On this day in 1888, a prohibition order was granted in New Zealand against Archibald McAlister. McAlister, a remittance man, had been ‘wasting his substance’, and the agents to whom his money was sent wanted it stopped.
‘Remittance man’ is not a term heard very often anymore, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries he was a well-known figure throughout the British Empire. Usually from well-off middle class or aristocratic families, these were men who for various reasons were sent abroad and literally paid not to go home. Many of them had disgraced themselves in one way or another, and their families hoped to avoid further scandal. But others have been described as ‘extraneous‘ sons, those who through no fault of their own simply could not be provided for in Britain, where traditional disdain among the upper classes for business or labour was clashing with new realities like the drop in child mortality: Many well-off families found themselves with too many adult children to provide for in socially acceptable ways.
Whatever his story, the hope was that the remittance man would make something of himself in his new home, and some of them certainly did. Some were able to adapt to an entirely new mode of existence and with perseverance and a bit of luck became successful ranch owners, entrepreneurs or businessmen; at least one who went to Canada ended up in local government. A new start in the far-flung empire was no guarantee of a better life, however, and the stereotype of a well-bred wastrel was in many cases well founded. In 1894 a New Zealand newspaper article complained that “Many otherwise sane and intelligent persons in the Old Country are firmly impressed with the belief that the man who has failed utterly to make his mark (or even his bread and cheese) in England, has only to set foot in Greater Britain to straightway become a dazzling success”. Those who had already developed bad habits, or who had never lived without luxury and convenience, were ill equipped to face the demands of their new lives. In many cases these men conformed to expectations, frittering away their lives and money in drink, running up gambling debts, even falling afoul of the law. They did not work – perhaps some didn’t know how to do – and resented their situation. Quite a few of them ultimately took their own lives. Even for those who accepted their lot and came to love their new homes, it must have been a bittersweet contentment, as illustrated in The Rhyme of the Remittance Man.
The fate of our Archibald McAlister is unclear. There are several of the name in New Zealand in the early 20th century, and I was unable to trace him with any certainty, but the name appears in news reports repeatedly over the next twenty years, mostly in the north island, almost always in connection with prohibition orders and drunkenness.
Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013
M. Harper and S. Constantine, Migration and Empire (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 311
Many of the articles I found about remittance men in my research for this post were obituaries for suicides.