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Coerced and Free Migrations: Global Perspectives

Author(s):Eltis, David
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (December 2003)


David Eltis, editor, Coerced and Free Migrations: Global Perspectives. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. xii + 447 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-4454-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Raymond L. Cohn, Department of Economics, Illinois State University.

This book is a collection of eleven essays preceded by an introduction by the editor, who is Professor of History at Emory University. It is published as part of The Making of Modern Freedom series out of the Center for the History of Freedom at Washington University in St. Louis.

The dust jacket of the book describes it as “an innovative history of major worldwide population movements, free and forced, from around 1500 to the early twentieth century.” Though the book can be described as innovative and does consider free and forced population movements over the time period claimed, the implication that it considers all major population movements during this period is incorrect. For example, slavery is not the central focus of any of the chapters, though it is addressed in places. More to the point, the book completely ignores the movement of free immigrants from Europe to the United States between 1815 and 1914, the largest international population movement since 1500. Instead, the book is better described as having its focus on coerced population movements, with the authors generally addressing the degree of freedom under which migrants traveled and comparing the experiences of various groups of migrants in the host countries.

Though no formal division is provided, the eleven essays divide naturally into four major sections. The first three essays provide overviews. Eltis writes the first essay and explores why coerced migration accounted for 67 to 80 percent of total international migration between 1630 and 1830 (slightly updating some of his earlier work), even though free migration dominated before and after. Stanley Engerman’s chapter is an examination of government policy towards emigration, with a focus on changing government regulations. Philip Curtin then provides an overview of the mortality consequences of migration, essentially a short version of the material in his book, Death by Migration.

The next three essays examine immigration to colonial North America. Lorena Walsh discusses a variety of cultural and economic factors concerning European and African movements to the colonial Chesapeake, mainly describing the origins and interactions of the two groups and the secular trends in their arrival. Marianne Wokeck examines Irish and German migration to eighteenth-century North America, a subject she has addressed more extensively in Trade in Strangers. Finally, Mechal Sobel provides interesting case studies of thirteen immigrants to colonial North America, focusing on the differing degrees of coercion they encountered in moving to the New World and how their personal identities changed as a result of migrating.

The next set of three essays addresses other international migrant groups. David Northrup examines the adjustment of the French Caribbean to the end of slavery in 1848 and the area’s subsequent use of African and Asian contract labor. Walton Look Lai provides a direct contrast and comparison of Chinese and Indian contract labor after 1834. Colin Forster discusses the transportation of both British and French convicts, ranging from the shipment of the former to colonial North America and Australia to the shipment of the latter to New Caledonia and Guiana, a movement that lasted into the first half of the twentieth century.

The final two essays examine internal migration in Russia from the 1480s to 1914. Richard Hellie provides a broad overview of the expansion of Russia and the resulting internal migration up to the 1780s. David Moon’s chapter continues the story up to 1914. Though these chapters are interesting, their inclusion struck me as somewhat peculiar. All the other chapters focus on the host countries for the immigrants while these examine the source country. The discussions in these two chapters concern the implementation, changes in, and ultimate abolition of serfdom in Russia and provide a sharp contrast to the other chapters’ focus on what happened to those who had escaped such constraints by migrating internationally. These chapters would have a more logical connection to essays discussing the breakdown of migration constraints in Germany and other parts of Europe during the nineteenth century than to the other essays in this book.

The strength of this book is twofold. The first is its emphasis on comparative analysis, both among different coerced migrant groups and between coerced and free migrants. In particular, Look Lai’s chapter on contract labor, Forster’s chapter on convicts, and Walsh’s chapter on the colonial Chesapeake provide important comparisons between groups that I haven’t seen before. The second strength of the book is the breadth of groups considered. In spite of my comments above concerning the inclusion of the chapters on internal migration within Russia, it is an interesting idea to consider so many different migrant groups in one book. Thus, I would highly recommend the book to anyone wanting an introduction to historical research currently being done on international migration. The diversity of the topics also leads me to recommend the book to specialists in one area of international migration. As I was, you will be introduced to research in areas about which you have limited familiarity.


Curtin, Philip D., Death by Migration: Europe’s Encounter with the Tropical World in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Wokeck, Marianne S., Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Raymond L. Cohn is Professor of Economics at Illinois State University. He is the author of the “Immigration to the United States” entry for the EH.Net Encyclopedia.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII