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READ: Industrialization and Migration

In the long nineteenth century, people moved from place to place like they never had before. Some of this migration was local; some of it was long distance. Much of it was voluntary. But forced migration continued for more than 100 years after the start of this era.

Industrialization and Migration

By Trevor Getz
In the long nineteenth century, people moved from place to place like they never had before. Some of this migration was local; some of it was long distance. Much of it was voluntary. But forced migration continued for more than 100 years after the start of this era.

Industrialization and migration

The long nineteenth century witnessed a series of massive migrations—larger than had ever been witnessed before. Millions of people were on the move between 1750-1914. These movements helped tie the world together in new ways. Take a look at the chart below. These four rows detail some of the largest migration patterns in this era. Migration from one region to another was happening all over the world during this period. But there were several major migration “bumps” that were bigger and more significant than the everyday migration patterns among regions.1
OriginDestinationTime frameEstimated number of people
India/ChinaSoutheast Asia1860-191438,000,000
Russia, China, JapanCentral Asia1870-191426,000,000
Table 1: Largest migration patterns between 1750-1914
What do each of these bumps signify? At the beginning of the long nineteenth century, the Atlantic slave trade was still operating. Millions of enslaved Africans were unwillingly being brought to the Americas. But after 1830, this system began to slow. More and more countries criminalized the slave trade. Migration of Europeans to the Americas picked up just as the Atlantic slaving system was slowing. The population of Europe was surging in the nineteenth century. It would double from 188 million in 1800 to 400 million by 1900. As a result, the continent had trouble sustaining so many people. Many Europeans also lost land to industrialization. Urban workers who had trouble making ends meet2 in European cities began to seek new opportunities in the Americas. During the same period, another great movement started in Asia. The populations of China and India were also surging. Many citizens of both countries sought new opportunities in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, governments in Russia and China encouraged their populations to settle in Siberia and Central Asia, partly because each country wanted to claim territory in these regions.
These major migration patterns hide perhaps the greatest migration of the time. This migration was not from one country or region of the world to another. It was from countryside to city. Look at this list of the world’s largest cities and their population in 1800:
  1. Beijing – 1,100,000
  2. London – 950,000
  3. Canton – 800,000
  4. Istanbul – 570,000
  5. Paris – 550,000
Now here is the list of world’s largest cities in 1900:
  1. London – 6,600,000
  2. New York – 4,200,000
  3. Paris – 3,300,000
  4. Berlin – 2,700,000
  5. Chicago – 1,700,000
If you compare the first list to the second, several things are obvious. One is the rise of large cities in the Americas and Europe. That huge population boom in Europe and those migration trends of people moving to the Americas from Africa and Europe really stand out. The second big trend is the immense growth of cities. Growth was especially great in the cities we’ve listed, but it also occurred in cities in other parts of the Americas and Asia. London is seven times as large in 1900 as it was in 1800. Paris grew six times as large over 100 years. This proved that movement from rural to urban areas was clearly significant in this period.

