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History – 15th to 17th Centuries

From Mongol hordes to the slave trade

No nation on earth can claim always to have lived where it does now. Invasions of one tribe or colonizing power after another have swept across the continents, absorbing some nations and creating new ones.

Mongols, Vandals, ancient Romans, Crusaders, English merchant venturers, Afrikaners; these and countless others before and since have brought new cultures - and new workers - to different parts of the globe. Individuals too, have always wandered in search of fortune. Travel is a central part of the human experience.

Most migration today, however, is associated with the idea of an international labour market. Labour surpluses or shortages in some countries are offset by flows to, or from, other countries. In this sense the international migration of labour might be said to have started in earnest with slavery.

Portuguese sailors began to enslave Africans around 1442, transporting them back to Europe for use in their own households. But it was not until 1550 that the first slave ship sailed from Africa to the West Indies to meet the need for intensive field labour in the sugar and tobacco plantations of the Caribbean. Over the next couple of centuries the slavers are thought to have taken some 15 million people from Africa though many perished along the way.

The slave trade was one of the largest mass migrations of labour in human history. Today it is estimated that around 40 million people in the Americas and the Caribbean are descended from slaves. Even before slavery was abolished, however, it was being replaced by another form of servitude - indentured labour.

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This imagecomes from John Greenleaf Whittier's 1837 anti-slavery poem, "Our Countrymen in Chains."