In the current climate, we are daily asked by our media to think about what is a migrant. I have had occasion in the past to write posts (for example here and here) alluding to the absurdly negative attitudes to people’s mobility which seem to prevail today amongst the political class.
Well. I am a migrant, and an economic one at that – from Canada to Switzerland to the UK. And a lot of migration in the family before then. Nothing exceptional there: according to some studies almost a quarter of academics in the UK are not from the UK, and some figures appear to place this as high as 40% for UCL, for example.
Migration is central to the history we’re trying to write of Dendi: kings from Gao, praise-singers from the Upper Niger, kola traders from Bornu, they all figure. Who knows – maybe your tin trader from Tripoli or your canoe-builder from the Niger Delta or your cowrie seller from Ari atoll. That’d be nice! Indeed, outsiders and immigrants are everywhere in the African past: rulers show off their foreign descent, traders migrate to new areas, potters and blacksmiths claim to be apart from society.
Migration is also absolutely central to archaeology generally speaking. 25 years ago it was argued that archaeologists were wrong to think that migration is a chaotic and poorly defined phenomenon (and thus a theme that just couldn’t be studied archaeologically). Rather, research in geography, social anthropology, demography, and statistics had shown that migration behaviour is governed by certain rules and therefore liable to be studied and predicted. With the exception of permanent migration, which appears to have in fact been quite rare historically (with some notable exceptions in our deep past), mobility seems to be organised around sustainable networks that can to some extent be predicted. Maybe it need not, therefore, seem so scary.