The British think America is gigantic

(Post) colonialism and global history

Harald Fischer-Tiné

Prof. Harald Fischer-Tiné is professor for the history of the modern world at ETH Zurich.

In addition to the forced migration through slave trade, there were other significant migratory movements during colonial times. Both from the imperial centers to the colonies and in the opposite direction. Even today the big cities of the former "mother countries" are shaped by this migration.

A coolie in French Indochina (today Laos / Cambodia / Vietnam) transports a French passenger. The "trade" in simple labor is one of the most important migration phenomena during the colonial period. (& copy picture-alliance)


Migration and mobility were constitutive both for the establishment of colonial empires and for the economic exploitation of the subject territories. The advancing development of communication and transport technologies in the 19th century (telegraph, steamboat, railroad) reinforced this importance. Especially in the phase between the beginning of high imperialism and the beginning of the great wave of decolonization (approx. 1870-1950), migration movements between imperial "mother countries" and colonies intensified in such a way that the cultural boundaries between "centers" and "peripheries" were increasingly blurred . Nevertheless, historical migration research and colonial history were largely separate fields of research for a long time. The only aspect of colonial personal mobility that found its way into the relevant standard works on the history of migration some time ago is the transatlantic slave trade, to which a separate article in this dossier is dedicated. The present article is rather about forms of mobility in colonial contexts that are generally far less well known and that have in some cases only aroused the interest of historians in recent years.

At home in the Empire: European Migration and Settler Colonialism

Overseas mobility by Europeans on a larger scale was first practiced by the Iberian colonial empires. As early as the 16th and 17th centuries, a widespread network of trading offices, sea bases and colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America emerged, especially from Portugal, which was supported by a steadily growing number of seafarers, soldiers, convicts, missionaries, administrative officials and free settlers was populated. Holland and especially Great Britain also settled their colonial possessions in the 17th and 18th centuries with compatriots, although not all of them migrated voluntarily. A clear coercive character was shown by z. B. the shipping of about 60,000 convicts from the British Isles to North America between 1657 and 1772.

After the loss of the American colonies in 1783, the development of Australia was driven forward primarily because a new penal colony was to be established at a safe distance from the British Isles. At home, the prisons were bursting at the seams and the banishment of "criminal elements" to the new continent, which James Cook had only discovered a few years earlier, promised to relieve local society. At the same time, it also provided cheap labor for the development of the gigantic territory, which despite the presence of the local Aboriginal population was regarded as terra nullius (no man's land). Between the arrival of the "First Fleet" near present-day Sydney in 1788 and the abolition of the exile in 1868, a total of 163,000 men and women from Great Britain and Ireland ended up as convicts down under.

From the 1820s, the small British-Irish colony on the fifth continent was increasingly reinforced by free settlers. About half of the 1.4 million British people who reached Australia between 1820 and 1900 benefited from government subsidies. Proponents of “assisted migration” to the climatically suitable territories of the Empire, such as the influential English politician Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862), saw the key to solving the social question in the mass emigration of proletarians and peasants to Canada, Australia and New Zealand Great Britain. Religious-philanthropic organizations such as the Salvation Army also later sponsored large-scale resettlement campaigns to alleviate the hardship in the slums of major British cities. Last but not least, the immigration ministries of the increasingly autonomous recipient countries also sometimes financially support immigration, for example to increase the proportion of women or the always sought-after craftsmen in their population. Canada, Australia and New Zealand remained the most important Empire destinations for emigrants, but in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, South and East Africa became other important settler colonies.

The enormous expansion of the British colonial empire ensured that this special form of transcontinental migratory movements in the British Isles was of particularly great importance. Between 1815 and 1914 alone, more than ten million British and Irish people left their homeland to settle permanently in a "colony of settlement" overseas. But also within other empires, the colonies absorbed large numbers of immigrants from the respective metropolis. A snapshot of the situation at the end of the 1930s can illustrate the global extent of these imperial migration movements: Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, three million Japanese lived in the Japanese-controlled territories in East Asia (Korea, Taiwan and Manchukuo), around one million settlers were mainly from France (but also from Spain, Italy or Switzerland) moved to Algeria, several 100,000 Portuguese had chosen the colonies of Angola and Mozambique as their new home and even the late-calling colonial power Italy had already settled more than 300,000 citizens in their African possessions. As different as the specific local contexts were, at least two overarching similarities can be observed. First: In almost all cases, emigration mainly affected the lower social classes from imperial metropolises. It was not infrequently promoted as a "social safety valve" to counter poverty and social tensions in the metropolis. Secondly, both the land hunger ’and the often displayed cultural arrogance of the colonizers repeatedly caused massive tensions and conflicts with the local population. The unequal treatment of colonizers and colonized people was often expressed in the different legal status of the population groups: in Algeria, for example, Europeans were treated as "citizens" (citoyens) who enjoyed a number of privileges, while the basic rights of the locals, who were "subjects "(sujets) were considered to have been severely cropped.

