Canaries and Other Migrants

Birds represent crucial aspects of Christian teaching. The dove signifies the Holy Spirit as well as marking peace and purity; the eagle, like the phoenix, is a symbol of the Resurrection; the pelican stands for the passion of Jesus and the Eucharist; the peacock symbolises immortality; the lark refers to humility; the blackbird represents sin and temptation. One can go on. The robin, owl, partridge, swallow, raven, stork, goose, goldfinch, woodpecker, even the sparrow, are invested with meaning – but not the canary. And yet, the songbird is unique. It is is our only feathered friend that participated in the Reformation.

In origin, the canary was a Catholic bird. When Spanish sailors first reached the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century, they were charmed by its song. They caught the creatures and shipped them home. Having conquered and claimed the Islands in 1500, the Spanish trade in canaries boomed. Soon they were being bred on the mainland and sold to Italian and Swiss admirers, with monasteries holding a monopoly on the business. The monks only sold male birds and there was no canary-breeding beyond the cloister walls. Italian bird traders eventually broke that possessorship by getting their hands on female birds and beginning the process of selective breeding (with a wider colour range). The birds spread outwards from Italy on trading routes into Europe. The canary was warmly received and coolly caged in France and Flanders – and became associated with the history of Protestant migration from these regions.

In 1564, Queen Elizabeth had allowed a number of Flemish families to settle in Norwich. The process began when local authorities approached Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, for assistance in establishing an alien community to arrest the decay of the town precipitated by the decline of its worsted manufacture. The arrival of ‘strangers’ marked the city’s revival. It set a precedent. Upon reports in 1567 that the Duke of Alva was heading towards the Southern Netherlands with a large army, vast numbers of people fled from town and country. This was the most serious uprooting that early modern Europe had experienced. By the early 1570s some 10,000 refugees were estimated to have moved across the Channel. This, the first major influx of refugees during the reign of Eliabeth coincided with a period of social and economic instability in England. Protestant immigrants from the Low Countries were welcomed because of their religion and economic utility, yet at the same time an increasing number of aliens in the country was feared as a possible ‘fifth column’ in the struggle with the Catholic Church. From the beginning asylum has been accompanied by varying degrees of xenophobia and resentment.

Norwich housed the largest provincial immigrant community of the late sixteenth century. The newcomers grew flowers and vegetables unknown before in England; Jasper Andries and Jacob Janson, refugees from Antwerp, started a business making tiles and pottery; Anthony Solen introduced the craft of printing in 1570 for which he was presented with the freedom of the city (the Solen Press is still active in Norwich). Refugees did not just bring their individual skills, but they also introduced new pastimes and hobbies. In Flanders, canary-breeding had become a passion which was exported to Norwich (the ‘Norwich canary’ became a popular breed). In 1902, Norwich City football club was formed. Its players were soon nicknamed ‘the canaries’ with matching club match and team colours of yellow shirts, green shorts, and yellow socks.

During the reign of Elisabeth I, Flemish and Frenchimmigrants had already been involved in establishing the English silk industry. With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 large numbers of skilled Huguenot weavers crossed the Channel, most of them settling in the hamlets of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. They set up their looms there and manufactured large quantities of lustrings, velvets, brocades, satins, and silks that could previously only be procured from Lyons and Tours. Powerful mercers and master weavers inhabited grand premises in the Old Artillery Ground, Spitalfields, controlling the journeymen weavers who worked from more modest homes in neighbouring streets. They instructed local Londoners to produce these goods themselves and many pupils soon equaled or rivaled their teachers. For generations to come, Spitalfields would be associated with silk.

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Since 1681 Huguenot refugees were allowed to obtain a patent of denisation, which brought with it the right to own property. Naturalisation guaranteed a range of additional rights, but was only possible by a private Act of Parliament. Few were able to choose that option because of forbidding costs. In March 1709 the Whig government passed the Foreign Protestants Naturalisation Act, stating that any alien who swore allegiance to Church and government would be naturalised and enjoy all the rights held by English-born citizens (for the cost of a shilling). Opposition to the Act was strong. The canto Canary-birds Naturaliz’d in Utopia was published in 1709 by the Booksellers of London and Westminster with the intention of manipulating public opinion against the government. The poem’s title refers to the canaries that Huguenot silk weavers kept in cages besides their looms to entertain them while they were at work. Because of continuous protest, the Act was largely repealed by the Tories in 1711. To this day, Tories stoke the fear of foreigners. Ideally, they want to create an environment so hostile that even migratory birds, unless they have received permission from the Home Office, would refrain from shitting on British soil.

[Canary called Boris]