Skip to main content

Migration in World History

Migration in World History

Migration is a central aspect of human existence. This is evident from the debate about the origins of the human species, which spread, according to the evidence, from Africa across all continents. On the level of ideas and prejudices, this has resulted in racialized debates about white distinctiveness and Afrocentrism. In prehistoric times, some thirty to forty thousand years ago, human beings migrated from the tricontinental Eurasia-Africa across a land bridge into the Americas and across the seas to Australia. Migration meant diversification of cultures and physical features. Whole peoples, but also clans and groups, continued to migrate throughout the millennia. While Asia's population was settled some sixty-five hundred years ago, in Europe whole peoples continued to migrate until some twelve hundred years ago, often moving from east to west. In Africa, the southward spread of sub-Saharan Bantu-speaking peoples continued to even more recent times.

Once the movement of whole peoples came to an end, migration of members of ethnocultural groups and individuals led to genetic and cultural mixing: Manchu moved southward into China; Norsemen (and -women) moved from Scandinavia eastward along the rivers to the Moskva region where they formed the society of the Rus, and westward along the coasts where they settled in Normandy, in parts of the isles later called "British," and, further southward, in Sicily and Palestine; Slavic and Germanic peoples interacted in central Europe; in the Americas the southward movement of First Peoples resulted in a differentiation into major cultural regions and language groups; in the southeast Asian islands, exchanges of population involved sophisticated sea voyaging; and in Africa pastoralists moved into areas of agriculturalists. In customary male-centered thought, such movements have often been interpreted as the expansion of warrior males and subjugation of "lesser"more correctly, less armedpeoples. Recent genetic scholarship has revised this imagery: Arriving men, dominant as oppressors, had children with local women, and both genetically and culturally women became dominant. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the Celtic-settled (British) islands, the Celtic women's genetic heritage and cultural practices have had a stronger impact than the lore of strong Anglo-Saxon men, as later British historians had believed.

Patterns of Migration

Until recently, no worldwide periodization of migration since Mediterranean antiquity had been attempted, though specific movements were well-studied. The composition and character of migration was influenced by cultural practices in the society and religious creed of origin. Greek migration in the Mediterranean world was one of artisans, traders, and cultural elites resulting in a process of Hellenization. The Roman Empire's expansion was one of soldiers and the imposition of rule; it brought South European and North African men to northern Europe. One of its military officers, a man from sub-Saharan Africa, became Christian Europe's Saint Mauritius (also called Saint Maurice, d. c. 286). The spread of Islam occurred through traveling merchants and, to some degree, through military action. These migrant Arabs and their religious culture equalized social relations among Hindu Indians because they knew no castes, but they hierarchized gender relations because women's status was lower in Islamic societies than in Hindu societies. In China migrating agriculturalists, as if forming a distinct ethnocultural group, were designated as "Han." Their regions of settlement were interspersed with those of long-settled cultural groups. In Africa, major eastwest movements of people in the Sahel zone resulted in the formation of states, empires, and urban cultures. In Australia, multiple societies, later generically termed Aboriginal, emerged by separation rather than overlay or penetration. In the Americas some societies developed agricultural practices and became geographically stable, while others pursued hunting and remained mobile. All were connected through long-distance trading and some, seemingly, through exchange of spiritual concepts and scientific observation of celestial phenomena.

In the Eurasian-African world, patterns of migration changed in the period from the mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth century. By the 1440s populations had recovered from the demographic shrinkage imposed by the great plagues of the latter 1340s. In imperial China, the bureaucracy decreed an end to overseas contacts. To 1435, fleets of ships, vastly superior to European vessels, had carried expeditions of up to about thirty thousand men (and women) along the coasts of the South Asian subcontinent and to the East African ports. In the social hierarchy of Chinese society, merchants ranked low, and those who, from the southern provinces distant from the court, continued to trade overseas developed a Southeast Asian diaspora that lacked state support. In contrast, the Iberian Portuguese court provided financial and military backing to sailors and merchants who sent trading expeditions to the northwest African coast. They and, later, other Europeans developed fortified trading posts, "forts," wherever they gained a bridgehead. By the 1440s, the first enslaved Africans were brought to Portugal. Underemployed seafarers of the declining Italian port cities, Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) and Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) among them, migrated to the Atlantic coast. Relying on lore and knowledge of Breton, Basque, Bristol, and Icelandic sailors, and encouraged by the changing view of the earth as a globe rather than a disk, they explored westward routes aiming to reach the riches of Asia, whether China or India. Thus, a barrier on this route, the Americas, became part of the European's mental maps. In North European annals the existence of a Vinland had been chronicled since the time of the Norse voyages. Only Australia was still absent from this view of the world.

