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Migration, Adaptation, Innovation 1500–1800

UKRI dark blue logoToday, when mass migration coincides with a high skill economy’s ever-growing need for constant technological innovation, this project’s central question is burning: what makes for successful immigration, technological innovation, and knowledge transfer? The effective management of these three permitted Europe to first industrialise. Global knowledge transfers and the migration of skilled practitioners have been crucial for innovation and technological improvement in general and in particular for the ‘Great Divergence’, the process by which Europe overtook Asia as the world’s manufacturing centre. This project – led by Dr. Felicia Gottmann as part of a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship 2021–2025 and involving a team of two postdoctoral researchers and a PhD student – focuses on this vital period of shifting balances.

Case studies have shown both that skilled migration can strengthen or even birth new industries (think of the Huguenots bringing silk weaving to England and Prussia, or immigrant and first-generation Jews founding and running Hollywood) and that, to establish new technologies and manufactures, entrepreneurs and governments need to involve experts, often from abroad. This could be voluntary: in the eighteenth century Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore attracted French and Ottoman experts in weapons technology and instrument making, while, as Gottmann’s research has shown, French officials invited groups of Indian and Levantine cotton weavers to develop the French cotton industry. But it wasn’t always a matter of choice. Many artisans came as refugees and some were expressly kidnapped: Japan’s porcelain industry in and around Arita only took off after the enslaving of skilled ceramics craftsmen during the invasions of Korea in the 1590s, sometimes referred to as ‘the Pottery Wars’. Such case studies however remain local and situation specific. To come to broad conclusions about which factors influenced the success or failure both of the integration of expert migrants and of the diffusion of their skills and products, we need systematic globally-comparative and interdisciplinary studies. 

Building on Felicia Gottmann’s interdisciplinary work in global history, notably her internationally-recognised monograph that features the project’s pilot study, this project combines economic history, migration studies, science and technology studies, and material culture. It sets out to investigate the conditions for, and obstacles to, the successful application and diffusion of the knowledge and skills brought by immigrant experts in the early modern world, specifically including non-elite, non-European, and female migrants. In order to evaluate the relative importance of technical, material, institutional, economic, socio-cultural, and personal or locational factors, it concentrates on the most inventive manufacturing industries of the time which had close ties both to formal scientific enquiry and to state support schemes in an age when nascent industrialisation coincided with interstate rivalries: textiles, ceramics, instrument making, and weapons technology. Comparative across time and space it contrasts case-studies from Europe and its colonies, the Middle East, South and East Asia in the period before Western hegemony: 1500 to 1800.

Next producing co-authored papers, articles, a monograph, and an edited volume of essays based on the international project conference (‘Migration and Expertise: 1500 to the present day’), the team will work with its museum and community organisation partners to foster a broader debate about the value of immigrant skills. We will run a series of outreach, policy, and knowledge exchange events with current migrants and we will work with our partner museums to run teacher training events, develop resources for visitors, families and educators, and both contribute to their galleries and curate our own virtual exhibition on the project website.





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