Virtual Special Issue

Virtual Special Issue: Migration and Mobility


by Julia Laite

The geopolitical stakes surrounding global migration and its control have never felt as high as they do while I type this introduction for a History Workshop Journal Virtual Special Issue on Migration and Mobility. The politics of anti-immigration are shaping the outcomes of elections and referendums. Migrant people, often forcibly displaced, are dying in the thousands on the Mediterranean Sea. Millions of people are suffering in refugee camps and detention centres all around the world. Immigration restrictions grow stronger, and in Britain the government’s ‘hostile environment’ affects non-citizens and citizens alike. One could keep going: suffice to say that migration has never seemed such an important global issue as it does today.

Yet historians rarely single out the present as a time without precedent, and I’m not about to do so now. Over the past four decades, the pages of History Workshop Journal have contained a wealth of articles and reflections that point to other crucial and telling moments related to migration and mobility in the past. There were many such articles to choose from, and I have not been able to include them all. I have tried to select those that resonate, in one way or another, with the mobile world in which we currently live.

The relative absence, and then increasing presence, of articles on the history of mobility and migration in HWJ from its beginnings in 1976 reflect the historiography of migration more generally. While there were brief discussions of mobility within family history, and some reviews of books that touched on migration, HWJ did not feature articles on the subject with any regularity until the 1990s. Before then, historians writing on the history of migration tended to publish in specialist, interdisciplinary journals. For its part, HWJ tended to prioritise the kind of radical British history that was being written at the time, which, while innovative and boundary-pushing in all sorts of ways, rarely thought beyond the borders of the nation state. Paul Gilroy, in a 1990 contribution to a workshop on teaching history in the classroom that the journal later published, mused provocatively: ‘I still hold to the view that a great deal of New Left historiography is articulated in an explicitly nationalistic register. Whether History Workshop is legitimately or illegitimately descended from [a nationalistic] perspective remains to be worked out’ (Gillroy 1990).

Later issues of the journal certainly break out of this nationalistic register: articles on slavery, the Caribbean, South Asian history, Latin American history, Internationalism, and Colonialism began to appear more regularly and more quickly, perhaps, than in other general history journals. But the rapid increase in the number of articles on the history of migration in a general history journal such as HWJ from the early 2000s also indicates an important change in the historiography: migration and mobility have moved from being a specialized subfield to a key category of analysis within the discipline of history as a whole.

The articles on migration and mobility within HWJ are rich and varied, but there are some trends and absences. I notice that there is much more on the culture of migration than on its politics and policies, and I was particularly struck by the lack of material on labour migration in a journal that began as explicitly socialist. There is very little on migration law and enforcement, an area that remains relatively under explored within the historiography even today.

The fifteen articles included here were selected from amongst those that explicitly or implicitly discussed migration and mobility in the past. I have, for reasons of space alone, ignored the mobility of commodities and ideas, with which several excellent HWJ articles deal. I have not included very much from the rich selection of material on settler colonialism and settled minorities, and I have left articles on colonialism and empire for a special issue of their own. I also excluded articles on slavery, a traffic in bodies that was always part of a wider mobile and migratory world, but which tends to be thought of as historiographically separate. There are compelling reasons for this, of course, but there would have also been an intellectual benefit to including that topic here. The exclusion of the history of slavery from the history of migration helps to reinforce the lines that were ideologically and politically drawn, often problematically and often with serious consequences for the control of migrants, between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ migration.

Examining the history of migration at this particular moment is instructive: it reveals that the idea of migrant ‘crisis’ is a familiar refrain, used far more often to police, control, and denigrate migrants than to help them. It serves as a reminder of the emigrant history of Europe and Britain: up until very recently, migrants poured out of this part of the world, not into it. This history provides further evidence that racism underwrites understandings and experiences of migration. Finally, it shows us that mobility is a fact of human history rather than a particular crisis in the present; that migration happens within national borders as well as across them; and, indeed, that the study of human migration queries the construction of borders and nations in the first place.

