6.6F: Environmental and Economic Causes of Migration

earth (1)

AP Theme

Humans and the Environment & Economics

Learning 6.6 F & G

Explain how various environmental factors contributed to the development of varied patterns of migration from 1750 to 1900.

Historical Development 1

Migration in many cases was influenced by changes in demographics in both industrialized and unindustrialized societies that presented challenges to existing patterns of living.

Historical Development 2

Because of new modes of transportation, migrants increasingly relocated to cities. This pattern contributed to the significant global urbanization of the 19th century.


The New Global Economy Encouraged Migration

The period 1750 to 1900 saw human migration at a scale unmatched in previous periods of human history. Migrations within regions and across continents were no longer journeys undertaken by explorers or trade profiteers but by regular people. There were many environmental push factors causing migration.

Environmental and economic push and pull factors encouraged migration

Environmental push factors

  • Regional food shortages and famines
  • Declining opportunity in rural areas

Environmental pull factors 

  • Abundant food supplies in environmentally stable regions
  • Urbanization

Economic push factors

  • Changing land use and ownership patterns pushed rural residents of traditional lands
  • Poor living conditions
  • Lack of jobs and economic opportunity

Economic pull factors

  • Urban areas with wage labor jobs in both colonies and independent nations
  • Cash crop agricultural plantations
  • Settler colonies with government-sponsored land grants for European settlers
  • Cash crop plantations, construction projects, or mines with wage and contract labor

New technologies made long-distance transportation easier

The industrial revolution resulted in several new technologies that brought down the cost of transportation within and across regions. 

Steam powered railroads 

Steamboats and steamships

Types of migration

The various economic and environmental push and pull factors resulted in various types of migration across varying distances. 

Rural to urban

Rural populations increasingly moved to urban areas in both industrial and colonized states. 

Industrialized rural to urban migration: Within industrialized rural residents migrated to cities to work as factory laborers or domestic servants. Others started businesses or gained access to training and education for service careers in government, banking, finance, medicine, or the law.

Colonial rural to urban migration: In colonized nations, displaced rural residents migrated to growing colonial capitals such as Lagos in British West Africa, Batavia in the Dutch West Indies, Calcutta in India, or British-controlled Singapore. They worked in various low-wage factories or service jobs. An educated elite of natives worked within the colonial bureaucracies or in higher-paying careers such as law or medicine. Native entrepreneurs also developed successful businesses with colonized nations. Tata Group began in 1868 in British-controlled Bombay, India, and has become one of the most successful companies globally with over US $100 billion in yearly revenue.

Migration within colonial economies

Colonial cash crop economies required large amounts of local labor. Labors either worked for low wages or in forced labor conditions. Workers were generally male and often lived in communal barracks near mines and plantations. These types of conditions were typical in South African mining operations.


Workers also migrated across long distances for employment. The British brought Chinese and Indians to work on British-owned plantations in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. Europeans also migrated to North America in search of better lives in urban factories or as settlers working in agriculture and cattle farming on government land grants during America’s westward expansion. Other Europeans migrated to South America, especially Argentina and Brazil.  

Settler migration

Europeans of varied classes migrated to settler colonies in Africa and Oceania. In the 19th century, the largest settler colonies were the British colonies of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia, and New Zealand. The northern coast of French Algeria also experienced significant French settlement. Migration into settler colonies was often permanent as settlers created families and established permanent roots within the colonies.  

Scientists and engineers: Many scientists and engineers from colonizing nations migrated to colonies to help colonial political and economic expansion. British engineers traveled to South Asia, Africa, and other British colonies, to build infrastructure like railways and government and commercial buildings. Geologists worked to help the government and private businesses identify the locations of natural resources and mineral wealth. In India’s Assam region, British geologists and petroleum engineers extracted oil to ensure Britain had access to the energy reserves necessary to maintain its empire across Asia and Oceania.  

Coerced and semi-coerced labor systems also resulted in migration

New global capitalist economies continued to rely on coerced and semi-coerced labor. These forced labor systems resulted in large numbers of migrants.


Slavery continued to be a common economic practice well into the late 29th century. The Atlantic slave trade ended by the middle of the 19th century. The American Civil War ended slavery in North America. Despite the end of the massive trans-Atlantic slave system, slavery and near-slavery continued for countless Africans and Asians globally. In the Congo, under the rule of Belgian King Leopold, colonial officials forced Congolese to collect rubber and physically brutalized them when they failed to meet their collection quota. Across the Americas, Africa, and Asia, workers migrated with promises of wage employment on plantations or mines. Often employers failed to pay and help workers in slave-like living conditions.

