The history of humanity is one of permanent mobility. Some of its movements remain obscure. The types of mobility were varied—voluntary or forced—with different spatial and time scales, and with a greater or lesser capacity to transform societies and regions. But all of them demote the myths of purity in the face of the evidence of mixed-race humanity.

The gradual division of the world’s territory into nation-states and the great narratives that it spawned have masked that part of human history which involved permanent movement over very long distances. The development of interdisciplinary research (archaeology, anthropology, geohistory, climatology, genetics, and biology) and of scientific tools (genome dating and sequencing) have enabled us to refine hypotheses and start to draw a picture of human movement in the past. Whether migrations were voluntary or forced, small- or large-scale, over extremely variable distances, sudden or gradual, involving profound technical, geographical, and social changes or simply hybridization through contact, there is a wide variety of configurations, many of them waiting to be discovered.

From Antiquity onward, the world of geographical spaces that were roughly divided became better known. They were crisscrossed by sea and land routes and punctuated by network hubs that were trading posts and market towns. Humans moved around conveying merchandise (salt, spices, silks, gold, ivory, amber, furs, and porcelain), as well as immaterial goods (knowledge, skills, and social practices), languages, and religions, which constantly sustained hybridization, the mixing of races and cultures. Depending on the country and period, this migratory heritage has been more or less valued or concealed in the construction of national identity, as is shown by its place in research programs, its inclusion in the national narrative and its portrayal in sites of history and memory.

Slave trade

For more than thirteen centuries, forced migrations of extreme violence drained the lifeblood of Africa. From the seventh to the twentieth century, the Eastern slave trade, controlled by Muslim slave traders, is thought to have deported 17 million African slaves to North Africa and the Middle-East.

Western and Eastern slave trades, 7th-19th centuries

Sources: compiled from Oliv ier Pétré-Grenouilleau, La Traite des Noirs, Paris, PUF, coll. “Qu e sais-je ? ”, 199 8; L’Argent de la traite . Milieu négrier, capitalisme et dé veloppe ment : un modèle, Paris , Aubier Histoires, 1998; Bernard Lugan, Atlas historique de l’Afrique, des origines à nos jours, P aris, Éditions du Rocher, 2001; L’His toire, “L a vérité sur l’esclavage”, numéro spécial, oc tobre 2003; L’Histoire, 126, oc tobre 1989; C atherine Coquer y-Vidrovitch, L’Afrique et les Africains au XIXe siècle . Mutations, révolut ions , crises, Paris, Armand Colin, 19 99; Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Histoire de l’Afrique noire, d’hier à demain, Paris , Hatier, 1994; Jean Sellier, Ber trand de Brun et Anne Le Fur, Atlas des peuples d’Amérique, Paris, La Découverte, 2005; Hubert Deschamps, Histoire de la traite des Noirs, de l’Antiquité à nos jours, Paris , Fayard, 1972.

Comment: The map is based on many sources and summarizes the forcible displacement of Africans who were reduced to slavery over a long period. Both the Atlantic trade toward the Americas (which was intense for three centuries, and better studied and understood) and the Eastern trade (toward the Maghreb and the Middle East, of much longer duration but less well known) are shown on this map: the way the network of ports was organized, the main capture zones and the areas of destination. However, neither the numbers of slaves nor the way they evolved over time are represented.

The Atlantic slave trade, organized by European slave traders, deported 12 million men and, to a lesser extent, women to the Americas between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to these two slave trades there was substantial trading within Africa itself.

The Eastern slave trade has been much less researched than the trade triangle (due to sparse records and the absence of an abolitionist movement), but it played an important role in the mining of valuable products (salt and gold) as well as in plantation agriculture and irrigation works. The Spanish and Portuguese colonial slave trade in the Americas was organized to import labor to meet the considerable needs of producing and marketing commodities demanded by Europeans (wood, sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, silver, and gold). The large number of records show how it was organized, the roles of the different actors (shipowners, merchants, planters, countries – Portugal, Spain, England, France), and the substantial part it played in the enrichment of Europe. Brazil, the West Indies and the southern United States bear the marks of this heritage in their social, spatial and cultural structure, with its mix of races, segregation, and Creolization.

During the second half of the nineteenth century and until 1914, Europe experienced strong demographic growth, great poverty, economic crises, famines (1846-1848 in Ireland), political crises and outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in Central Europe and Russia.

Great transatlantic migration, late 19th-early 20th century 

Source: authors’ compilation.

Comment: Based on a compilation from several sources, the map examines one of the great global migrations. Between the late 19th century and the early 20th, millions of Europeans from different countries migrated to the Americas. The size of the arrows shows the relative importance of the countries of origin. The primary destination was the United States, whose point of entry was Ellis Island, but migrants to southern Brazil and northern Argentina were also numerous. The diagram shows what proportion of the population they occupied in the host countries, which varied considerably.

Over 60 million Europeans in total emigrated, the majority to the Americas, drawn by incentives on the part of states with manpower shortages. Other enticements were lower transport times and costs, hopes of Eldorado, and the myth of the self-made man.

The federal state organized and controlled arrivals from the immigration center on Ellis Island in New York. Here, candidates were sorted, examined, interrogated and registered (the public database shows 51 million) then sent to urban and rural jobs all over the country (1 to 2% were refused entry).

Europe, land of immigration

The reconstruction of Europe, which had been devastated by war, was followed by growth during the Trente Glorieuses, giving rise to an urgent appeal for foreign labor. In France, admission of “good immigration elements” was decreed by the 1945 ordinances and by the National Immigration Office, which recruited and checked individuals, contracts, and onward progress of immigrants toward their destination. The complexity of these rigid procedures led to employers recruiting directly, especially Muslims from Algeria (who were full French nationals, with freedom of movement after 1947), but from the start of the Algerian war (1954), recruitment was redirected toward Spain and Portugal. Enormous numbers of immigrant workers, without any job security, were assimilated into relatively fluid communities but not into society at large. It was they who bore the brunt of industrial growth, doing the most badly paid jobs in mines, the metallurgical, chemical, and automobile industries, and the building trade, and living at the mercy of slum landlords in furnished rooms and shantytowns, then in worker hostels and housing projects. By 1973, there were 3 million foreigners in France and 2.8 in the German Federal Republic, while the United Kingdom had 1.6 million people of color, but the oil crisis and the economic crisis marked the end of the free flow of workers.

Migrations to France, 1931-2012

Sources: Census population, 1931, Statistiques générales de France; Census population, 1975 and 2012, INSEE ,

Comment: This set of maps was drawn up by going through censuses of the French population (during the colonial period and after independence of the countries involved). It shows precisely how migrants’ places of origin gradually changed: first they were European, then they came from the ex-empire and finally from all over the world. The size of the dots is of the same scale on all three maps, enabling a comparison over time; they also reveal the numerical importance of each nationality.

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