North Atlantic, 1815-19

The Atlantic-wide peace following the Battle of Waterloo, two centuries ago this year, enabled the resumption of relocation from Europe to North America which had been obstructed and delayed during the Napoleonic Wars. In contrast to the trade in slaves and contracted servitude which had dominated transatlantic movement in the 18th century, mass migration after 1815 became an overwhelmingly voluntary process. The emerging transportation revolution -furthered after Waterloo by a shift in shipbuilding from naval to commercial vessels- also became increasingly characterized by private sector initiative. A resurgent, mostly privately-owned, business in mass travel connected technological innovations in shipping with what was to become a mass transnational market in low-skilled labor.


The North Atlantic migration boom of 1815-19 was also furthered by a relaxation of emigration restrictions mandated at the Vienna Congress (1814-15), and by the "most powerful [volcanic] eruption of the past 500 years" at Mount Tambora in Indonesia which brought on the "year without a summer" (1816) in Europe. (Hansen)


In January 1818, the Black Ball Line became the first shipping concern to provide regular monthly sailings across the Atlantic on fixed dates. Similarly organized "packet lines" soon followed. They specialized in carrying mail, fine freights, and high-fare cabin passengers, and transported relatively few migrants before the late 1840s potato famine exodus. Indirectly, however, the advent of the packets probably helped boost transatlantic migration travel by taking freight and cabin traffic away from non-packet vessels, forcing the latter to cater more to migration traffic (Taylor, Albion, Cohn).


The "marine engine" making long-distance sea travel by steamship a viable alternative was not effectively deployed before the late 1830s, but the coming of transatlantic peace after the demise of Napoleon greatly accelerated the innovation of development of river steamboats (heralded by Fulton's Clermont in 1807) which helped carry migrants to embarkation ports and from debarkation ports. By 1820s, steamship service was also prevalent along coastal routes of the British Isles and eastern United States. On June 20, 1819, the Savannah arrived in Liverpool completing the first transatlantic voyage made (though only partially) under steam power. (Hansen, Taylor, Braynard).


The migration boom of 1815-19 ended with the economic slump following the Panic of 1819. The depression of 1819-21 also dealt a severe blow to the indentured servitude ("redemptioner") business. The more modern form of financing long-distance migration was apparent already in 1816 when a ship departed Belfast for Boston with two-thirds of the passengers traveling on pre-paid tickets (which became a prime mechanism of chain migration for immigrants already in North America to sponsor the migration travel of relatives who followed them later (Grabbe, p. 277, Grubb, Taylor) ).


Another legacy of the 1815-19 migration boom was the U.S. Steerage Act of 1819, which laid the basis for U.S. immigration statistics by mandating collection of passenger manifests listing names of arriving immigrants.




Albion, Robert Greenhalgh. Square-Riggers on Schedule (1931).

Boyd, James. Merchants of Migration (2015).


Braynard, Frank. SS Savannah (1963).

Cohn, Raymond. Mass Migration Under Sail (2009). 

Guthrie, John. A History of Marine Engineering (1971).

Grabbe, Hans-Jürgen. Vor der großen Flut (2001).

Grubb, Farley. “End of European Immigrant Servitude” (1994).

Hansen, Marcus Lee. The Atlantic Migration (1940).

Headrick, Daniel. Tools of Empire (1981).

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration, (2nd ed. 1992).

Keeling, Drew. “Transportation Revolution” (1999).

Richards, Eric. Britannia’s Children (2004).

Taylor, George. Transportation Revolution (2nd ed, 1968).


See also:

Summary statistics for migration across the North Atlantic

Dividends of Waterloo: long-term business and economic implications


                       This page last updated 31-August-2019