From 1550, the wealth of some of the Asian and Central and South American societies, the political-military power of the somewhat economically marginal European societies, and the transfer of germs from Eurasia to the Americas resulted in vast demographic changes: (1) the near genocide of many peoples of the Americas and the resettling of that region with immigrants from many European societies; (2) the usage of men and women from many cultures of sub-Saharan Africa as enslaved labor by European-origin investors in the process of establishing the subtropical plantation belt; and (3) the European military-commercial exploitation of the peoples of the Indian Ocean region and, subsequently, those of East Asia. As a result, several hemispheric and near-global migration systems emerged. From Europe, merchants and military as well as administrative personnel migrated outward. Their arms and purchasing power induced migration of producers and common laborers. Where they established mines or plantationsalso called "factories in the fields" (Wolf)they needed large numbers of workers but were not willing to pay wages or provide working conditions acceptable to local populations. In densely populated Asia, they forced men and women to work the fields. In Latin America they immobilized surviving earlier populations as agricultural worker families under the encomienda labor distribution system or forced them to migrate hundreds of miles to labor in the silver mines under the mita system.

Through the postcontact epidemics and wars of annihilation, however, the peoples of the Americas had been decimated, and thus traders from most European coastal states initiated a mass importation of enslaved laborers from Africa with the help of slave-catching coastal societies in West and, to a lesser degree, East Africa. Through investment and superior armament the European colonizer migrants established the South Atlantic African-American forced slave migration system. To fill the demand for tropical produce they transported some 9.8 million men and women to the Americas from about 1500 to the 1870s. This is a downward revision from earlier estimates of fifteen million. Another two million died during the so-called transatlantic middle passage. Additional millions perished during capture and on the routes to the African coast. This trafficking in human beings depleted the population base in West and Central Africa. In addition to the chattel slavery in the Atlantic world, societies of the Indian Ocean also used slaves for services and in commerce. Figures are difficult to ascertain.

The mixing between European colonizer men and Asian, Latin American, and Afro-American women, frequently through rape but more often through hierarchical consensual unions, led to the emergence of new peoples in the Americas and of smaller groups in Africa and Asia (in a process known as ethnogenesis). Conceptualizing these new peoples was difficult. In European thought of the times, those born in the colonies were "creoles" and inferior to "pure" European-born people. In the minds of European colonials, however, those born of European-origin parents considered themselves European and preferred to apply the term creole to people born of culturally mixed backgrounds and with shades of skin construed as "dark" or "black"similar to the use of such terms as mestizo or mulatto. Whereas religion and craft had served to define identities before the beginning of colonization, the ideologues of Christianity and of exploitation increasingly made color of skin (race) and genetically defined ethnic groups the marker of belonging. "Race," however, was lived differently in Anglo and Latin colonial societies: strict racial separation ruled in the former, intermixing and hierarchization of shades of skin color in the latter.

In the nineteenth century, when the Afro-Atlantic forced migration system came to an end, the demand for labor was filled by an Asian contract labor system and by a transatlantic proletarian mass migration from Europe. Mainly Indians and Chinese were brought to plantations and mines under five-year contracts, in a system that has been called "a second slavery" (Tinker). This system lasted until the early twentieth century. Simultaneously, free Chinese and other Asian migrants developed a transpacific migration system from the late 1840s on. The largest of these systems, the EuropeanAtlantic one, at first encompassed two routes, from southern Europe to Latin America and from western, northern, and, later, eastern Europe to North America. Italian labor migrants integrated the routes in the 1880s. From 1815 to the 1930s some fifty-five million men and women moved westward, some seven million returning to their cultures of origin. In addition, the agricultural migration from European Russia to the southern belt of Siberia and the labor migration within European Russia coalesced into a Russo-Siberian migration system, in which some ten million men and women moved eastward and even larger numbers moved to the industrializing cities. While the nineteenth century is considered the century of proletarian mass migrations, the rate of migration per thousand people was higher in seventeenth-century industrializing societies such as the Netherlands and Sweden. Contrary to widespread ideas, even peasant societies have never been sedentary; in each generation, sons and daughters who could no longer be fed on the parental land had to move elsewhere to eke out a living in marginal agriculture or in urban wage labor. The farmers of the nineteenth-century migrations cultivated new fertile plains in North America, southern Russia, Argentina, and Australia, and their mass production of grain led to a collapse of world market prices and, consequently, to a worldwide agricultural crisis that forced millions more to leave the land for urban jobs.

