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Migration in the African Diaspora

Migration in the African Diaspora

Migration, both voluntary and involuntary, is clearly the means through which people of African descent have been dispersed throughout the world. In addition to developments outside of the continent, there have been major redistributions of populations within Africa itself. To briefly consider the latter, the idea of African communities in physical transition runs contrary to popular notions of a continent in which human habitation has been static and uninterrupted for millennia. However, the African landscape has witnessed tremendous change over long periods of time.

Migration in Antiquity

A brief consideration of ancient Africa reminds one that the African diaspora did not begin with the transatlantic slave trade. Rather, the dissemination of African ideas and persons began long before, when ideas were arguably more significant than the number of people dispersed. For example, Egypt was a major civilization between 3100 and 332 bce. Its relations with Nubia (or Kush) to the south (what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan) were important, as Nubia was a source of gold and other precious materials, as well as soldiers and laborers, and was a political force alternating as enemy and ally. This was an important disapora of Africans into an African land that was the center of the Near Eastern world, at a time of African preeminence rather than weakness.

Africans also moved outside of the continent during antiquity. The Mediterranean world came to know Africans from a number of locations, especially Egypt and Nubia, and in varying capacities. But they also came from North Africa (from what is now Libya, west to Morocco), the southern fringes of the Sahara desert, and West Africa proper. Nubians were a part of the Egyptian occupation of Cyprus under Amasis (570526 bce), and a large number of Nubians fought under Xerxes of Persia in 480 to 479 bce. Carthage, founded no earlier than 750 bce, was served by a number of sub-Saharan Africans in the military. The Punic Wars (264241, 218201, 149146 bce) also saw Africans employed in the invasion of Italy.

Africans enslaved in the Greco-Roman world were but a small fraction of the total number of slaves in these territories and only a portion of the overall African population in southern Europe. Africans in Rome worked as musicians, actors, jugglers, gladiators, wrestlers, boxers, religious specialists, and day laborers. Some became famous, such as the black athlete Olympius. Africans also served in the Roman armies, as was the case with the elite Moorish cavalry from northwest Africa. Black soldiers even served in the Roman army as far north as Britain.

Africans in Islamic Lands and India

The slave trades were a major form of migration for Africans, the consideration of which begins with the Islamic lands. While many sub-Saharan Africans would convert to Islam and live as free persons in Islamic lands, many others entered as slaves. Muslim societies used slaves from all over the reachable worldEuropeans were just as eligible as Africans, and Slavic and Caucasian populations were the largest source of slaves for the Islamic world well into the eighteenth century, especially in the Ottoman Empire.

Regarding Africa, tentative estimates for the trans-Saharan, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean slave trades are in the range of twelve million individuals from 650 ce to the end of the sixteenth century, and another four million from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. In other words, as many or more captive Africans may have been exported through these trades as were shipped across the Atlantic, although the latter took place within a much more compressed period (the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries). Such estimates are imprecise, but the number of enslaved Africans in the Islamic world was clearly significant.

The trans-Saharan, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean slave trades were primarily transactions in females and children. Young girls and women were used as domestics and concubines, and often as both, as the male slaveholder enjoyed the right of sexual access. In contrast to the Americas, the children of a slaveholder and a concubine were granted the status of the father and became free. Enslaved Africans were also used in the military, and slave armies were in a number of places in the Islamic world by the ninth century, although most military slaves were non-African. African boys were used as eunuchs, and males were also employed as laborers in large agricultural ventures and mining operations.

In addition to the central Islamic lands, Africans also migrated and made contributions to Iberia (Spain and Portugal), the site of a remarkable Muslim civilization from 711 to 1492. When Muslim forces crossed Gibraltar into Iberia in 711, it was a combined army of Berbers, sub-Saharan Africans, and Arabs. The Almoravids, mostly Berbers with some West African soldiers (slave and free), seized control of al-Andalus (Iberia) by the end of the eleventh century. A single African power would control much of North Africa and Iberia for the next three hundred years.

Africans also went to India. Research on this migration is in its infancy, complicated by an ancient society in which the four major castes (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra) are hierarchically arranged in a manner corresponding with color (varna). The lowest, servile caste, the Sudra, is characterized in the ancient Vedic literature as "black" and "dark-complexioned," but as there are many dark-skinned populations throughout the world, locating Sudra origins in Africa is difficult.

Africans traveled to India prior to the rise of Islam in the seventh century, but their presence is better documented with that religion's movement into the subcontinent (as early as 711). Free Africans (as well as non-Africans) operated in Muslim-ruled India as merchants, seafarers, clerics, bodyguards, and even bureaucrats, and enslaved African women and men served as concubines and soldiers. Called Habshis and Sidis, Africans settled in a variety of locales. Enclaves of Sidis can presently be found in such places as Gujarat (western India), Habshiguda in Hyderabad (central India) and Janjira Island (south of Bombay). There were also a number of African Muslim rulers during the time of the Mughals (15261739), and there were at least several Habshi rulers in the breakaway province of Bengal (eastern India) and in the Deccan.

