left their homelands to settle in other lands. They left to escape French dominion and famine – after a terrible winter destroyed their crops.

They were attracted to America because of a book titled “Complete and detailed report of the famed district of Carolina.” British capitalists in the Carolina region of America had commissioned Joshua Kocherthal to write it. These capitalists needed people to produce crops for them to trade.

The purpose of the book was to lure Germans to places from which they would not be able to return. The British government even paid the fare for their sea passage across the Atlantic, in exchange for their labour.

They travelled to the Americas via the ports of Rotterdam (in the Netherlands) and London. When they arrived in Rotterdam, they lived in shantytowns, waiting for action by the British representative.

The British mission in Rotterdam shipped them to London, where they were put in large camps. When they arrived, they were not a united people with a common heritage. They were from many distant villages. They met other ‘Palatines’ on the journey or upon arrival.

They were very poor. The government conducted a national charity drive to raise money to support them. People gave generously because they considered the visitors Protestant victims of the Catholic French.

The British classified all the newcomers as ‘Palatines,’ for many of them were from the Palatinate region in Germany.

Eighty percent of the adults were married. Most had children with them. Two-thirds of the adult men were labourers in the grape and wine industry.

About 30% were Catholics. The remainder were about equally divided between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

However, the government and sympathetic locals represented all of them as Protestants persecuted by French Catholics. The celebrated author, Daniel Defoe, an Englishman whom we know as the author of Robinson Crusoe, advocated for them. He even authored a book titled “A Brief History of the Poor Palatine Refugees.” The refugees adopted this as their history, as a strategy for survival.

The British government didn’t care for the desire of the migrants to go to America. They wanted to ship them to the West Indies where labour was in short supply. They needed to close the filthy, disease-ridden German camps and respond to poor locals who were angry the government didn’t organize charity drives for them. Also, some Catholics were shipped back!

The first place the government shipped some Palatines to was Ireland – to reduce the proportion of Catholics in that land. Later, they shipped others to New York. The government used migrants as pawns.

Space does not allow me to go into what happened to the Palatines who did arrive in America – though I must say that over half died during the ocean passage. Also, the above is only the story of ‘Palatine’ Germans. Many other Germans migrated to America and formed distinct communities there. For more, download this article by Philip Otterness.

I hope the above illustrates the complexity of “the refugee problem.” Some are lured to leave through false promises. Some leave due to famine. Some leave due to persecution.

Convenience dictates classifications. We say “Burmese” or “Myanmarese,” but a Karen (from the Highlands) may not have met a Rohingya (from the coastlands) until arriving in Malaysia – and they may be deeply suspicious of one another. They may even speak mutually incomprehensible dialects.

People in the receiving country, especially the poor, need a narrative to help them think about migrants and refugees.

I’ve written about the Palatines and Britain and America rather than say Indians or Chinese and Malaysia, because of my Niemoller research. And because last week I wrote about a rescue ship funded by German churches.

But many of our family histories have immigrant chapters, when there was land to be cleared and work to be had – this is the time to recall and narrate those stories.

Times are different now. But the problems of refugees are real, as are the problems in the nations in which they arrive. We must tend to the needy, end abuses, and also stem the flow.

As our BLC song has it, God has work for us to do.

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