In the twentieth century, wars and the depression after 1929 reduced labor migrations. Warfare and fascism in Europe generated huge numbers of refugees. From the 1950s on, the politically decolonizing but economically dependent societies of the southern hemisphere became refugee-generating states. Exclusion and border controls in the advanced industrial (and white) societies of the northern hemisphere as well as discriminatory terms of trade led to "global apartheid" (Richmond). Labor needs of the northern economies were filled by southnorth migrations from both the Mediterranean and Caribbean basins. The search for more options and better lives led nonwhite people to migrate toward the industrial and social security states of the north, if necessary without documents or, from the point of view of the receiving societies, as "illegals." To such migrations the North American societies have responded more openly, proving more willing to grant amnesties than European societies (derided in some circles as "fortress Europe"). In other parts of the world, regional systems of migration emerged: internally in China, to the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf, in West Africa, and elsewhere. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, migration systems had become even more multifocal than in the past.

Throughout history women's options to migrate were restrained by male-imposed concepts of gender roles. With permanent settlement, however, communities of migrants demanded and continue to demand the presence of women for family formation and the building of networks. Women have always been part of migrations; from the 1930s on they even formed a slight majority of those heading for North American societies. Both refugee migration and the demand for service labor led to a feminization of migration in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Governmental Policies

Governmental policies on migration have evolved in stages. Before the coming of colonialism, merchants, small producers, dockworkers, and sailors were free to migrate between the ports of the trade emporia of the Indian Ocean, and cultural communities of migrants were often granted self-administration. In European societies, the shift from dynastic systems to nation-states resulted in a massive deterioration of migrants' status. In dynastic systems, incoming migrants negotiated their status with the ruler and were usually free to practice distinct customs and use their own language, provided they promised loyalty. The Protestant French Huguenots of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the best example. Nation-states, however, postulated unity or even uniformity of culture and demanded that incoming migrants renounce their own culture, religion, and languageor, in short, assimilate. The elevated position of the "nationals" over resident "minorities" and immigrant "ethnics" stood juxtaposed to the republican ideal of equality before the law. Passports, a late-nineteenth-century invention of nation-states, along with border controls and immigration legislation, excluded ever-larger categories of potential migrants from entering a society. Racial thought contributed to exclusion, and fear of class struggles led to increased control over labor migrations. Through the early twenty-first century, nation-states have still not overcome this "otherizing" of newcomers. Rather than being admitted to citizenship, newcomers are labeled "aliens," "foreigners," temporary laborers, or, euphemistically, guest workers. The common notion of "guests" does not imply using them as cheap workers, to be sent home whenever an economic downswing results in a diminished need for labor. Such practices have also been adopted by West African societies, especially Ghana and Nigeria, as well as by the oil-producing states of the Middle East.

Public opinion has classified newcomers according to religion, power, economic pursuit, and, only recently, color of skin. In many-cultured societiesthe Ottoman Empire being the best examplecultural groups of peoples governed themselves through their religious rulers, and newcomers, such as the Jews, who were expelled from the Iberian societies after 1492, were incorporated under these principles. In China, imperial officials from afar provided but a thin overlay of resident populations, and people lived according to their own customs. In the nineteenth-century Habsburg "monarchy of many peoples," nationalizing tendencies and investment strategies reduced such self-determination of cultural groups. While conflicts have always occurred, the marginalization and otherizing practices of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries paralleled the nation-states' cultural homogenization policies.

Global versus Nationalist Perspectives

Research has only recently achieved a global perspective on migration. Into the 1970s, nationalist historians assumed that emigrants depart from a nation-state and arrive as immigrants in ethnic enclaves of the receiving nation-state. Since then, this dichotomous perspective and terminology has been replaced by the neutral term migrant: People may move over short distances, for example, from rural to urban environments; or seasonally, as harvest laborers, from infertile hilly regions to farms in fertile valleys and plains; or to urban positions as female domestics, apprentices, or day laborers. People migrate over medium distances to specific segments of labor markets or to available agricultural lands within a state (internal migration), in borderlands (intercultural migration, for example, from China to Mongolia), or across international borders. Because nation-states counted migrants only at such borders, international migration caught the attention of nation-state socialized scholars much more so than the less documented internal migration. The latter, however, included the whole process of urbanization, marriage migration, and industrialization and has been far more voluminous. Population registers of cities, parish records, and marriage lists provide the evidence.

