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Bachar Bzeih 30 Nov 2022

Historical Snapshot: Why Did Lebanese People Migrate to Brazil?

Everyone has heard the famous saying about how there are more Lebanese people in Brazil than there are in Lebanon, but have you ever wondered why that is? The answer is multifaceted but follow along to get an understanding of why the World Cup’s greatest team became a hotbed for Lebanese migration.

It is generally agreed upon that large scale migration out of Lebanon began in the late 19th century. The advancements of the Industrial Revolution were the main turbine behind this migratory engine. First, the advent of industrial production torpedoed the price of some of Lebanon’s main exports. Second, the range and speed of new steam-powered ships opened up new trade routes that circumvented Lebanese exports, once again hurting the local economy. Finally, it would be these same steam ships that would now more efficiently and frequently carry Lebanon’s main export, laborers, out into the world.

Despite the hit to exports that the economy had taken, the Beirut’s port remained one of the most important trade nodes in the Mediterranean. This was once again the result of steam taking over the seas. Imports to Beirut had increased from 50,000 tons a year in the 1830s to more than 600,000 tons in 1886. While exports were diversified but still spearheaded by silk. All in all, there were at least 10 regularly operating steam lines during the period.

As the Syrian silk trade deteriorated and rural economies were hit, more and more people began to migrate to Lebanon’s cities, namely Beirut. This led to the development of an unemployed surplus population of workers in the city. Faced with this fact, workers started to look abroad for opportunities, particularly in the New World.

In the Americas, industrialization was in full swing and the demand for workers high. Migrants who had made the successful trek would return to the country aboard steam ships and spread tales of prosperity, while the steam ship operators seized on this labor demand by offering loans and incentives to the workers. The cross-ocean trips were hard for the workers who were often illiterate and misled by the agents and guides they relied on.

Thus, many migrants did not even know where they were going. The main destination many desired was the United States, but migrants would often be rerouted and sent to countries such as Brazil and Argentina. Eventually, a rubber boom in Brazil made the country just as attractive as the USA, and the abolition of slavery gave new opportunities for incoming Lebanese migrants.

The growing Lebanese diaspora would eventually develop stronger ties in Brazil than it did in the US, despite similar migratory numbers. Starting off as small time peddlers, they eventually grew to control trades and industries. When they would find success, they would bring more of their Lebanese relatives to join them, and when looking to marry they would either marry from the local diaspora or return to the homeland in search for a bride. These factors would all contribute to a boom in the Lebanese population in Brazil.

The story of Lebanese migration to Brazil is a story of a changing world under industrialization. The need for bodies in the Americas, skilled and unskilled, literate and illiterate, made Brazil the port of call for many incoming migrants and the ripple effects of that can still be seen to this day.

Sources and further readings:

– Elaine Fersan, Syro-Lebanese Migration (1880-Present): “Push” and “Pull” Factors.
– Leila Tarazi Fawaz, Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth-Century Beirut
– Oswaldo Truzzi, The Right Place at the Right Time: Syrians and Lebanese in Brazil and the United States, a Comparative Approach