Why did Europeans emigrate in the decades immediately before and after 1900 – the period in which the Red Star Line was in operation? And why was it chiefly the United States that was their destination? One important reason was population growth in Europe, which resulted in a scarcity of agricultural land. At the same time, there was also a surplus of labour. After all, this was the time when industries – such as textile manufacturing – were becoming fully mechanised.

By contrast, the availability of farmland in the United States was still considerable, and industry had a pressing need for workers. The Belgian government was among those to support this emigration and – up until the First World War – its American counterpart actively attracted newcomers to its shores. Apart from “economic migrants”, there were also refugees fleeing from several regions of Europe for political and religious reasons.

As time wore on, the Atlantic crossing became more affordable, and many emigrants decided to take the risk because successful friends or relations in the United States had convinced them to take the plunge as well. Very often it were those earlier emigrants who provided the new ones with their first lodgings. More than a third of migrants made the journey using prepaid tickets that had been sent to them from the United States. This phenomenon is referred to as “chain migration”.

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