The fate of all these African slaves in the Islamic world is by no means obvious, especially since descent through the free male line obscures, if not erases, African maternal ancestry. In Morocco the plight of sub-Saharan blacks is clearer, as the descendants of slaves, the araīn (called bella further east), were in servile subjection to Arabic- and Berber-speaking masters. The free descendants of the araīn were also second-class citizens through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. They were heavily dependent upon patron families. One famous community of blacks in Morocco is the Gnawa, noted for their distinct musical traditions. In Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, the descendants of sub-Saharan and North Africans practice Islam along with bori, a mix of spiritsinfants, nature gods, spirits of deceased Muslim leaders, Muslim jinn (spirits), and so onwho cause illness and are appeased through offerings, sacrifice, and dance possession.

In India and Pakistan, the descendants of the Habshis and Sidis no longer speak African languages, but their worship, music, and dance are suffused with African content. In addition to those of clear African descent, there are vast millions descended from intermarriages between Africans and Dalits (formerly called "untouchables") or Sudras.

The Transatlantic Migration in Chains

The use of African slaves to cultivate sugarcane did not begin in the Americas, but in the Mediterranean and on such West African coastal islands as Madeira, São Tomé, and Principe, beginning in the early fifteenth century. Columbus's 1492 voyage to the "Indies," therefore, set into motion a process that, among other things, transferred a system of slavery from the Old World to the New World. The introduction of diseases (e.g., smallpox, measles, influenza, diphtheria, whooping cough, chicken pox, typhoid, trichinosis) previously unknown in the Americas further stimulated the trafficking in Africans, as it resulted in the "Great Dying" of indigenous peoples who had no immunity to these diseases. Not all Africans entering the New World in the sixteenth century were enslaved, however, and some free Africans took part in the military conquest alongside white conquistadors.

But slavery accounts for the overwhelming majority of those Africans making the involuntary transatlantic migration. The export figure remains a matter of debate, but it would appear that approximately 11.9 million Africans were exported from Africa, out of which 9.6 to 10.8 million arrived alive, translating into a loss during the Middle Passage of about 10 to 20 percent. Some 64.9 percent of the total were males, and 27.9 percent were children. The transatlantic slave trade spanned four hundred years, from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The apex of the trade, between 1700 and 1810, saw approximately 6.5 million Africans shipped out of the continent. Some 60 percent of all Africans imported into the Americas made the fateful voyage between 1721 and 1820, while 80 percent were transported between 1701 and 1850. In comparison with the trade in Africans through the Sahara, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, the bulk of the Atlantic trade took less than one-tenth of the time.

Many European nations were involved in the slave trade, and of all the voyages for which there is data between 1662 and 1867, nearly 90 percent of captive Africans wound up in Brazil and the Caribbean; indeed, Brazil alone imported 40 percent of the total trade. That part of the Caribbean in which the English and French languages became dominant received 37 percent of the trade, in more or less equal proportions. Spanish-claimed islands accounted for 10 percent of the Africans, after which North America took in 7 percent or less.

Nearly 85 percent of those exported through the transatlantic trade came from one of only four regions in Africa: West Central Africa (36.5%), the Bight of Benin (20%), the Bight of Biafra (16.6%), and the Gold Coast (11%). Slavers (slave ships) often took on their full complement of captives in single regions of supply, and Africans emanating from the same regions tended to be transported to the same New World destinations. Captives from West Central Africa made up the majority of those who came to Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) and South America, accounting for an astounding 73 percent of the Africans imported into Brazil. The Bight of Benin, in turn, contributed disproportionately to Bahia (northeastern Brazil) and the Francophone Caribbean outside of Saint Domingue; six out of every ten from the Bight of Benin went to Bahia, while two out of every ten arrived in francophone areas. The Bight of Biafra constituted the major source for the British Leeward Islands and Jamaica, while the Gold Coast supplied 37 percent of those who landed in Jamaica, and this area was clearly the leading supplier to Barbados, the Guyanas, and Suriname. Sierra Leone (a region that includes the Windward Coast) provided 6.53 percent of the total export figure, followed by Southeast Africa and Senegambia at 5.14 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively. In addition, transshipments between New World destinations could be substantial.

The transatlantic slave trade qualifies as a quintessential moment of transfiguration. With millions forcibly removed from family and friends and deposited in lands both foreign and hostile, it cannot be compared with the millions of Europeans who voluntarily crossed the Atlantic, a journey that, for all of their troubles, was their collective choice.

