Local Economies and Global Trade


Cover art from 1871 printing of Roughing it in the Bush

The eastern colonies of British North America exploded in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century. With the exception of Lower Canada, where tens of thousands of French settlers had lived for well over a century, in the early part of the century much of the rest of this territory continued to be defined primarily as the home lands of the Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwuik, Passamaquoddy, Innu, Wendat, Abenaki, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinaabe.

By the 1820s and 1830s, however, this had begun to change. Following the patterns of the New England Planters and American Loyalists, hundreds of thousands of primarily British immigrants flooded into Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the two Canadas. Their arrival was part of what historian John Weaver calls “The Great Land Rush”; a global phenomenon whereby the British population expanded exponentially resettling in a handful of choice locations around the globe. Where few Britons had migrated overseas by the end of the eighteenth century, by the 1860s, there were now 3.5 million non-Indigenous settlers in British North America, 1.25 million in Australia, and 200,000 in what would eventually become South Africa. With the United States population reaching over 30 million, there were now nearly five times the number of anglophones living outside of Britain than there were living in the imperial metropole (Britain’s population was about 7.5 million).

This population explosion was accompanied, and partially fueled, by other related events. From a global perspective, Britain’s victory over France in the Seven Years’ War allowed the British East India Company – and Britain more generally – to more directly control Indian economics. Specifically, Britain used tariffs as a tactic to erode India’s cotton manufacturing industries. With slave labour producing cheap cotton, and providing a market for cheaply produced cotton goods, Britain came to dominate both the cotton trade and its manufacture. In many ways it was the profits and exploitation inherent in the eighteenth-century British Empire that enabled Britain’s nineteenth-century industrialization, fueling both the great land rush and broader imperial expansion.

Global trade – specifically of raw materials (commodities) – shaped even the smallest parts of British North America. In this chapter, we consider what this looked like on the ground. First, we have compiled basic data for four decades from three places in British North America to give you a sense about what this land rush looked like on the ground. As you consider the data we have compiled for you, also visit the Internet Archive, to see how we have manipulated this data. How had our summary table helped your understanding of this topic? In what ways has it hindered? In the second document, a chapter of a book on mobilities and Canadian Environmental History, we look at one small town in Nova Scotia and how local places were shaped by global trends. In what ways do these sources speak to each other? In what ways do they differ?

Historical Documents

  1. Censuses of Canada, 1665-1871, vol. IV (Ottawa: I.B. Taylor, 1876)


  1. Judy Burns, Jim Clifford and Thomas Peace, “Maitland’s Moment: Turning Nova Scotia’s Forests into Ships for the Global Commodity Trade in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” in Ben Bradley, Colin Coates, and Jason Young, eds., Moving Natures: Mobility and the Environment in Canadian History (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016)
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