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History – 1840s to 1939

From Europe to the 'New World'

Voluntary mass migration to the Americas did not take off until the middle of the 19th century following changes in agriculture in Europe. Many people were forced off the land before the industries in the towns were sufficiently developed to absorb them.

Between 1846 and 1890 around 17 million people left Europe for the New World. Of these the largest number of emigrants, 8 million, came from the British Isles. This was partly because Britain was one of the earliest countries to industrialize but also because large numbers left Ireland following the potato famine of 1845-47. The German territories also provided large numbers of migrants in this period — around 3.5 million, impelled by rural poverty and periodic crop failures.

But the peak of migration was around the turn of the century. Between 1891 and 1920, 27 million people left Europe, particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe. This represented a significant percentage of the population of the sending countries. The First World War marked the end of this mass migration. The flows did continue but at a rather lower level, blocked to a certain extent by new US immigration laws. The depression years in the US also dissuaded migrants. Then the Second World War effectively put a stop to migration.

Over the whole period 1846 to 1939, around 51 million people had left Europe. Their destinations were: United States (38 million); Canada (7 million); Argentina (7 million); Brazil (4.6 million); Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (2.5 million).

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Emigration commemoration in Ireland
Famine emigration commemoration, Cobh, Co. Cork, Ireland
Photo: Trishn