Migrations Under Slavery

During slavery, movement of Africans and their descendants between territories in the Americas was common and significant. Small parcels of enslaved persons were regularly brought from the English-speaking Caribbean to such northern mainland ports as New York City throughout the eighteenth century (especially the first half of the century). The Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 saw planters flee the island with their slaves in every direction, including to Cuba, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Trinidad. Within territories, economic developments often led to the expansion of slavery. In Brazil, for example, the majority of Africans were brought to such northeastern captaincies (provinces) as Bahia and Pernambuco from the sixteenth century through the seventeenth. From the late seventeenth century through the mid-eighteenth century, however, gold and diamond mining redirected as many as two-thirds of all Africans to Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, and Goiás. Cotton and coffee became significant crops in the nineteenth century, resulting in the growth of African slavery in central and southern Brazil, particularly Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo. Similarly, slavery's expansion in what became the United States saw black migration from the Upper to the Lower South, coupled with a steady encroachment westward to and beyond the Mississippi Valley.

There were also migrations back to Africa during slavery. Beginning in 1787, Jamaican Maroons (escaped slaves) and blacks who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence embarked from Canada, where they had taken refuge, for the British settlement of Sierra Leone. These initial groups would be later joined by captives taken from slavers bound for the Americas, the result of the British effort to interdict the transatlantic trade. Sierra Leone would receive thousands of such recaptives, reaching a peak in the 1840s. In the United States, repatriation became an organized, state-sanctioned enterprise beginning in 1817 with the founding of the American Colonization Society, which in turn began a colony in 1822 in what would become Monrovia, Liberia. All told, not more than 15,000 blacks participated in the return, a number augmented by the resettlement of recaptives similarly liberated from slavers by the American navy.

In contrast to state-supported efforts, some Africans and their descendants financed their own repatriation. In North America, the African-American merchant Paul Cuffe (17571817), the son of a former slave, personally carried thirty-eight individuals back to Africa in 1815. Fraternal organizations in Cuba and Brazil pooled their resources and helped support the return of many of their members. The returnees would be called amaros and saros in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, respectively.

The United States's prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade would take effect in 1808, but it took the whole of the nineteenth century for slavery itself to be outlawed throughout the Americas.

Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Developments

Tremendous disappointment followed the end of slavery throughout the Americas. The realities of debt peonage, rural wage labor, peasant impoverishment, and either wide-ranging, systematic, state-backed terrorism or a heavy-handed colonialism meant that, whether on an island or the mainland, most people were trapped in economic and political oppression.

Changes in the international economy and two world wars created cracks in this prisonlike environment through the demand for labor. Conditions were so desperate that many left family and friends. The Caribbean emerged as the quintessential region of migratory activity. Divided into several phases, the first of the region's major redistributions took place between 1835 and 1885, when activity centered on the islands themselves. Persons from economically depressed areas, such as Barbados, sought opportunities elsewhere, especially in Trinidad and Tobago and British Guyana. About 19,000 left the eastern Caribbean for Trinidad and British Guyana between 1835 and 1846; from 1850 to 1921, some 50,000 emigrated to Trinidad, Tobago, and British Guyana from Barbados alone. Destinations during this initial phase were not limited to the islands, as 7,000 from Dominica, for example, left for the goldfields of Venezuela.

Such a considerable flight of labor caused concern within the sugar industry, resulting in government recruitment of workers from outside the Caribbean. In response, labor was drawn from two sources. The first were "postemancipation Africans," persons seized from slave ships and taken to Sierra Leona and Saint Helena in West Africa. Some 36,120 were subsequently spread throughout the British-held Caribbean between 1839 and 1867, where their arrival also reinvigorated cultural ties to Africa. The second source was Asia, principally the Indian subcontinent (but also China). Between 1838 and 1917, approximately 500,000 indentured laborers were imported from Asia to such places as Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, Martinique, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent.

A second migratory phase originating within the Caribbean between the 1880s and the 1920s was both intra-Caribbean as well as an out-migration. Destinations included Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and the United States, as well as other Central American sites. It was construction of the Panama Canal that laid the foundation for this important phase.

By the time the canal was completed in 1914, thousands of workers from the Caribbean, many from Barbados, had labored on the canal. The United Fruit Company then transported thousands of the laborers to its banana and sugar plantations and railroads in Costa Rica, Honduras, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Cuba alone took in 400,000 Jamaicans and Haitians between 1913 and 1928, and, as is true of Panama, a significant community of their descendants remain in Cuba.

