The rise of global mass migration in the nineteenth century

A historical perspective on mass migration within and across different continents between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century helps us contextualise today’s migration dynamics. It also contributes to our understanding of how migration is intrinsically related to wider socio-economic and political transformations.

In a research paper published in the Journal of World History in 2004, Adam McKeown summarises the different flows during the same period. He argues that not only transatlantic migration to the Americas but also migration in North and Southeast Asia and in Africa were largely linked to processes of industrialization and the reorganization of production.

Most research to date has described the Asian and African migrations during this period as mainly comprised of indentured labourers who moved with the same desires as Europeans, or as peasants fleeing overpopulation in the countryside in search of better work and life prospects.

In contrast, McKeown stresses the need to understand these migration flows as a response to demographic and economic transformations, just like in Europe and North America. For instance, he argues that migration to the rice fields and rubber plantations of Southeast Asia was as much a part of the industrial processes that were transforming the world as were the factories of Manchester and wheat fields of North America.

According to McKeown, there were three important long-distance migration systems in the period 1846 to 1940:

  1. The Transatlantic system between Europe and the Americas;

  2. The North Asian system covering the wider region of North Asia between Siberia and the borders of Manchuria

  3. The Southeast Asian system including the Indian Ocean rim and the South Pacific rim.

Let us take a closer look at the transatlantic migrations to the Americas.

These included flows to the USA (which accunted for more than 65% of total transatlantic migration) but also to Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, Cuba.

While before the 1870s most of these flows originated from the British Isles and Northwest Europe, as migration intensified and new transportation technologies developed (notably steam ships that could cover longer distances faster), from the 1880s onwards, origin countries spread south and east as far as Portugal, Russia and Syria.

Interestingly, it is estimated that up to 2.5 million migrants from South and East Asia also travelled to the Americas, mostly to the frontiers of western North America or to the plantations of the Caribbean, Peru and Brazil. Half of this migration took place before 1885, after which the decline of indentured labour recruitment and the rise of anti-Asian immigration laws began to take effect.

Now let’s turn our attention to the Southeast Asian and North Asian migration systems. Migration to Southeast Asia and to islands in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific involved over 29 million Indians and over 19 million Chinese.

While migrants from India mainly went to other parts of the British empire, only a small proportion of them could be considered truly indentured labour.* Indeed, Indian migration within the British empire included large numbers of merchants and other skilled labourers and was encouraged and facilitated by the colonial authorities.

As indentured labour was gradually restricted after 1908 and abolished in 1920, there were further waves of emigration from India: nearly 4 million Indians travelled to Malaysia, over 8 million to Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), over 15 million to Burma, and about 1 million to Africa, other parts of Southeast Asia, and islands throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Finally, as far as Africa is concerned, this continent experienced transcontinental immigration, but at a much lower level than the main destinations mentioned above. Immigrants to Africa during the same period included over 3 million French and Italians who moved to North Africa and around 1 million other Europeans, Syrians, Lebanese, Indians and Chinese throughout the rest of the continent.

Within Africa itself, labour migration to plantations and mines in southern and central areas of the continent increased during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as did movement to agricultural areas and coastal cities in western and eastern Africa. Millions of people took part in these movements: some were coerced but many went to work for European enterprises, while others found independent occupations.

In short, this overview shows that migration is part and parcel of human history and the outcome of socio-economic and political developments. Demographic and socio-economic transformations push and pull migration flows in different directions. This was true in the past, just as it is true today.

*The system of indentured labour refers to a form of debt bondage in which around 3.5 million Indians were transported to various colonies to work on plantations.

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Do People Migrate? Theories

European University Institute (EUI)