This Virtual Special Issue opens with arguably the first full article that dealt explicitly with migration (in this case, migrant communities in London) to appear in the journal: “From ‘Rookeries’ to ‘Communities’: Race, Poverty and Policing in London, 1850-1985.” Jennifer Davis, writing in the aftermath of the 1985 riots at Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham, London, and other riots in Birmingham, explores how ‘long-term anxieties about the state of the nation’ played out in the policing of two different first and second generation migrant communities: late nineteenth century Irish migrants and mid-twentieth century Caribbean ones (Davis, 66). She examines the policing of migrants and settled minority communities, the patterns of injustice, and the resilience of community across time, paying particular attention to the practice of ‘saturation policing’ of migrant communities and the tinderbox that such control creates.

The way that the history of race and migrant communities push at the way we have historically constructed the nation is queried in Paul Gilroy’s 1990 piece, originally part of a workshop on history, the nation and the schools on ‘Race, nation and ethnic absolutism’. Though it focuses more on race and transnational history than migration, I’ve included it here, because his comments presage a much bigger shift in the historiography in which the history of migration has played as important a role as the history of globalization: ‘it seems worthwhile to consider the possibility that the borders of the nation may represent a rather arbitrary point at which to pause in our efforts to comprehend the past’, he writes. Gilroy’s piece also speaks to anxieties, alive in the late 1980s certainly, but positively aflame today, that are a direct product of perceived crises of migration: he identifies a trend of ethnic absolutism and national history as a retreat to a pre-globalized past, a history where Britain was homogenous and white, non-mobile, and impermeable. Such a history, of course, never existed. ‘This proposal would involve re-writing British history to the point at which it ceases to be recognizably British at all,’ Gilroy wrote in 1990. Much excellent work has been done on this dramatic rewriting in the ensuing decades.

The problems of migration within a nation are the subject of Kathleen Weiler’s exploration of the child migrants to California and the education of these children during the Great Depression in ‘Schooling Migrant Children: California, 1920-1940’. These migrant children were seen as a source of cheap, itinerant farm labour as much if not more than as future national citizens, and Weiler’s article illuminates the grinding poverty and shocking regional, racial, and class inequalities at play with this migration. Weiler’s careful examination of the complex history of not just the well-known ‘dustbowl’ white migrants, but also Mexican migrants, and the problem of what to do with their children, is painfully resonant to read in the very same month that I have watched children wrested from their parents by immigration officials and incarcerated, after attempting to claim asylum at the United States’ southern border. The State, argues Weiler, can be a site of oppression and injustice but, as she reveals in the story of very real local efforts to improve the lives of poor migrant children in 1930s California, it also has the capacity for compassion and care.

By the 1990s, and the dawn of a new cultural history, many scholars had grown interested in the way that the colonial subject was constructed by the colonizer. This was part of a larger postcolonial historiography that revealed relationships of ‘otherness’ and ideas about belonging that would shape migration and migration policy for the next two centuries. Antoinette Burton’s seminal article, ‘Making a Spectacle of Empire: Indian Travellers in Fin-de-Siècle London’, explores this process from its crucial other side. Here, she examines Indian travellers to the metropole of London in the late nineteenth century, arguing that as travellers and migrants from colony to metropole, they did not just return the gaze, but reconfigured and repurposed the culture of the colonizer.

Mary Chamberlain’s article, ‘Gender and the Narratives of Migration’, exploring the history of Caribbean families that had been migrating for (at least) four generations, also challenges the prevailing historiography of the time. Pushing against the idea that the waves of post-war emigration from the Caribbean were an ‘aberrant’ event, she argues, following Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, that Caribbeans had long had a ‘migratory ethos and a corresponding internationalism’. Her analysis of the interviews she did with eighty-five Barbadian and Barbadian-descended migrants focuses especially on gender, making this intervention, first published in 1997, one of only a few pieces of scholarship at that time that explored the gendered history of migration. What Chamberlain discovers – internationalism from below, a deterritorialization of culture, and strategies to build and maintaining transnational, transgenerational families – can serve as a meaningful history for any global citizen of the present.

