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Global Migration Centre

Patchwork Cities: Urban Ethnic Clusters in the Global South During the Age of Steam

This project investigates the historical reasons for, and the meaning of, ethnic residence patterns in port cities of the Global South, 1850–1930.

Technological change, imperial expansion, and the spread of capitalism during this period fueled both the world's increasing interconnectedness and the rapid growth of port cities. The rise of the steam engine in shipping accelerated trade and migration from the 1870s, engraving global inequalities into the urban space of multi-ethnic commodity entrepôts of the Global South—a deliberately loose category gesturing to the project's turn away from the North Atlantic focus of much of urban history.

Contrary to an older literature that equated globalization with the erosion of difference, the project asks how the era's intensifying cross-continental networks related to dissimilarities in urban space, considering cities as encapsulations of the knot-like nature of long-distance connections. Drawing on social-science methods developed to study segregation in North American cities, the project redirects scholarly attention to port cities of the Global South as bridgeheads of uneven globalization and laboratories for the negotiation of ethnicity. With its empirical and historical emphasis on ethnic clustering in such cities, the project adds historical depth to discussions concerning the relationship between globalization and a particular form of inequality.

Funding Organisation






Buenos Aires


Buenos Aires


A provincial backwater of less than 100,000 people by the mid-nineteenth century, Buenos Aires had expanded into the world’s largest Spanish-speaking metropolis of 1.5 million people on the eve of World War I. Growing vertiginously but regularly from the mudbank of the Rio de la Plata into the flat open pampas, the city thrived on the agricultural exports of its hinterland, so much so that by 1920 riche comme un argentin had become a standard Parisian expression. In truth, the majority of porteños were working-class immigrants: In the early twentieth century, roughly half the population was born abroad, especially in Southern Europe and, increasingly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By global comparison, multicultural Buenos Aires was notable for low levels of ethnic segregation, raising the question of why this was the case.

Manila 1900




Situated on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, Manila is one of Asia’s oldest colonial cities with a long and varied history. In 1898 it changed hands from Spanish to American rule, adding to the complexity of Manila’s urban development. Both the Spanish and Americans were concerned with issues of race that shaped their understanding of the city, presenting questions about the ethnic categories we use and how to compare sources created by different empires. With new and old existing side-by-side, Manila is an interesting case to compare with more recent colonial creations like Singapore. 

Rio de Janeiro 1906


Rio de Janeiro


Rio de Janeiro, a cidade maravilhosa or the marvelous city, is one that still inspires awe in visitors today with its dramatic coastline and colonial history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Rio was home to a multiracial and multinational population spread across the beaches, hills, and flatlands that give the city its unique character. In this period, Rio underwent a series of modernization projects that altered the urban landscape, also giving rise to its infamous favelas. Given Brazil’s distinctive history of race and migration, Rio de Janeiro poses a number of interesting questions about how these dynamics played out across the fabric of the city.

Singapore River 1900




Positioned at the crossroads of Asia, the city of Singapore has been a hub of migration since its foundation by the British in 1819. Chinese, Indians, Malays, Europeans, and many others have come to Singapore creating the unique city-state we have today. With a history strongly connected to the expansion of global trade, Singapore saw enormous growth from 1870 to 1930. Still considered one of the world’s largest multiethnic entrepots, this project examines how Singaporean residence patterns developed over time and what this says about the nature and usefulness of the term segregation. 

Cape Town 1900s


Cape Town


Dominated by the iconic outcrop of Table Mountain and flanked by Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak, Cape Town was long a strategically located refreshment station for Dutch ships heading to the East. In the course of the nineteenth century, Cape Town expanded into the sylvan suburbs with whitewashed cottages and flowery farm-houses. On its stoeps could be found a cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic population including Dutch Afrikaners, Capetonians of British descent, and the Cape Malays, a predominantly Muslim Coloured community. Following the Mineral Revolution of the 1880s, Cape Town’s harbour functions expanded, but accelerated urbanization also fuelled racial anxieties among White urban elites about the presence of Black, Coloured and Asian migrant labour populations in inner-city districts. Charting Cape Town’s pre-Apartheid urban trajectory in a global comparative frame, presents interesting questions about the forces steering ethnic and class segregation in a city that became almost synonymous with the term in the twentieth century. 

Project Highlights