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Book Review


Michael H. Fisher, Migration: A World History. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xiii + 149. Chronology, Further Reading, Websites and Index. $19.95 (paper).


     In five balanced chapters and a concise 125 pages (not including five pages of notes, pp. 129-33) Michael Fisher covers over 200,000 years of human history. This is truly a thematic world history of migration, covering all continents as well as many oceans, seas and rivers. It is a slim volume that is eminently affordable, portable and readable, and yet it is packed with useful information for students and instructors alike.

     The treatment of migration is chronological, with chapter one covering 200,000 BCE to 600 CE, chapter two 600 to 1450 CE, chapter three 1450 to 1750, chapter four 1750 to 1914 and chapter five 1914 to the present. This means that thematic or problem-oriented coverage of topics such as technology, environment, colonialism, indenture or slavery is fragmented over two or more chapters rather than receiving in-depth discussion and analysis in one chapter or subsection. Nonetheless, the chronological approach easily allows for the assignment of the book as a supplementary reading in a world history survey, or for easy consultation by an instructor teaching such a course (selecting a chapter according to time period or using the index to locate and follow a person, place or theme across different time periods and locales).

     The question of audience and readership is an interesting one. Migration: A World History is part of Oxford University Press's New Oxford World History series that the Editors' Preface says will offer "readers an informed, lively, and up-to-date history of the world and its people that represents a significant change from the 'old' world history" (ix). The limitations and benefits of "old" and "new" world history are then discussed further, but I could not find any more detail about the book's or series' intended audience aside from a brief reference to a growing interest in world history in schools and among the general public (x). That being said, it is quite clear that Fisher's tome is aimed at informed general readers and undergraduate students. The language is lucid, straightforward and jargon-free, and endnotes have been kept to a minimum. There is no lengthy bibliography for specialists, but there are three useful pages containing "suggestions for further reading" and a two-page list of websites. Further sources can be found, of course, in the endnotes, which reveal a respectable assortment of secondary sources and published primary sources. As one might expect, Migrations is a succinct synthesis of existing scholarship (some of it by Fisher himself), and its novelty and usefulness lies in the fact that so much specialized local or regional information is woven into a comprehensive world perspective over a long timeline. Despite the book's brevity, there are still twenty good illustrations (drawings, prints and photographs, etc.) and eight maps. These are nicely spaced and, happily, they have been inserted at the most pertinent points of the book rather than being grouped together at an arbitrary point.

     One of the book's great strengths is that it presents readers with numerous life stories to give concrete and interesting examples of migration processes, something that will appeal to students whether the book is assigned as a course text or mined for lecture information and anecdotes by an instructor. Some, like Alexander "the Great" of Macedon, the Prophet Muhammad, Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Olauda Equiano or Ho Chi Minh can be found in most world history textbooks and would be familiar to many readers, but here these individuals are viewed through the lens of migration. Thus Fisher's coverage should reveal new details and insights for most readers. There are many other interesting individuals in the book too. In the preface, for example, we meet the Norse woman Gudrud "the Traveler", in chapter one "Ötzi the Iceman" from the late fourth millennium BCE, Chapu (Ambar) the Ethiopian slave in India (c. 1600 CE) in chapter three and Wang Cuiha of China's twenty-first-century "floating population" (between cities and villages) in chapter five.

     I found Fisher's concise life history of Harald Sigurdson c. 1050 CE (later King Harald III) to be very effective in illustrating the extent of Scandinavian migration between 800 and 1200 CE. During fifteen years of migration from Norway Harald resided in Novgorod before serving as a mercenary in the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Balkans for the Byzantines (where Scandinavians also comprised the Varangian imperial guard) (chapter two, pp. 37-41). As Fisher points out, migratory Scandinavians encircled Europe from west and east during this period, not to mention reaching North America. Chapter four, "National and International Migrations, 1750 to 1914", uses the example of Sake Dean Mahomed (based on Fisher's own research) to show how European colonialism not only caused substantial dislocation and involuntary movement, but also provided "intercontinental arenas for voluntary migration by the colonized" (p. 81). Dean Mahomed (c. 1759-1851) was a "serial emigrant" who marched across India with the East India Company's army before migrating to Ireland and England (London followed by Brighton), becoming a restaurateur and medical practitioner along the way (pp. 81-83). The Mahomed story also reinforces the conclusion of chapter three, which states that by 1750 "migration had become a global phenomenon as never before in world history" (p. 74).

     It is ironic that despite the increasing sedentariness of human societies since the agricultural transition started some 10,000 years ago, migration and movement have remained such constants of human history. However, Fisher's book also shows us how migration has changed over the centuries and millennia. In fact, Migration gives us an interesting world history lexicon of migration, though this deserves to be better incorporated into the index under "migration", and it would be useful to have a definition of migration in the preface. In chapter one (to 600 CE) Fisher uses terms such as "martial migration", "militant migration", "predatory migration" and "sacred migration" while also discussing "population pumps" that pushed people out of Central Asia and other places. Later, by 1600 CE, we encounter "secondary migrations" and "chain migration" as well as expulsions, deportations and bans as more (and bigger) states tried to regulate or control migrants. Regarding the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries (chapters three and four), Fisher writes about growing numbers of "sojourners" as well as voluntary or forced migration by first European then Asian "indentured emigrants". Finally, in looking at the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we see more modern terms such as citizenship, refugee, asylum-seeker, statelessness, internment, passports, registration papers and, ominously, acronyms such as IDP (internally displaced persons).

     At three points in the book Fisher claims that "migration history is at the core of world history" and that migration is "central to human identity" (pp. 2, 125, 137). The evidence he presents certainly proves his claims while also fulfilling the New Oxford World History series' promise to: provide comprehensive world history perspectives (including the experiences of "ordinary people") that explore interactions and connectedness over broad geographies and long timelines, and put local histories and stories in global context. That is quite an accomplishment in a mere 125 pages.

Carey A. Watt is a Professor of History (South Asia, World) at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Canada). He can be reached at


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