The United States became a destination for others. By 1930, over 130,000 had arrived in U.S. urban areas, including Miami and other Floridian cities, but their major port of call was New York City, where some 40,000 took up residence in Harlem between 1900 and 1930, providing a substantial proportion of the professional and entrepreneurial classes. Most were from the English-speaking islands, but they also came from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

Postwar Developments

Emigration from the Caribbean, where the rise of agribusiness resulted in the collapse of plantation agriculture and rising unemployment, continued after World War II. Haitians went to the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic; both Haitians and Dominicans came to Florida along with others from the Caribbean and Central America; and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans undertook major migrations to New York City. Those from the English- and French-speaking islands also relocated to the cities of Britain and France, and they would find their way to Canada in a movement that became much more significant in the 1950s and 1960s.

In North America, the Great Migration between 1916 and 1930 witnessed more than one million blacks leave the South for the North, with over 400,000 boarding trains between 1916 and 1918. This was an intense period of relocation, propelled by such factors as economic despair (related to the ravages of the boll weevil) and white racism in the South. The latter element had become particularly pernicious, as more than 3,600 people were lynched between 1884 and 1914, with the vast majority of victims being black southerners. Those moving north were also motivated by the high demand for labor in the North, occasioned by global war and the precipitous decline in foreign immigration from Europe (from 1.2 million in 1914 to 110,000 by 1918). World War II had a similar effect, and in the 1940s an additional 1.6 million black southerners are estimated to have left for the North and the West, especially the Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland areas), a figure that does not include movement to the South Atlantic region and the Gulf Coast, where many found jobs in defense-related industries. Such migratory activity continued in the 1950s and 1960s, when 2.9 million are estimated

to have left the South. The movement north would transform the majority of African Americans into urban dwellers, and by 1950 some 52 percent of African Americans were living in cities and large towns (a figure that would increase to 81 percent by 1980).

Paralleling the economic experiences of those in North America and the Caribbean were people of African descent in Brazil. In the sugar-producing northeast, black Brazilians remained as wage laborers and tenants on the plantations, but in the coffee region of the southeast there was considerable migration to the rapidly developing cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There, they ran into the issue of embranquecimento, or "whitening," an effort to increase European immigration and thereby achieve "civilized" status as a nation. In response to this policy, some 90,000 Europeans immigrants, called colonos, arrived in Brazil between 1886 and 1889.

From the mid-1960s onward, many of the Caribbean colonies achieved independent status, paralleling events in Africa and Asia, but agribusiness maintained pressure on the unemployed to emigrate. In addition to New York, Toronto, Paris, and London, such emigrants journeyed to rural areas as well. Haitians and Dominicans followed the earlier pattern of migrating to the United States and Canada, where they were joined by American southerners and Central Americans in picking fruit and vegetable harvests and working as domestics. Migrant workers often did not come to stay, but rather to save enough money to create better conditions for themselves and their families back home. Whether temporary or permanent, some 300,000 people per year were leaving the Caribbean by the early 1960s.

As for Europe, two principal sites for the African diaspora have been Britain and France. Enslaved Africans arrived in England in the sixteenth century, and by the late eighteenth century there were as many as ten thousand enslaved blacks in the country, mostly in London, Bristol, and Liverpool, a major port in the slave trade. Black seamen had also become fixtures in the various ports, where they played leading roles in labor struggles. Early twentieth-century England boasted a small black community numbering in the thousands, but subsequent immigration of colonial subjects from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean in response to the labor and soldiering needs of two world wars significantly augmented their numbers. Caribbean labor continued to arrive in the 1950s to assist in the rebuilding of Britain's postwar economy, but a growing black presence had the effect of increasing white resentment, xenophobia, and violence.

Developments in France were analogous. The conflict with Algeria has profoundly impacted race relations in France, and the experience of the North African immigrant, originally recruited to fill labor needs, has been the most critical of all. AntiNorth African sentiment in France was inflamed not only by the end of the Second World War and the reclamation of jobs by white Frenchmen, but by the Algerian Revolution. Islam is an important dynamic, as North Africans are highly integrated into the Muslim world. North and West Africans are the principal targets of France's xenophobia.

Since the Second World War, African and Africandescended populations have achieved appreciable numerical levels throughout Europe. Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany (via American troops) all have recognizable populations of African descendants. Even Russia has a black historySoviet Russia was a magnet for African university students and visiting black intellectuals. Since the 1980s, efforts to enter Europe have included illegal immigration from sub-Saharan Africa (an often perilous and deadly undertaking). Exploitation of young girls and women via prostitution has also been part of the phenomenon. In all cases, immigrants and their descendants wrestle with the meaning of their identities, maintaining, in many instances, ties to Africa or the Caribbean, while agitating for full acceptance and equal citizenship in their adopted European homes.

See also African Diaspora; Economic Condition, U.S.; Slave Trade; Slavery


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michael a. gomez (2005)

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