Following the same racist logic, the British Empire only granted partial political autonomy to its dominions ruled by "white" settlers (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) as early as the 19th and early 20th centuries. The non-white population of the settler colonies, regarded as "underage", was meanwhile confronted with a variety of reprisals. In extreme cases (such as in Australia and South Africa, among others) the brutal, pogrom-like action against the indigenous "tribes", the partial deprivation of subsistence basis through continuous land grabbing and finally the introduction of unknown diseases could lead to the decimation of entire ethnic groups. In addition, as part of a rigid assimilation policy of the colonial government (e.g. in Canada or New Zealand), the indigenous people were systematically robbed of their cultural heritage.

As a rule, the end of the colonial era also meant the end of the imperial settler diasporas. The abrupt return of hundreds of thousands of settlers, for example in Japan after 1945 or in France after the end of the Algerian War in 1962, presented the respective "mother countries" with enormous logistical and political challenges. The "white" former dominions of the British Empire remained popular destinations for emigrants from the former metropolis even after the collapse of the colonial empire. Between 1945 and 2000, for example, just under two million British and Irish people moved to Australia.

Continuing Slavery By Other Means? Imperial labor migration and the "Indentured Labor" system

The imperial world order not only promoted centrifugal migration movements from the imperial centers to the colonies. It also acted as a catalyst for mobility between different colonial territories, or between colonial territories and regions that were not part of the imperial system. In the vast majority of cases, it was about labor migration. The numerically most significant phenomenon in this context is the so-called indentured labor system, also known as "coolie trade" [1]. After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 and in the French colonial empire in 1848, concerns grew that the lucrative plantation colonies in both countries could be ruined by a lack of labor. In particular, the very labor-intensive sugar production in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean (Mauritius, La Réunion) required a large number of workers who were able to cope with both the hard physical stress and the tropical climate. The surplus of impoverished farm laborers in densely populated colonies offered the ideal solution. Contract workers were also recruited from China, the South Pacific and Africa, but more than 90 percent of the 1.5 million coolies who migrated transcontinentally were from South Asia (i.e. the Indian subcontinent). Because of its extraordinary demographic and economic importance, the phenomenon of the South Asian "coolie trade" is examined in more detail below as an example.

The first ship with Indian contract workers reached the "Sugar Island" Mauritius as early as 1834. From 1840 a steadily growing stream of "coolies" landed in the classic plantation colonies of the Caribbean (including Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Guadeloupe). When sugar cultivation was experimented with in Natal, South Africa, and on the Pacific island of Fiji, the field of activity of the Indian plantation workers expanded accordingly. In addition to transcontinental migration to remote plantation colonies, there were also less travel-intensive employment opportunities for South Asian "coolies": In Ceylon, for example, the opportunities to earn money on coffee and tea plantations have attracted millions of Tamil farm workers from nearby South India since the 1830s. It was also Tamils ​​who from the 1890s hired themselves in large numbers in Burma or on the new rubber plantations in British Malaya. In total, more than five million South Asian migrant workers migrated over the short distance to Southeast Asia between 1830 and 1930. In addition, tens of thousands of "indentured laborers" from the north Indian province of Panjab were employed entirely outside the plantation economy. The British considered Panjabis to be particularly strong and robust and their labor was used, among other things, to build railways in Southeast Asia (but also in Kenya and Canada). Indian "coolies" were also used in the Dutch colonial empire, as were contract workers from Java.

Various recruitment systems existed in South Asia. In southern India the recruitment of "coolies" was mainly organized by Indian middlemen (kangani), while the second main recruiting area in the north was controlled by European companies. Subagents of the recruiting offices there deliberately recruited farmers and day laborers who were in trouble in the poorest districts. The volunteers were then taken to recruiting offices, sometimes under false pretenses about the level of wages and the duration of the crossing. There they signed a contract with which they usually undertook to work for five years in their respective location. In return, they received guaranteed remuneration, accommodation and, as a rule, basic medical care as well as a free return if they did not decide to extend their contract on site.

In the port cities of Calcutta or Madras, the contract workers then had to wait for their ship in so-called "emigration depots". Depending on the goal, this could take several months. These depots represent interesting "in between spaces" because in them - as in their later destinations - the social rules and norms of the respective village communities no longer apply. Especially for the few women who decided to leave the country (from 1870 onwards a women's quota of 33 percent was introduced to prevent prostitution and sexual assault), migration often represented an increase in agency and personal freedom.

The working conditions on the plantations were harsh and the quality of life overseas often fell short of the high expectations. Corporal punishment by foremen, sexual violence, alcoholism and numerous cases of suicide are documented. The Indentured Labor system was therefore repeatedly denounced by various sides as a "new form of slavery". Nevertheless, only about a third of the migrant workers took up the offer of free return, and large South Asian diaspores formed in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean. In Fiji and Mauritius, for example, the Indian community made up the largest population group at the beginning of the 20th century. The presence of such "coolie communities" often set off a second wave of ‘free migration ’from the Indian subcontinent: traders, craftsmen and representatives of various service professions followed their compatriots and tried to benefit from their increasing financial strength. As the more recent research literature emphasizes, life overseas as a whole, despite all adversities, offered many migrant workers not only economic improvements, but also an increase in creative opportunities and social mobility.

