This may sound like a strange question, but hear me out.

The 19th century was an age of massive population migration, perhaps the most significant in history according to this economic history course. Large numbers of Europeans (British, German, Scots, Irish) emigrated to overseas colonies, often despite very hostile conditions. Many Asians also pulled up roots and moved vast distances, despite the efforts of white governments to keep them out. For example, the British transported 3.5 million Indian indentured laborers to colonies across the world, Chinese immigration played a role in both the California and Australian gold rushes. But despite colonial entanglements all over the world, few Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans appear to have reached Western Europe.


Europe then was an obvious source of wealth and innovation, and regularly hungry for cheaper labor. And yet there was very little nonwhite immigration there, prior to 1945. There were slaves before abolition, some Chinese communities that never rose over a few thousand, and small groups of students from various colonies. Ironically, large scale immigration to Western Europe appears to have only begun after WWII and the end of the colonial empires.

> Why was there little nonwhite immigration of to Western Europe before the postwar era? And are there any examples of larger-scale immigration being explicitly considered or rejected?

I half-expect the answer will boil down to racist paranoia, white workers not wanting competition, and the difficulty of surmounting linguistic and cultural barriers. But, at the same time, that wasn't enough in the U.S. or Australia, and it didn't stop the Irish, Poles, or Jews. Regardless, thanks for your time.

(I'd like to add that this question has zero political motivation. I'm an American reading about British, and west European, imperialism in the 19th century, and the question just struck me.)

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    I'm not so sure about the "hungry for cheap labor" bit; if anything, my impression was that overpopulation and land pressure were a real concern in 19th-century Europe. Note from these figures, for example, that the population of Europe more than doubled from 1820–1913, while none of the other regions in the Old World grew by more than 60–70% in that same span. Aug 24, 2017 at 20:44
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    This is actually an extensively researched question by Economic Historians, simply because Industrial Age was a large part about getting necessary labour force. There is so much data out there that I don't know where to start. Perhaps, this 2015 Project-Syndicate article by Joschka Fischer, ex-Foreign Minister of Germany, might get you started.
    – J Asia
    Aug 24, 2017 at 20:59
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    I highly doubt the accuracy of asses ent. Europe was the continent with millions of starving people, from everyone tried to get away for a better life. Why do you think it was an attractive place to immigrate?
    – Greg
    Aug 24, 2017 at 21:10
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    I doubt many emigrated to work in a factory. Land was the greatest attraction. And the United States offered Homesteading. Farms required large families for a good return. If split among all the sons the individual holdings were too small and got smaller with each generation. Primo geniture left all but the oldest without land. Free land was an attraction unmatched by Europe. As simple as that for most immigrants. But also as the agricultural economy grew it spawned local support businesses and, on a brooded level, drove railroad and other industries that also needed more hands.
    – TomO
    Aug 24, 2017 at 22:09
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    Labor was much more expensive in the New World than the Old World in the 19th century primarily due to the ease of acquiring land. In the Old World you had a large class of terribly poor people with little options to mine for cheap labor. This just did not exist in the New World, hence both the drive for a slave economy and the massive immigration. It would be terribly stupid for a poor person to choose Britain over the United States as a place to immigrate to.
    – user15620
    Aug 24, 2017 at 22:44

1 Answer 1


Because people from "third world" countries had limited access to "first world" countries until recently (about 1950).

The century from about 1850-1950 was the period of European colonialism or imperialism. Basically, the Europeans set the rules. They could go anywhere in the world where the gunboats would take them, and refuse entry to their countries to people from other parts of the world. So Europeans invaded other countries in Africa and Asia for colonization purposes. But only a few wealthy people from these countries were allowed into Europe, mainly to be trained as "subordinate" rulers at say, Oxford or the Sorbonne.

Another thing was that while there were fairly large migrations of people, including non-Europeans in the 19th century, they were made under the auspices of large organizations, not individually. So while there were procurers of e.g. Chinese laborers for the American railroads in the 1860s and 1870s, they were discouraged from continuing in the 1880s by the American authorities.

Former British colonies like America, Canada or Australia were white immigration countries. America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and concluded a "Gentleman's agreement with Japan to restrict Asian immigration. Granted, these measures were "extreme" by European standards, but they illustrate how unwelcome most non-Europeans would have been in European countries.

Finally, communication and transportation was very different a century ago than today. There was no TV, radio or movies that would encourage non-Europeans to emigrate. There was no civilian air travel. The global literacy rate didn't rise above 50% until the 1950s, and was much lower than that in non-European countries. Most people lived on farms and couldn't get to the largest city in their country, let alone travel abroad. There were cruise ships, but only the wealthy enjoyed "first class" accommodations that are commonplace today. Poor people rode ships "steerage" class, next to the cargo, and were treated as such; last in line for food, accommodations, lifeboats, or other amenities.

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    The global literacy rate didn't fall below 50% until the 1950s -- did you mean "rise above"? or "the global illiteracy rate"?
    – tonysdg
    Aug 25, 2017 at 9:48

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