Alan Cobley focuses on an earlier and different kind of Caribbean internationalism in ‘Black West Indian Seamen in the British Merchant Marine in the Mid Nineteenth Century’, in which he examines the lives of black merchant seamen in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. In this shorter source-based piece, we can see the way that migrant labourers organized themselves, turning the very ships and shipping routes that had been central to their enslavement into new economic and social opportunities. Cobley’s use of the shipping and merchant marine records to uncover the lives of these incredibly mobile men signals how central such records have become in migration research and how much they have still to reveal, particularly now that they are being digitized.

Marilyn Lake’s ‘The White Man under Siege: New Histories of Race in the Nineteenth Century and the Advent of White Australia’ examines the complex intellectual history of race in the late nineteenth century and the way that it fed directly into immigration law. Racial theorists, turning to a version of migrant history themselves, constructed a world in which the ‘white man’ was ‘under siege’ by races that, far from being ‘inferior’, threatened supremacy by their sheer numbers and their perceived ability to live in the tropics. These anxious ideas about race underwrote understandings of the white commonwealth, particularly in New Zealand and Australia, those extensions of Britain that just happened to be south of Asia. Reading Lake’s transnational exploration of the making of Australia as a ‘white man’s country’ provides a meaningful way to reflect on the far-right anti-immigrant discourse and white supremacism we are witnessing in key sites around the world today. These narratives again repurpose the idea of white men ‘under siege’ to push for new forms of migration restriction and ethnic exclusion.

Ideas about race and migration shaped white men’s world orders, but they also constructed localities. John Seed’s ‘Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-40’ explores the imaginative construction of London’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century, in its original home near the East End docklands. Seed explores the depiction of Limehouse in literature as an alluring, foggy world by the river, where the ordinary Briton could be a traveller in his own city. These texts created powerful cultural tropes of Asian ‘otherness’ and positioned London’s Chinatown as a ‘potent and flexible signifier’ as the city reimagined itself as a cosmopolitan space.

In ‘Border Crossing: My Imperial Routes’, Maya Jasanoff reflects upon her own cosmopolitan. Originally published as part of the feature ‘History on the Line’, this short piece explores her family’s Indian and Eastern European roots and routes: their physical travels and their journeys through western intellectual culture. Her family appears here as an accidental cipher for the twentieth century’s changes and upheavals: Hitler, decolonization, the Suez Crisis, the Iron Curtain. Throughout, Jasanoff reflects on how her own work as an academic was shaped by a long history of border-crossing.

Family histories also feature in Deirdre Keenan’s juxtaposition of the stories of migration of her own Irish ancestors and the Anishanaabeg people who had been displaced by their settlement and the still-to-be-reckoned histories of European immigration to North America and its consequences for indigenous peoples. In ‘Stories of Migration: The Anishinaabeg and Irish Immigrants in the Great Lakes Region’, Keenan shows how these migrant histories are woven together through hardships endured. Her analysis asserts a difficult truth: ‘Our migration stories reveal the history of racism at the heart of American culture, as European settlers, often fleeing oppression themselves, participated in the oppression of American Indians.’ These stories also reveal the tensions between the western historicist way of documenting past migration and the Ashinaabegs’ insistence on mythic and oral histories. Juxtaposed within this article are the documents that ‘recast the migrations of Europeans as “the march of civilization”’, and the resilient indigenous cultures that still contest this way of seeing history in the present day.

Meanwhile, in Europe itself, people were on the move in ways not always in step with concepts of modern ‘civilization’. As Illaria Serra shows in ‘On Men and Bears: a Forgotten Migration in Nineteenth-Century Italy’, the curious itinerancy of animals and their human masters helped shape the borderlands, rural spaces, and urban landscapes of modern Europe. Serra points to a largely forgotten migration that is also an important example of a much wider practice of seasonal labour, itinerancy, and mobility in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The remembrance and representation of these almost mythical migrants and their uncanny animals challenge ideas about what modern mobility looks like.