Patterns of migration: push and pull

Why did people move from rural areas to urban areas? Why did they move from one region to another, over the course of the long nineteenth century? Historians often focus on what they call “push” and “pull” factors to understand migration. “Push” factors are things that make people want to leave (or force them to leave) their original area. “Pull” factors bring people to a new area.
Over the course of the long nineteenth century, many push and pull factors helped to create the vast migrations we see in these statistics. Push factors often included problems or a lack of opportunity in the homeland. For example, nineteenth-century Europe was a very difficult place for many people to live. Many farming or peasant families were kicked off their land for industrial farming and herding. They moved to cities, where populations were growing rapidly, hoping for work in the new factories. But often there wasn’t enough work to go around. This was mainly due to the fact that factories were efficient precisely because they replaced people with machines.
A number of factors “pushed” specific European populations to the Americas. Some migrants fled wars. For example, a long conflict in the Balkans pushed millions of people to leave. These refugees then fled to other parts of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the Americas in the 1900s. Religious persecution also drove immigrants. The Jewish population of Russia and Eastern Europe, for example, fled persecution in the millions in the late nineteenth century. Hunger was also an important push factor. The nineteenth century was an age of famines. This chart illustrates some of the largest famines:
PlaceYearMortality estimate
Ireland1845-18491.9 – 2.2 million
North Africa1870s2.2 – 3.5 million
India1866-18796.1 – 10.3 million
India1896-19006.1 – 19 million
China1876-18799.5 – 20 million
Brazil1876-18790.5 – 2 million
Table 2: Largest famines
These famines were not just a result of poor years when few crops grew in an area. They were actually linked to a combination of global climate changes and poor policies. Many of these regions were colonies, and imperial rulers were notoriously bad at making sure subject populations were fed. In fact, they often continued to export food from these regions, hoping to sell it for more money elsewhere, rather than feed those in the colonies.
Colonialism also helped to create a huge “pull” factor during this period. The demand for labor in the British Empire, in particular was immense. Colonial governments planned huge projects to pull out resources—especially railroads—and private companies needed workers for mines and plantations. Often, the work was terrible—hard, dangerous, and poorly paid. Many of these were in areas that didn’t have a lot of people, or where the local populations resisted working under these conditions. The British ruled India during this era. They found that they could cheaply employ their Indian subjects and draw them to these areas, especially during periods of famine. In China, poverty and sometimes famines also created “push” factors for laborers. Big corporations then took advantage and created a “pull” factor. They would offer to pay to relocate people to Southeast Asia and elsewhere as cheap laborers. In fact, the kind of contracts they created for these laborers looked very much like slavery. They usually took the form of “indentures” in which workers had few rights and agreed to work for a long time for little pay.
During the early years of this period, slavery itself was a potent “pull” factor. Until the 1820s, the enslavement of Africans resulted in millions of people being forcibly relocated to the Americas. Most European countries technically abolished this system in the early nineteenth century. But in reality it persisted into later years. Ship owners secretly took captives from Africa as late as the 1860s. They were brought to work on sugar plantations in Brazil and Cuba. Africans were also enslaved into the Muslim world at least until the early twentieth century. Also, it wasn’t just Africans who were enslaved. Although the number of people enslaved was much less, slavery persisted in many parts of the world through the end of this era.
Aside from enslaved and indentured migrants, prisoners also formed another large group of forced migrants in this era. Britain sent thousands of Irish and British convicts to Australia. This included both alleged criminals and people who owed money. The French sent convicts to penal colonies in Latin America. Japan sent its convicts to the island of Hokkaido, and Russia shipped tens of thousands of prisoners to Siberia. Of course, the biggest “pull” factor was opportunity. In the nineteenth century, some regions seemed to provide much opportunity. This pulled lots of voluntary migrants. Europeans, for example, saw the United States, Canada, and Latin America as having a lot of opportunity. They believed they could move to these places, find jobs, and own land. Millions of Europeans moved voluntarily to these regions. They hoped to work in factories or to get a piece of land to farm.


If you look at the charts at the beginning of this article, some patterns are obvious. Others are not, largely because they are missing patterns. Yet missing patterns can tell us a lot too. For example, why was emigration from Asia to the Americas not larger in this period? We know there were big “push” factors for people to leave China and India. We also know that there was a huge opportunity “pull” factor in the Americas. So why weren’t there more people leaving Asia and going to the Americas?
Australian Anti-Chinese immigrant cartoon, 1886. Propaganda like this helped to stir up racist anti-Chinese sentiment in the Americas and Australia during this period. By May, Phillip, Public Domain.
This missing pattern highlights an important emigration factor. Simply put, the governments of most American countries restricted Asian immigration. They passed laws, especially from the 1880s onward, that stopped people from some Asian countries from migrating. These laws, or “exclusion acts”, were based on racist ideas that Asians were immoral, alien, or would steal jobs from white Americans. Such laws were powerful factors that limited immigration in this era from some regions to others.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and world History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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