Nonetheless, critical voices have increased since the beginning of the 20th century. After concerted protests by Christian missionaries and Indian elites, the system was finally officially abolished in 1917. Massive resistance to the influx of ‘" colored "migrant workers had already existed in England's white settler colonies for completely different reasons. In South Africa, the white minority watched the growth of the Indian diaspora with unease. In the province of Natal, former Indian contract workers who did not want to return have been subject to a special tax since the 1890s and later (as the only population group in the country) a discriminatory identification requirement. New immigrants from Asia were also regulated there from 1897 onwards through a language test that allowed undesired migrants to be refused entry more or less arbitrarily. This so-called "Natal Formula" was also adopted in Australia in 1901. There unionists and politicians had started a media and political campaign against the supposed foreign infiltration by immigrants from Asia and the Pacific region since the 1880s under the slogan "White Australia". The language and education test tested in South Africa therefore seemed to many to be an effective means of keeping Australia "white" without too obvious discrimination against certain ethnic groups.

Migration to the imperial metropolises around 1915-1960

Finally, the migration movements from the colonies to the imperial mother countries deserve mention, although for a long time these were numerically far less significant than settler migration and "coolie trade". In the French and British colonial empires, the presence of colonial subjects in the mother country can be proven as early as the 17th and 18th centuries, but for a very long time it was limited to small numbers of students or representatives of certain professions (seafarers, servants, flying traders, etc.) . The two world wars played a decisive role here as a catalyst. During the First World War, not only were hundreds of thousands of ‘colonial troops’ deployed in Europe, large numbers of foreign workers ’were also recruited to relieve the fighting troops or to release the local workers for the front. Most of these contract workers came from the respective colonial territories (North Africa, Indochina, India, the Caribbean, etc.), but workers were also recruited from non-colonized China. Great Britain's Chinese Labor Corps was about 100,000 strong at the end of the war, the French equivalent almost 40,000 strong. While most Asians returned to their homeland by 1920, around 70,000 Algerians stayed as guest workers in France and formed the core of a steadily growing "guest worker" community from the Maghreb.

The Second World War triggered far more intense population movements.This time, the Asian great power Japan was hardest hit: to support the war effort of the Japanese empire, more than 700,000 Koreans were shipped to Japan and forced to work in mines and factories. In addition, there were tens of thousands of so-called "comfort women", young women from Korea, China and Southeast Asia, who were kept as sex slaves in military brothels in the metropolis. Most of the war migrants returned to their homeland after 1945, but even after that the Korean minority (Chinzai) was still the largest group of migrants in Japan.

Although the numbers of colonial war migrants in Europe's leading imperial powers England and France were significantly lower than those in Japan, the recent increase in military personnel and unskilled workers from the colonial areas had a significant influence on the further demographic development there as well. The experience of Europe made by African, Asian and Caribbean soldiers and workers during the war and the contacts made there were activated a short time later in numerous cases in order to organize the mass migration from the colonies to the metropolis that began in the first post-war decades. In France alone, the number of Algerians tripled to around 300,000 in the first post-war decade. After the end of French colonial rule in Indochina in 1954, tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians joined the group who could not or would not come to terms with the new regime.

Almost at the same time, Great Britain experienced a massive wave of immigration from the Commonwealth, the successor organization to the crumbling British Empire. The confederation of states, created as a catch basin for former British colonies that had become independent, initially allowed the free movement of "Commonwealth citizens" in all member countries. This was soon to have far-reaching consequences for Great Britain. The 1951 census listed fewer than 50,000 so-called "colored people" in the British Isles, ten years later there were already half a million and by 1980 the number had grown to over 2.2 million. Most of them were from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent and were attracted by the good job opportunities in the British post-war industry. The composition of these migrant groups is an excellent illustration of how well established patterns of imperial labor migration also shaped the great post-colonial wave of migration. The vast majority of immigrants from South Asia were groups who had already been in British service outside of their homeland during the Empire. Among the newcomers to the United Kingdom, for example, the Sikhs from the Panjab (with their long tradition as soldiers, police officers or contract workers in the service of the Empire) were disproportionately represented. The same goes for Sylhetis from East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh), who previously served by the thousands as stokers on British ships.

The same fears of foreign infiltration that had led to a policy of foreclosure in Britain's white settler colonies half a century earlier, however, had also made themselves felt in the ‘mother country’ since the end of the 1950s. After the first ‘race riots’ broke out in London, the Commonwealth Immigration Act was passed in 1962, the first of several laws intended to make immigration from the former colonies more difficult. With moderate success: The proportion of the population from the former colonies continued to grow and the consequences of post-colonial migration flows to the former imperial metropolises are as visible today in London and Birmingham as in Paris, Marseilles, Amsterdam and Brussels. The presence of these migrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East or the Caribbean will continue to have profound effects on post-imperial societies in the 21st century. In addition to an undeniable cultural (and culinary) enrichment, it also represents a permanent invitation to grapple with the darker chapters of one's own past.


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