'Hordes': The origin story

Hi all,  

Welcome to le deuxième edition!

Today, I'm going to do Migration: A World History, by Michael H. Fisher, which is a book I borrowed from my local library and, because I'm a delinquent, haven’t yet returned. [grimace emoji] 

I chose it because a) it was accessible and b) it was an easy enough read — a good book to skim through for a quick but expansive view of migration. What I struggled with, however, was figuring out how much of the nitty-gritty historical information to include here.

Fisher, a history professor at Oberlin College, packs a lot in there! So to keep it short and spicy, I’ve decided to break the book down into two newsletter installments. In this one, I’m going to distill some anecdotes/insights from the first three chapters: 

The gist:

Fisher demonstrates in the book that migration is a quintessential human phenomenon. He writes in the introduction: 

We are all the descendants of migrants and we virtually all migrate during the course of our own lives. From the origin of our Homo sapiens species in about 200,000 BCE until today, we have expanded our range over the entire planet. We have emigrated to seek new opportunities, often driven out by deteriorating social or physical environments. As the earth’s climate has changed and our societies have developed, migration has enabled us to better our lives and those of our children. 

Fisher establishes migration not just as a collective action underpinning significant historical turning points, but also as an individual act of agency or response to constraints. From the earliest human nomads who moved to hunt and forage to modern migrants driven from city to city in search of work (See: Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century), migration underpins both our "History" and our small “h” histories. Some people migrate their entire lives in search of safety, livelihood, community, or power. But “each of us migrates to at least some degree,” Fisher writes. 

Highlighted highlights:

Chapter 1: Earliest Human Migrations, ca. 200,000 BCE to ca. 600 CE 

This chapter traces the history of migration as our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, formed nomadic clans, settled into farming communities, and coalesced further into cities and kingdoms. 

As empires grew and expanded, trade flourished, new religions bloomed; communities and cultures spread out. While people today migrate for a host of reasons, migrant networks are built in a similar manner: People spread, create pathways, and put down roots. Others from their communities then follow: 

During the period circa 1050 to circa 600 BCE, Greek-language speakers gradually scattered like seeds across the islands and lands of the eastern Mediterranean and west Asia, describing this process as diaspora, meaning “sowed or dispersed over.” After a community begins to identify strongly with a geographical region as its sacred homeland, it experiences a collective sense of loss and hope of future return when forced to emigrate. Even if people voluntarily emigrate, they may still continue to identify strongly with the land they left behind.

The second thing that struck me was an anecdote about Attila the Hun and his conquests in the Western Roman Empire: 

“Such predatory migration were most powerful when mobilized by a charismatic leader who brought diverse people together to form an awe-inspiring horde (originally meaning in many Central Asian languages, “royal encampment”). 

“The cultural impact of these predatory migrations persist; their names still seem threatening in English today: goths, vandals, Attila, Hun.” 

Reading this, I thought of the way “the caravan” of migrants from Central America was characterized last year. The use of words like “horde” — or “flood,” “swamp,” or “swarm” — connoted the magnitude and violent nature of that migration, while also dehumanizing the participants. 

At the time, in an interview with Public Radio International, Professor Gregory Lee at the University of Lyon called the use of such descriptors “inundation metaphors,” which create images of being overrun or invaded. We now know it goes back to, apparently, Attila the Hun. 

Chapter 3: Migrations Start to Connect the World, 1450 to 1750 

In some cases, cultures have coalesced around the act of moving itself.

The Roma people, whose origins and language traces back to Western India, were able to migrate all the way across the world. They continue their nomadic lifestyle today, but are “a distinctive minority, often marginalized by the surrounding society” to which they have migrated, Fisher writes.

Then there is the forced migration of enslaved people to South Asia during this time. The trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slavery routes had long existed, Fisher writes; forcibly sending roughly 14 million Africans to Asia — more in number then those that would cross the Atlantic. Both systems were brutal (and Fisher goes into more detail about the brutality of Transatlantic slavery in the following chapters), but they also exhibited key differences:

Slaves in the Atlantic world usually were legal property, with few rights. In contrast, slaves in North Africa and Asia had some legal and customary rights, were often respected for their individual skills, and had the possibility of rising to power.

Fisher gives the example of one individual, named Chapu (16th to 17th century), who was born in the Ethiopian highlands — a region that apparently Christian Ethiopians from nearby kingdoms and Muslim Arabs liked to frequent in search of people to sell into slavery. Chapu was sold multiple times and ended up in the Ahmadnagar Sultanate of India. His master, also formerly enslaved, trained him in military arts and converted him to Islam. 

Chapu, who changed his name to Malik Ambar, was eventually emancipated, and rose up the ranks of the aristocracy. He, like many other men of Ethiopian descent in the region, married an Indian woman, forming the origins of the “Siddi” (spelled different ways) community that still exists in Western India and Pakistan.

This, to me, seemed like an early type of the Exceptional Migrant Story™, which tends to romanticize one individual’s successful journey in what is generally arbitrary and oppressive system.

Today, members of the Siddi community in India, although citizens, are regularly discriminated against and othered, if not rendered entirely invisible.

Shorter things I’m reading: 

A young girl’s immigrant journey in “A line that birds cannot see.” (The New Yorker)

Coming up next:

The next edition will tackle highlights from the rest of this book. But here are some readings to look forward to in the future: 

  • The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae M. Ngai


If you have suggestions for books I should read, digest, and annotate here — including any that you might have written — add it in here! I may tackle it going forward. Once I have accumulated a critical mass of suggestions, I can also make the list public for easy reference. 

That’s it for now! 

Over and out.