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  February 20th, 2015 | Written by

People Patterns

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After Columbus came other Europeans. Since so many Europeans were, like people everywhere, short on land, resources and opportunities, the opening of two empty continents was an enormous draw. By 1800—when the United States had broken away from England and much of Latin America was about to break away from Spain—an unparalleled number of people had joined the adventure, creating new societies while greatly relieving population pressure in the Old World.

Oops! Scratch all that; it may be in your high school textbook, but it’s mostly wrong. In fact, the flow of Europeans to the New World before 1800 did not stand out, at least numerically. Somewhere between 1 million and 2 million Europeans came to the New World between 1500 and 1800; by contrast, more than 8 million Africans came via the slave trade. (The predominantly European population of North America resulted from very high birth rates—what Ben Franklin called “the American multiplication table”—while wretched conditions and an absence of females kept the African population down.) Indeed, slaves were needed in some parts of the New World precisely because not enough Europeans were willing to come for the sort of jobs that were being offered once the privileged and powerful had grabbed much of the best land and turned it into plantations. Much better examples of people moving vast distances to seek free land—and by far the largest voluntary migrations of the pre-steamship era—were occurring among the Chinese, who are often portrayed as people too tied to the soil of their ancestors to move.

Consider the numbers, or what we know of them. About 4 million Chinese moved to the Southwest frontier alone between 1500 and 1800, clearing previously uncultivated lands and pushing out the indigenous tribal peoples. More than 1 million people relocated (some voluntarily, some not) to Manchuria just in the mid-1600s; and though further migration to the area was banned in the 1700s, the amount of land found to be cultivated by Chinese in a 1779 survey suggests an influx of at least 1 million more. Other people crossed the straits to Taiwan, or headed for other frontier spots. One of the few things we know about migration to Sichuan—not a new frontier, but an area that again had open land after war and plague ravaged it in the mid-1600s—is that for about 200 years it was the most popular destination of all.

Why so many? It wasn’t that Chinese were any poorer or more desperate than their European contemporaries; on average they may even have been a little more fortunate than pre-industrial Westerners. And the lands they sought out were certainly no richer; nor were the hardships necessarily less than for those crossing the Atlantic.

In some cases, government policy provides an answer. Some of the migrants—perhaps 1 million of those going to the Southwest, for instance—were soldiers and their families, sent by the state to help shore up China’s hold on contested regions. Elsewhere, the frontier was one of re-settlement after depopulation, and the state often aided voluntary migrants: it provided free seed and breeding stock (for draft animals), helped with irrigation and flood control projects. Most basically, it guaranteed title to abandoned or newly cleared land, and frequently didn’t put such land on the tax rolls.

But on truly new frontiers, the state was often less accommodating, and even discouraging. Migration to Taiwan and Manchuria were banned for long periods, as the government sought to protect the indigenous peoples of these areas—or at least avoid the costs of putting down rebellions. In Manchuria, the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was protecting its own ancestral homeland, a place that nurtured the horsemanship and martial values that had made the Qing conquest of China. Moreover, the forests were the source of ginseng root—a lucrative royal trade monopoly. The soybeans and wheat the settlers would grow instead might have filled stomachs, but not the imperial treasury. (In the New World, by contrast, it was usually the colonists’ crops—sugar, tobacco, coffee, and so forth—that entered foreign trade on a large scale, generating government revenues far beyond what furs and skins could yield.)

Taiwan also had forest exports—the indigenous people sold deerskins and other forest products to the Dutch traders who arrived after 1600—and the Qing feared that too many farmers clearing the forests would create an explosive anti-Chinese alliance. So even once it became clear that the government couldn’t stop Chinese from settling Taiwan, the state worked hard to make sure the natives didn’t lose everything. They insisted, for instance, that Chinese farmers could not own the land they cleared; while they might gain permanent surface rights, and be allowed to sell, rent, or pass on those rights, those who had been there before still owned the subsoil, and thus could collect rent that might partly offset losses from the shrinking forest. And when convinced that settlers were pushing too hard and causing instability, the government was willing to arm and ally with native peoples to restore the status quo—hardly a likely scenario in the New World.

So why did so many more Chinese than Europeans pull up stakes? In part, no doubt, because migration offered them farms of their own almost immediately. In many European colonies, on the other hand, elites were allowed to gobble up all the land, so ordinary folk could only hope to gain land after surviving a period of indentured servitude. And in part because, contrary to most stereotypes, they started out less encumbered than most Europeans. Until the French Revolution, many Europeans were legally bound to a piece of land and/or a feudal master. Even those who had the right to leave often could not have sold their interest in the land to finance their passage. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of Chinese peasants were independent smallholders, or tenants whose relations with their landlords were based on contract, not legal subordination. In the economic sphere, they were simply freer than their European contemporaries—and that meant, among other things, freer to move. It was only once European peasants and artisans “caught up” in this regard—and once many of them lost their livelihood in the tumult of the nineteenth century—that they became equally footloose and sought out new lands on a scale that justified the immigrant legend that we have now read back into the first three centuries of New World colonization.

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