The Significance of Mass Migration, and How to Better Talk about it, pp. 7 of 10

Similarly, the discussion of the opening of the Suez Canal, while definitely relevant to the growth of Singapore as a major colony, since the time required for trade between East and West was reduced considerably, was also problematic. How does the opening of a canal 5,000 miles away from Singapore prompted the movement of peoples from China, India, and the rest of the Malay Archipelago to Singapore, especially when none of their journeys required the crossing of the Suez Canal?

More importantly, mass migration to Singapore had already started even before the opening of the Suez Canal, and the abolition of slavery. Between the founding of Singapore and the abolition of slavery, Singapore’s population went from an estimated 500-1,000 to around 25,000. Singapore’s population crossed the 100,000 people mark before 1868, and arrived at 300,000 by the 1880s, earning her the moniker “the spirited little colony” in her early years.[xiv] The movement of people to Australia and North America from Europe also started before the opening of the Suez Canal, and the development of the steamship. In fact, the settlement of North America was so successful that the territory acquired the critical mass to sustain the 1776 American Revolution, and the War of 1812 even before any dramatic advances in transportation technology.[xv] The opening of the Suez Canal, was a symptom, not a cause of the intensification of this global world.

The abolition of slavery, intensification of trade and the industrial revolution, and the opening of the Suez Canal were all part of a greater series of global developments that tied the fates of a textile worker in Lincolnshire to the fate of a plantation worker in Malaya. It linked the fate of a banker in the City of London to that of an Indian domestic servant in colonial Singapore. The true driver of this global movement of people, is therefore, not these surface developments, but the fundamental restructuring of the global economy in the 19th century under the aegis of the British Empire.

Therefore, we should not shy away from talking about the true causes of this global movement of people when discussing mass migration during the 19th century. While the use of a factors-based approach would be immediately familiar and easy for students to understand, this is an issue that does not warrant a factors-based explanation, especially if the factors are mere symptoms rather than the true cause of the global migration of the 19th century.

Rather, this issue should be approached with a singular narrative. One where the world system was dramatically changing due to massive disruptions in the manner people organised themselves. It was in the early 19th century where the British led the charge towards a new way of organising the political-economy of a territory. The abolition of slavery was in effect the implementation of wage labour, and with that ‘great experiment’ (as abolitionists called it) came in to practice.[xvi] Accompanying that was the adoption of the 19th century liberal ideas of free trade, and the abandonment of mercantilism, which led to the opening of new markets and the development of new business potential all around the world - even before the dawn of the industrial revolution in the mid-Victorian period.[xvii] These two fundamental intellectual changes reformatted the world economy, and it caused a massive displacement of people to fit new jobs in new areas.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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