Indentured servitude

With the decline in slavery, plantations that produced traditional plantation crops like sugar recruited new laborers. Indentured labor from Asia (India, China, and Japan) filled most jobs. 

Significant locations of indentured labor migration included:

  • British colonies in the Caribbean and Fiji
  • The Dutch colonies in Guiana and Indonesia
  • Hawaii and the United States
  • Peru and Cuba

Convict labor

The British colony in Australia developed as a penal (prison) colony. The British government sent prisoners to complete periods of labor on infrastructure projects like roads and railways and for British settlers who moved to Australia. Prisoners came from England, Ireland, Scotland, and other British colonies. Most convict laborers worked for a specific period before earning their freedom.

Major 19th-century migrations

A variety of groups made up large portions of global migration during the 19th-century.

Chinese migration

Millions of Chinese migrated during the 19th century after the Qing Dynasty lifted restrictions on emigration. Like migrants from other locations, emigrants from China largely escaped poverty and insecurity as China became less stable in the 19th century due to war and rebellion. Early Chinese emigration had several distinct waves. Early Chinese immigrated to North America and Australia, working in agriculture, mining, and building railroads. As the Chinese population expanded in North America, New Zealand, and Australia, governments passed laws bringing an end to most Chinese immigration. In the 1870s, Singapore and the Malay peninsula became a significant destination for Chinese migrants who worked in mines on agricultural plantations and rickshaw pullers.

Indian migration

Indians have been migrating and establishing communities outside of South Asia for thousands of years. Traditionally Indians established merchant communities in the Indian Ocean trade region near Eastern Africa and Western and Southeast Asia. With direct British rule after the collapse of the Mughal Empire, Indians began expanding to new regions. Like other migrant communities in the 19th century, impoverished Indians largely migrated for economic opportunity. Many Indians left on indentured labor contracts. By 1878, Indians worked in Africa, the Caribbean, Oceania, and Southeast Asia. As large numbers of Indian peasants moved overseas, many low-skilled laborers and merchants also migrated to areas with large Indian diaspora communities to open businesses and trade goods needed by the Indian community.

Lebanese migration

Between the 1870s and 1930s, more than 330,000 Lebanese left Lebanon for the Americas. Many went to North America, while others went to Brazil and Argentina. Lebanese emigrants Bad crops between the 1870s and 1890s and the collapse of silk prices in the 1890s was the catalyst driving much of Lebanon’s emigration. Many Lebanese immigrants returned to Lebanon. For example, between 1887 and 1913, about 131,000 Lebanese moved to Argentina, with 83,000 returning to Lebanon in the same period.

Italian migration

By the 1870s, Italy had unified under a democratic monarchy. But the process that led to Italian unification had left the country devastated by conflict. Peasants in the poorer southern region of Italy had little opportunity or hope of improving their living situations. Additionally, in the 1870s, an epidemic of insects destroyed much of the Italian wine industry as they ate vineyard crops, leading to more unemployment and exacerbating the conditions of Italian peasants. In 1884, cholera swept through the portions of the Italian population. As transportation prices for transatlantic voyages fell, millions of Italians immigrated to North and South America. Italian immigrants worked in agriculture and factories. The vast majority of Italian immigrants never returned home. However, some immigrants did choose to return home,  especially in Argentina after the country’s economic collapse of the 19th century.

Irish migration

Ireland in the 1840s experienced two calamities. The first was the potato famine which resulted from a fungus that spread across Ireland’s potato crop. The potato had been a staple food crop in Ireland for centuries. As the fungus spread, it nearly wiped out all of Ireland’s potato crop, resulting in mass starvation. Ireland’s life expectancy halved to 19 years within just a few years. Second, Ireland was a British colony. Britain’s discriminatory economic and social colonial policies worsened Ireland’s suffering. Trade data shows that instead of keeping non-potato food produce in Ireland during the famine, food exports from Ireland increased. The poor, who could not just spend money on non-potato foods, suffered most. In the following decades, millions of Irish emigrated. Many Irish came to North America and settled in large cities along the eastern seaboard.