TW Viewpoint | Britain and America's Shared History of Migration

January 16, 2019 | Kevin Gibson

The recent migrant crisis in Europe provides ample proof that warfare, starvation, and the pursuit of a better life drive migration. More than a million and a half refugees have traveled to Europe since 2014. The United States has been a beacon for migrants for almost 250 years. Migration is nothing new for the British and American peoples. Let's explore Britain and America's shared history of migration.


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"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" reads the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. American culture is sometimes described as a melting pot - an amalgam of many cultures that have come together in pursuit of a new ideal.

America's story is only a subset of a larger migrational saga. The English-speaking people were isolated on their island and among the poorest in Europe in 1600. Then, everything changed. It began with the establishment of the colony of Virginia in 1607 - and ended with British rule over a quarter of the earth's population. Some of the choicest territories on the planet were colonized along the way, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and most of North America. In 1776, the mainly British citizens of the thirteen American colonies rebelled, giving birth to the United States. By 1900, Britain and America together held sway over 1/3 of the earth's surface.

The history of the English-speaking people after AD 1600 is one of mass migration. More than 22 million people emigrated from Britain from 1815 to 1914. But as surprising as it sounds, the Britons themselves were products of migration going back millennia. Sporadic folk-movements to Britain were punctuated by major events like the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the great Viking raids and migrations of the 8th to the 13th centuries. They were following in the footsteps of the 5th century Germanic Angles, Saxon's, and Jutes, who came after the collapse of more than 400 years of Roman rule. Migration in Roman times was also widespread. Roman army units and their auxiliaries were drawn from all over the Roman Empire, many of which stayed in Britain after completing their 25 years of service. One of these men, a Syrian named Barates, erected a tombstone near Hadrian's Wall in northern England in memory of his British wife. But migration predates even the Romans. Phoenician metal merchants had been sailing to Britain from at least the 8th century BC, perhaps much earlier.

Ancient documents like the Historia Brittonum and the Lebor Gabala Erenn claim that the ancestors of the British and American people migrated from the Black Sea region. The Declaration of Abroath traces their journey specifically from Scythia, and it is easy to understand why. Scythia, 2,300 years ago, was a dangerous neighborhood filled with competing nomadic tribes. This alone may have prompted some to leave, but there were also large-scale invasions by both Persians and Sarmatians that leave little doubt that migration ensued. One of these campaigns is recorded on the Behistun Rock, still visible in western Iran. After crossing the River Danube, King Darius wrote that he "smote the Scythians exceedingly" before subduing the whole region. Eventually, the Scythians disappear from the historical landscape altogether. Professor Renate Rolle, of the University of Hamburg, writes: "[Scythian] history commences suddenly in the seventh century BC and ends just as abruptly, and for no apparent reason, about 300 BC".

Where did the Scythians go? Scythian culture was a horse-based warrior culture. Horses were revered and sacrificed to the gods. Scythian royal tombs, often constructed as timber chambers beneath large mounds of earth, have produced impressive grave goods including gold artwork, fine clothing, and even chariots. Many have also produced horses - sometimes "ridden" by sacrificed riders. Similar practices eventually appear in Europe. British Archaeologist Barry Cunliffe has discussed the similarities of the equine cultures of the Black Sea and the middle Danube region. Describing the early Celts of Austria, Dr. Cunliffe writes: "The beginning of what can be reasonably called the Iron Age in Europe is linked to the development of the Hallstatt Culture, characterized by the appearance of a horse-riding aristocracy using a long slashing sword and frequently burying their dead in timber-built tombs beneath barrows".

Horse and vehicle burials eventually spread westward throughout Europe. The cemeteries of the Arras culture in Yorkshire have produced horse and cart fittings closely related to those on the continent - material that has been interpreted as evidence for migration. Some artifacts, like the exquisitely decorated Gundestrup Cauldron, have travelled great distances. The cauldron was found in northern Denmark, but it was crafted in Thrace, a region straddling the lower Danube River. Recent research has also demonstrated connections between the artwork of the Celts and Scythians. Anthropologist Peter S. Wells: "Recent work in eastern Europe ... provides important evidence for understanding stylistic connections between western European, Celtic artistic traditions and those of the Eurasian steppes, including the Scythian animal style."

Many migrants travelled from the Black Sea region to western Europe, among them were the ancestors of the British and American people. Their story has been one of migration ever since. We began this segment by describing Americans as an amalgam of people stemming from almost 250 years of migration. But the English peoples as a whole are the product of migration reaching back more than 2,800 years!

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