In a time when words like “colony” and “settler” have been vilified beyond measure, what can we learn from the lives of those who gave up everything to sail into the unknown?
The year was 1773, and a vessel was straggling its way across the Atlantic with 189 passengers in search of a better life. A voyage that was supposed to last just six weeks took almost twelve, and with the cramped, unsanitary living conditions on the vessel, 18 children were buried at sea. When the harried settlers eventually arrived at their destination, they did not find the large coastal farmland and year’s worth of supplies they had been promised. The coast and inland region were covered with old-growth forest, which could take years to clear and convert into suitable farmland—and the basic requirements for shelter, as well as promised food supplies and necessary equipment, were simply not there.
One can easily imagine how hopeless such a situation might seem—and yet, it was a scenario that has played itself out many times in history. What can we learn from people such as these, who left everything behind in seeking a better future?
The ship was named the Hector, and the passengers were from the Scottish Highlands. In their homeland they had experienced increasing difficulties with the changing landscape of farms and farming practices surrounding agricultural land management. The Scottish Highland Clearances began in the mid-to-late-eighteenth century, when Scottish lairds, the traditional landowners, sought to implement agricultural changes in order to increase profits and settle debts. The tenants on these lands were in some cases evicted from properties that their families had occupied for centuries and resettled into smaller holdings, resulting in financial hardship and understandable grievances.
On the other side of the Atlantic, North American businessmen employed recruitment officers who were tasked with finding willing participants to immigrate to various parts of the Thirteen Colonies (which later declared independence as the United States of America) and what became Canada. Between 1763 and 1775, approximately 21,000 Scots migrated to North America, with the majority settling in the Thirteen Colonies (J. M. Bumsted, “Scottish Emigration to the Maritimes 1770-1815: A New Look at an Old Theme,” Acadiensis, 1981, vol. 10, no. 2, p. 65). Yet many, like the passengers of the Hector, preferred the more sparsely populated region of the Maritimes, settling in Pictou in what is now Nova Scotia, a community now declared “the birthplace of New Scotland.”
Though recruiters had deceived them about New World conditions, most passengers on the Hector chose to face the hardships of building new lives in Pictou rather than return to their native land. Their hope for the future in the New World surpassed their foreseeable struggles.
Most Americans are familiar with the Mayflower, which brought more than a hundred settlers to the coast of present-day Massachusetts in 1620 as the first of many waves of migrants. New England was established and developed by settlers who, in Europe, had experienced hardships such as famine, poverty, and unjust governance; they hoped that in their new home, they could right the wrongs of the society they’d left behind.
In much the same vein, the settlers who sailed on the Hector were the first wave of Scottish migrants to develop and establish Nova Scotia—Latin for “New Scotland.” If you look at old maps of the region, you will see Newfoundland, New Scotland, and New England, not to mention the shrinking lands of New France. All these territories represented the efforts of people seeking a new and improved world—for better or worse.
People who are established, safe, settled, and content where they are living have little incentive to move, but war, poverty, famine, and disease can cause individuals, families, and, in some cases, entire communities to uproot and relocate. Some estimates suggest that more than 170,000 Gaelic settlers migrated to eastern Canada by 1870. Approximately five million Canadians claim Scottish heritage today (“Scottish Canadians,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, August 27, 2013). In the words of Ken McGoogan, author of the book How the Scots Invented Canada, “No matter where you enter the history of Canada—through exploration, politics, business, education, or literature—you find Scots and their descendants playing a leading role” (“How the Scots built: Canada,” Scotsman.com, April 25, 2016).
Fourteen of Canada’s 23 prime ministers—including its current prime minister, Justin Trudeau—are able to trace at least part of their heritage back to Scotland. Scots “dominated the fur trade, the timber trade, banking and railway management.” Scottish immigrants shaped their new nation in many ways: “The Bank of Montreal (1818) and the Canadian Pacific Railway (1881) are also successful businesses that were created by Scottish businessmen. Nearly 50 percent of the nation’s industrial leaders in the 1880s were of recent Scottish origins” (The Canadian Encyclopedia).
The Scottish migrants sailing on the Hector to Pictou, Nova Scotia, lived through trials and suffering for the promises and hope of a better future and improved way of life. Those promises were sadly betrayed, and even the most determined and hardworking human beings cannot truly ensure that their descendants will live in peace and prosperity. But promises of a better future—a just and fair society where all pain and suffering will ultimately cease—are declared in the Bible.
Migrants and the patterns of migration have shaped our world over millennia, but all established settlements, colonies, and countries have one question in common: how best to govern man. Over time and despite all our best efforts to institute fair laws, promote peace, and ensure stability, we are led by fallible and often corruptible men who bring to the “New World” the same faults as the old. Every nation that exists today suffers to various degrees from unrighteous government, and regardless of political efforts to bring about a “New World Order” or any other system of leadership, the only solution to our global struggle will be the return of Jesus Christ. Those who are led by God are waiting for His new world to come, and they have the hope of a future where effective solutions will finally undo the faults of our present day and age. The Apostle Peter lauded this hope when he wrote that “we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Thankfully, the difficulties we experience, along with the trials or persecutions we might face under an unrighteous government, are temporary. The Apostle Paul compared our struggles in life to the hope given to us in God’s word, writing, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us…. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Romans 8:18, 24–25).
There is a hope for the future, and the promises of God are sure. As hope in all else fades, let’s persevere toward the coming government of God, which will forever right the wrongs of today’s world.