L. Tabili: Global Migrants, Local Culture

Global Migrants, Local Culture. Natives and Newcomers in Provincial England, 1841–1939

Tabili, Laura
Basingstoke 2011: Palgrave Macmillan
329 S.
€ 73,94
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Joanna Rostek, Universität Passau

Migration, an age-old phenomenon that remains highly topical in the twenty-first century, has been of interest to sociologists, economists, geographers, and historians, as well as to literary and cultural scholars. Laura Tabili’s study, although methodically clearly related to her academic affiliation (she is Associate Professor of Modern European History at the University of Arizona) can prove useful and insightful to all of these disciplines. The book calls for a new scholarly perspective with regard to migrants and reveals blank spots within the existing research on migration to Great Britain.

The study’s title Global Migrants, Local Culture, Natives and Newcomers in Provincial England, 1841–1939 aptly captures some of the premises of Tabili’s research. Firstly, her focus lies on South Shields, a middle-sized port town near Newcastle-upon-Tyne which, as Tabili illustrates in her first chapter, has been subject to economic upheavals and crises throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. South Shields’s size is vital for Tabili’s agenda: her study is meant to supplement existing research on migration to urban areas (such as London or Liverpool) with an analysis of provincial ‘margins’. The question remains, however, to what extent South Shields can be deemed representative of ‘provincial England’ as a whole, as the title would suggest. A port town, as Tabili herself readily admits, naturally attracts people from all over the world, including, of course, mariners, but also other craftsmen involved in the highly protean shipping industries. Whether the specific migrant experience of South Shields can be considered indicative of England’s inland provincial towns, is therefore up to debate.

Secondly, the author scrutinises a period spanning from the first household census in 1841 to the outbreak of the Second World War. This choice has at least two reasons, one methodological and one programmatic. On the level of methodology, Tabili’s focus on the period was certainly dictated by the fact that her research largely rests on the meticulous interpretation of South Shields censuses. And these were, simply, not available prior to 1841. Yet the programmatic dimension is just as important: as the author claims in her introduction, scholarly “[a]ttention is long overdue to the increasing numbers of overseas migrants who contributed to British society and culture in the century before 1945” (p. 6). Tabili argues that within the British context researchers of migration have tended to privilege the post-Windrush period, thereby obscuring the vibrant migrant history of earlier decades and centuries. Her book is an initial step towards redressing this deficit.

Thirdly, the study investigates into various interactions between ‘Natives and Newcomers’ in South Shields, yielding an overall uplifting picture of a functioning, peaceful, transcultural community. Tabili discusses numerous points of contact between migrants and locals. In her account, the two groups frequently lived side by side in the same household, intermarriages were common, and the town population did not cluster in migrant ghettos. The chapter on naturalization procedures (Ch. 5) reveals that within this formal process, migrants benefited from and relied on the active support of South Shields’s English community. Tabili hence repeatedly posits that native populations should be viewed in a more positive light: “local and provincial custom and culture appear more open and permeable than bounded and unitary, the British people more accommodating than intolerant and xenophobic” (p. 150).

Fourthly, the title evokes ‘Global Migrants, Local Culture’ without specifying the provenance of the migrants in question. This is no coincidence: Tabili expressly rejects the focus on a particular national, religious, or ethnic community and tries to capture the dynamics of the entire overseas migration to South Shields instead. She thus considers testimonies by German, Jewish, Scandinavian, East European, and ‘Arab’ newcomers. This is an ambitious, yet also a rewarding approach that might perhaps be related to a transcultural turn within social studies and the humanities. Instead of narrowing down migration to a bipolar process between a sending and a receiving society, Tabili argues for a much broader perspective. She consequently demands in her conclusion: “Rather than assuming friction between homogenous closed communities, scholars must ask instead what social ties or fissures, from kinship, class and gender to region, sexuality and occupation bound migrants with natives or divided migrant from migrant and native from native.” (p. 239) In this context, it is also to Tabili’s credit that despite the relative scarcity of historical records she manages to reconstruct the role of women as (mostly informal) gatekeepers into local society and culture. The examples enumerated in the study indicate that women – as wives, daughters, landladies, translators – were clearly involved in the various processes of acculturation and integration.

The juxtaposition of ‘global’ versus ‘local’ in the title gestures towards another premise of the book, namely the conviction that local social practices respond to economic and political macro-developments. Within the period in question Tabili retraces an obvious deterioration of newcomer-native relations, which leads her to ask: “What made the difference between inclusion in the nineteenth century and exclusion in the twentieth? Not factors endogenous to local relations, but the impact of geopolitics. Economic expansion and instability, nation building in Britain and elsewhere, imperial competition and decline, world war and global depression impinged on and transformed local cultures.” (p. 237) One is inclined to agree with Tabili’s valorisation of the global context. Yet her implicit opposition of a ‘good’ and tolerant local community on the one hand and ‘evil’ xenophobic supra-forces on the other at times strikes as too simplistic.

German readers may find some of Tabili’s findings particularly interesting. Not only does she draw attention to the sheer numerical strength of the German community in Britain in the nineteenth century. She also demonstrates that despite their relative affluence, “Germans formed the most close-knit [group], built around occupational, kin and confessional networks. They practiced distinct trades and maintained ties with their birthplaces, reflected in ongoing co-residence, marital endogamy and importation of relatives, apprentices and servants from the old country” (p. 78). This might be bad news for those overstating the case of ‘integrationsunwillige Ausländer’ in contemporary Germany: German émigrés, it seems, used to behave similarly to migrant groups that are nowadays criticised for their alleged cultural isolationism.

Equally compelling is Tabili’s account of the Germanophobia that emerged in Britain in the late nineteenth century and reached its peak during the First World War. The Lusitania riots, caused by the sinking of the eponymous British ship in 1915, led to assaults on citizens of South Shields with German origins, regardless of whether they were naturalised British subjects or not. Eventual measures against 'Germans' included the confiscation of property and the revocation of naturalisation certificates. Tabili shows that as the twentieth century progressed, other groups, including Jews and later Yemenis and Somalis, became the targets of state sanctions and increasing discrimination. These historical examples carry an obvious message for our times, as they illustrate that the stability of a peacefully co-existing multicultural community cannot be taken for granted, but must be actively sought and protected. It is one of the merits of Tabili’s study that despite focusing on a single coastal town in nineteenth- and twentieth-century England, it yields “lessons for industrial societies in the toils of what is currently styled globalization” (p. 240).

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