An Early Pro-Immigrant Proclamation from the Immigrant Emperor
Emperor Norton was an immigrant — at least twice.
In 1820, a 2-year-old Joshua Norton emigrated with his parents and siblings from his native England to South Africa.
Toward the end of 1849, Joshua, now 31, emigrated to the United States and declared himself Emperor some ten years later.
It’s not clear whether Joshua set out from Cape Town to San Francisco or whether his original destination, heading west — perhaps in 1848, shortly after the death of his father — was somewhere in South America. He may have spent several months in Brazil before picking up again for San Francisco. If so, there would have been a third immigrant experience.
Either way, it’s not entirely surprising that immigrant welfare was an abiding concern for the Emperor.
At least as early as 1868, Emperor Norton issued the first of ten or more Proclamations advocating for the rights of Chinese immigrants. In April 1878, the Emperor stood up to the racist anti-Chinese demagogue Denis Kearney, in a dramatic physical encounter at the sand-lot adjacent to San Francisco City Hall.
In February 1874, the Emperor issued a Proclamation calling on the San Francisco Board of Education to restore the teaching of French and German in public schools, writing that “it is absolutely necessary to teach the descendants of these foreign born people the language of their parents.”
More broadly, Emperor Norton wanted to ensure that the basic needs of arriving immigrants be met. This included his determination that immigrants have enough money to get started — as one can see from two Proclamations the Emperor issued in 1875.
The Emperor’s concern for the financial security of immigrants was evident at least eight years earlier.
Here’s a Proclamation that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on 8 November 1867.
LABOR TWO-PENCE PER DAY, AND LABOR TWO DOLLARS
Know all whom it may concern, that we, Norton I., Emperor, desire and do hereby command, having possession of lands on this continent both in North America and South America, belonging to and owned by Joshua Norton of the Cape of Good Hope, or Norton I., Emperor, that they appropriate suitable amounts of money for the relief of poor persons in Europe desiring to emigrate to this continent — more especially paying attention to the present reported distress in England and France; thereby relieving parties there to our own benefit. NORTON I.
SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., 8th Nov., 1867.
Most likely, the headline “Labor Two-Pence, etc.” was added by an editor. A couple of other observations:
Emperor Norton identifies himself as “Joshua Norton of the Cape of Good Hope.” Rare, for any Proclamation.
The Emperor refers to land in South America “belonging to and owned by Joshua Norton.” This might suggest that Emperor Norton did spend some time in South America.
The Emperor suggests that “both…North America and South America” are “on this” — i.e., the same — “continent.”
Worth noting: Young Joshua Norton’s family moved from England to South Africa as part of a British colonization scheme in which his parents were given land on the promise that the land could provide a living for the family.
When the family arrived, however, it quickly was evident that the land was not arable. Left to fend for itself, the family had to move to a nearby city, where Joshua’s father, John, quickly had to pivot from his original plan of being a farmer to becoming a merchant of ship’s supplies.
Fortunately for the family, John Norton was resourceful enough to make all this work. But, it must have been a stressful, frustrating and difficult first few years.
Perhaps it was based on this early experience that the future Emperor Norton became convinced that it was necessary to provide cash-poor immigrants not with a promise of land, sight unseen, but with an actual “landing” in the form of a guaranteed grant or loan of money that they could use to set themselves up in their new country.