guest post by Andrew MacDonald
Over the last two years, a now familiar story has begun to emerge on the fringes of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Once more, it has drawn together migrants, border police and humanitarians, the history of which forms the subject of my ongoing work. War in Syria has seen militias collide and armies jostle for regional influence in spasms of offense and retreat, leaving the livelihoods, and life itself, in the towns and villages of Syria and Northern Iraq imperilled. With the old order collapsing, and a new one hardly born, violence – often gruesome, and widely replayed in the press – has become endemic. To escape, migrants have used any form of transport available. Their journeys outward have been epic in ambition and fortitude, but the gates have not always been open. As ever in the history of migration, for a migrant to succeed it has required a bundle of resources. Ghaith Adbul-Ahad’s ‘Some Tips for the Long-Distance Traveller’ (October’s London Review of Books) Nicholas Schmidle’s ‘Ten Borders’ (October’s New Yorker) attest that keenly guarded intelligence has been key, as much as the ability to harness global communications technologies. The primary destination has been the established liberal democracies of Western Europe, though inevitably journeys are circuitous and many find homes, temporary or permanent, elsewhere. To avoid unwelcoming immigration checkpoints, bleak camps, unscrupulous smugglers, and fierce competition with other refugees, migrants have relied on forged paperwork and on the gifts and assistance of well-wishers and activists, quietly revolting against the anti-immigrant rhetoric of mainstream politics. With these and a touch of luck, migrants have been able to command sufficient resources and conviction to skirt international border police. But such practices have quickly generated an atmosphere of suspicion and confusion; the certainties of national identities, ‘asylum claims’, and indeed of borders themselves, have been thrown into question.
My article “The Thieves of the Cross: Assyrian Charity Collectors and World History, 1860s-1940s” in the November 2015 issue of Past & Present, reveals how a similar (albeit not quite identical) ‘refugee crisis’ involving migrants from the Fertile Crescent emerged globally in the decades either side of 1900. Exploring its history and the lives of a very unusual group of Assyrian migrants has implications for historians’ understanding of the great surge of transnational migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and on the workings of international border regimes as they took shape around the same time.
In the mid-19th century, Assyrian villagers, mostly Christians living in the northern Mesopotamian mountains (around which converge the contemporary borders of Syrian, Iraq, Turkey and Iran), faced displacement and impoverishment from pressures exerted by Kurdish warlords, provincial Ottoman rulers, Russian diplomats, and Anglo-American humanitarians then jockeying for influence in this especially unstable Eurasian frontier. The villagers found ways to cope: at first arming themselves and fighting back, then peddling crafts and goods around the region. Others became construction workers, and many sought sanctuary in the Protestant missions around nearby Lake Urmia, from where emerged a small and internationally-connected Assyrian nationalist intelligentsia.
One group of Assyrian émigré villagers, however, were to prevail in a more spectacular, and controversial way. The migrants, using charity collections to propel them across continents, formed a kind of fraternity or travellers’ guild, known, somewhat pejoratively in the neo-Aramaic vernacular, as the “Thieves of the Cross”. Consisting of perhaps no more than fifty men at any given time, the fraternity’s base was the hamlet of Mar Zeya in the highland district of Jilu along the Turco-Persian frontier, which boasted traditions of long-distance wandering a millennium and a half old. At first, the group worked as beggars of a kind in and around Jilu, but as the political conditions worsened, ultimately toward genocide, the fraternity developed global ambitions to a degree probably unmatched by any village society before or since.
A serendipitous discovery in South Africa’s immigration archives – a loose page from a 1922 Baghdad CID report – offered the bare bones of a story. At first it seemed it might be an interesting footnote or paragraph in the PhD thesis I was conjuring into life. But further records of the Thieves began to turn up with uncanny regularity in archives in Britain and the settler-colonial world, especially North America. There proliferation of digital newspaper archives over the last few years was opportune, and it became possible to trace the migrations of the fraternity to and through countries as diverse as Venezuela, Martinique, Mozambique, Yugoslavia, India, Malaysia, Siberia and Japan, and many others. In fact, between the 1850s and 1940s, the Thieves appeared in at least five hundred towns in eighty countries, across all continents.
How was this possible? Their travels were facilitated by evangelical Christian missionaries, their institutional networks and gift-giving proclivities. They travelled with ingeniously devised begging letters – often fraudulent – to accumulate money and travel documents in ways that made dupes of pious church-goers and international border officials. The article focuses on the life of one memorable collector representative of the wider fraternity, M.G Daniel, from his youth as a part-time mountain brigand to his old age as a Philadelphia-based priest of dubious repute, via stints as a medical student, intelligence agent, labour recruiter, bigamist, jailbird and ‘international tourist lecturer’ in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia.
This idiosyncratic story was hard to capture in the conventional explanatory models put forward to explain modern transnational connections. The Thieves’ careers could not be explained in terms of converging markets and the circulation of workers or investors. They also did not fit comfortably into a literature highlighting ‘imperial careering’, nor where they progressive elites creating anti-colonial or reform-minded ‘internationalist’ networks. Instead, what seemed to best explain their mobility was the power of religious sentiment and flows of gift capital, which in different ways forged migration routes for the fraternity and connected otherwise tenuously-linked settlements around the globe. Gift-giving practices have not often been integrated into transnational history. As the article argues, transnational historians might productively consider how sentiments of charity opened up unpredictable geographic networks, and made international borders less rigid than is often assumed. Being the product of five years of on-and-off work inspired by conversations with the World History Group at Cambridge under Chris Bayly’s mentorship, I’m delighted the otherwise obscure men of Jilu finally have some wider exposure in social and global history.