The emigrationimmigration dichotomy also assumed one-directional, one-time moves. Migrants, however, may move seasonally, for several years or for their working life. They may return regularly or occasionally. They may repeat the process of migration several times. Some migrations, such as those of early modern European artisans, Chinese transport laborers, and women earning money for a dowry, are circular: the migrants traverse short or long distances but finally return to their community of origin. Some migrations occur in stages, with a part of the intended trajectory undertaken at a time, for example, first to a nearby market city, then, with new wage earnings, to a port city, and finally to an overseas destination. Given that migration is costly, not only because of the cost of transport but also because during the voyage no income can be earned, many families decide to send one member with high earning capacity first. Then, in sequential or chain migration, other family members or friends follow whenever the "first-comer" is able to send money for travel or, at least, provide temporary shelter and access to a job. Such "free" migrations occur within economic and social constraints in the society of origin. Migrants pursue better options in their selected receiving society; for women this often involves less restrained gender roles.

Forced migrations, which encompass slavery, contract labor, and forced labor on the one hand and refugee migration on the other, have been studied separately. The distinction is both justified and misleading. Forced migrants have few opportunities to acculturate according to their own interests, whether within the slavery system in the Americas or in twentieth-century German, Russian, and Japanese labor camps. But in order to survive forced labor regimes, they have to develop strategies to make conditions physically and spiritually bearable. Refugees are "unwilling" migrants and often look back to the expelling society in hopes that changes will occur permitting their return. Because they are often not welcome in receiving societies and frequently receive no material support, theylike voluntary migrantshave to insert themselves into the receiving economy.

A further fallacy of the nationalist approach to migration has been the assumption that people are essentially monocultural. Such scholars have considered migrants to be uprooted, in limbo between cultures, and incapable of adjusting to their new sociocultural environment. Since the 1980s, however, sociological and historic research has shown that while involuntary migrants may be uprooted, voluntary ones develop individual and social capital and act in supportive networks that permit continuity as well as change. They live transculturally rather than ensconced in ethnic ghettos; they need the ability to function in more than one society.

Thus, many societies across the ages have sought migrants as innovators, connectors, or simply additional human capital. Many migrants, in turn, have sought independence from parents, constraining social norms, and dire economic circumstances by moving between one state or society to another.

See also Asian-American Ideas (Cultural Migration) ; Borders, Borderlands, and Frontiers, Global ; Creolization, Caribbean ; Diasporas ; Ethnicity and Race ; Slavery ; State, The .


Appleyard, Reginald T., ed. International Migration Today. 2 vols. Paris: Unesco, 1988.

Bade, Klaus J. Migration in European History. Translated by Allison Brown. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Cohen, Robin, ed. The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Fawcett, James T., and Benjamin V. Cariño, eds. Pacific Bridges: The New Immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands. Staten Island, N.Y.: Center for Migration Studies, 1987.

Gungwu, Wang, ed. Global History and Migrations. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.

Hoerder, Dirk. Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

. "From Migrants to Ethnics: Acculturation in a Societal Framework." In European Migrants: Global and Local Perspectives, edited by Dirk Hoerder and Leslie Page Moch, 211262. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Isajiw, Wsevolod W. Understanding Diversity: Ethnicity and Race in the Canadian Context. Toronto: Thompson Educational, 1999.

Kritz, Mary M., Lin Lean Lim, and Hania Zlotnik, eds. International Migration Systems: A Global Approach. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Massey, Douglas S., et al. "Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal." Population and Development Review 19, no. 3 (1993): 431465.

Moch, Leslie Page. Moving Europeans: Migration in Western Europe since 1650. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Pan, Lynn, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1999.

Parnwell, Mike. Population Movements and the Third World. London: Routledge, 1993.

Richmond, Anthony H. Global Apartheid: Refugees, Racism, and the New World Order. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, ed. The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present. New York: Macmillan, 1995.

Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Tinker, Hugh. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 18301920. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Dirk Hoerder

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Migration in World History." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 15 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Migration in World History." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (August 15, 2018).

"Migration in World History." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 15, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.