Homo migrans is as old as history and as recent as today. Over centuries, Europe has known numerous mass migrations. Religious persecution, political repression and civil war, or natural catastrophe drove people away from their place of birth. Migration is a constant in the march of humanity.
Persecution is the exclusion of religious or political dissidents from social participation. Victims are cut off from all professional and productive activity. Repression is the banishing of opponents from all spheres of intellectual or occupational involvement. Access to the labour market is blocked. Their position is reduced to a single option: move or starve. Civil war causes mass displacement. The choice is stark: run or perish. Natural disasters such as those that hit Europe in the 1850s (severe winters, crop diseases, and failed harvests) left farmers evicted from their land and labourers without work. Depart or die - hunger knows neither dogma nor homeland.
This project began as a file on artists from the Low Countries who had settled in London. During the years that I was employed as Curator of Dutch & Flemish Collections at the British Library, a number of queries on this specific topic came my way. Over time I widened the approach and included refugees and other immigrant professionals, adding details about place and duration of settlement, reasons for making the move, contribution to society, etc. This work tool was turned into a research plan after reading A.N. Wilson’s London: A Short History (2004). Written in nostalgic praise of a distant past, the book is a snap shot journey through the history of the capital from Chaucer to Livingstone. To the author, London represents the ‘moronisation’ of modern Britain. Because of immigration, the country has lost control over its own destiny. Its institutions are exploited by foreigners. The capital is overrun by immigrants and asylum seekers causing a rise in crime and a crippling of council resources. The overcrowding and multi-national fragmentation of the metropolis is set against the harmonious coherence of London at the epoch of Nicholas Hawksmoor, Charles Dickens, or Mary Lloyd.
Wilson’s image of the capital is a myth, an Anglo-centred museum piece, a static and wistful projection. The contribution made by immigrants to London’s cultural and socio-economic development has simply been ignored. Of the staggering number of painters and artists who crossed the Channel and played a crucial role in the progression of British art, only Rubens is mentioned (once in passing). Even Van Dyck is not acknowledged. The victimisation of immigrants is swept aside as well. In his description of the Peasants’ Revolt, Wilson proudly points to the action taken by the King, but does not refer to the xenophobic massacre of Flemish citizens living in the capital. His approach epitomises the streak of amnesia when it comes to acknowledging the physical, intellectual, and cultural contribution the stranger community has made to the wealth and well-being of the nation. Britain suffers from collective forgetfulness. Ever since its foundation, London has spoken in a variety of foreign accents.
Migration is a struggle, a challenge, and an aching pain. Linguistics illuminates what is emotionally hard to express. In 1945, German novelist Thomas Mann celebrated his seventieth birthday in exile. There was a public meeting in his honour. In a speech he explained the origin of the English word alien (deriving from the Latin alienus) and of the German term Elend (misery). Elend means alien land. The exile/refugee is alien in more than one interpretation of the word. The psychoses dubbed ‘bacillus emigraticus’, the virus of nostalgia and homesickness, hits every exile to a varying degree. Interestingly, the word alienate: ‘make estranged’ in feelings or affections, was introduced into English in 1548, at a time that the first waves of displaced immigrants from the Continent were recorded (in the sense of ‘derangement of mental faculties’ the word was in use as early as 1482). It is not surprising that early students of psychology were known as alienists.
Nostalgia has been widely interpreted as a natural sedative, glossing the canvas of memory with a coat of idealised elation. It feeds depression, stifles imagination, and blocks participation. Nostalgia is negation, renouncement, paralysis. In a context of migration this view needs to be revised. Although an antidote (or defence mechanism) for feelings of loss and alienation, nostalgia is a driver of individual initiative and social connectedness. The dual process of settlement and integration demands adaptations, solutions, and decisions, which in turn requires an open and inquisitive mind set. The past is an intimate and positive memory that drives the coping with the here and now. Nostalgia is not a sedative, but a stimulant. It fuels creative energy. Great cities are or have been centres of migration: Venice, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Vienna, or Berlin. Progress is movement.
My interest in the subject of migration acquired urgency during the period preceding the calamitous Brexit vote. The pathetic and ill-informed ‘debate’ was encapsulated in one recurring question: ‘What have they [the Europeans] ever done for us?’ This contribution on Italo-Swiss immigration is the first part of a detailed and multi-volume reply to that query.