Migration out of, rather than around, Europe has long had the most prominent place in the historiography of migration. Interestingly, these histories of settler colonialism and British emigration are underrepresented in the pages of HWJ. John Tosh reopens some of these debates in his article ‘Jeremiah Goldswain’s Farewell: Family and Fortune in Early Nineteenth-century English Emigration’. Goldswain was a particularly verbose assisted emigré to South Africa in the early nineteenth century, and Tosh seeks to understand more about their personal commitment to emigration. For these white male settlers emigration was a path to self-improvement: a way to build a family, to find fortune, and to be a man. Goldswain’s motivations echo down the centuries and could be meaningfully compared to the narratives of male migrants coming to, rather than leaving, Europe in the present day.

The idea of family and migration is recast in Ruth Balint’s examination of refugees in Europe in the immediate postwar period. In ‘Children Left Behind: Family, Refugees and Immigration in Postwar Europe’, Balint examines what she calls ‘the tragic dilemma’ faced by parents of disabled children under displaced persons resettlement schemes, whose applications were denied and who were forced either to stay with their children and face a very uncertain future, or leave their children thousands of miles behind them and permanently emigrate. Balint argues that this history ‘forces us to re-evaluate the project of family restoration that stood at the centre of western humanitarian efforts to revive the shattered societies of defeated Europe’. Such histories have acquired new and painful urgency today, as families are routinely separated by the labyrinthine and Kafkaesque policies of modern immigration regimes. Amidst the ongoing human rights crisis in the United States, where family separation (including of very young and vulnerable children) is being explicitly used as a tactic to discourage and punish migrants, this article is heartbreakingly important history.

The Virtual Special Issue ends with Becky Taylor’s very recent examination of the policies and attitudes that arose in response to the influx of Ugandan Asians to Britain in the 1970s, fleeing Idi Amin’s regime. In ‘Good Citizens?: Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and “Race” Relations in 1970s Britain’, Taylor contributes to a relatively new historiography on the reception of refugees in host societies, and in so doing probes questions of what was seen to constitute a good citizen. She discovered that Britons were ‘sharply divided’ over how the good British citizen was meant to behave toward migrants. Taylor’s analysis can help us to understand similar debates fifty years on as Britain encounters new waves of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrant people. We now live in a political moment where migration has become, I would argue, the most significant political issue through which citizenship and national sovereignty is discussed and understood. Its history has never been more important.


The Virtual Special Issue includes free access to all of the articles below. 

Jennifer DavisFrom 'Rookeries' to 'Communities': Race, Poverty and Policing in London, 1850-198527 (1989)
Paul GilroyNationalism, History and Ethnic Absolutism30 (1990)
Kathleen WeilerSchooling Migrant Children: California, 1920-194037 (1994)
Antoinette BurtonLondon and Paris through Indian Spectacles. Making a Spectacle of Empire: Indian Travellers in Fin-de-Siecle London42 (1996)
Mary ChamberlainGender and the Narratives of Migration43 (1997)
Alan CobleyBlack West Indian Seamen in the British Merchant Marine in the Mid Nineteenth Century58 (2004)
Marilyn LakeThe White Man under Siege: New Histories of Race in the Nineteenth Century and the Advent of White Australia58 (2004)
John SeedLimehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-4062 (2006)
Maya JasanoffBorder-Crossing: My Imperial Routes64 (2007)
Deirdre KeenanStories of Migration: The Anishinaabeg and Irish Immigrants in the Great Lakes Region64 (2007)
Ilaria SerraOn Men and Bears: a Forgotten Migration in Nineteenth-Century Italy76 (2013)
John ToshJeremiah Goldswain’s Farewell: Family and Fortune in Early Nineteenth-century English Emigration77 (2014)
Ruth BalintChildren Left Behind: Family, Refugees and Immigration in Postwar Europe82 (2016)
Becky TaylorGood Citizens?: Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and 'Race' Relations in 1970s Britain85 (2018)

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