Upcoming Indentured Lives Conference: final list of abstracts

For more information about the conference please visit the wordpress page: https://indenturedlives.wordpress.com

Speakers will include:

James Wilson, University of Cambridge
Colonial Labour Schemes and the Experience of Chinese Migration in the Indian Ocean World, 1800-20
This paper rethinks the Indian experience of indentured labour migration in the Indian Ocean world by charting the fortunes of their Chinese predecessors between Sri Lanka and the Malay Archipelago in the early nineteenth century. Soon after the British invaded Dutch Ceylon in 1795, they found themselves in possession of an island economy in need of labour. Indian and Lankan labourers were employed as “coolies” in the harbour at Galle but not on a wide scale. Officials travelling to the Malay Archipelago discovered another source of industrious labour: migrants who travelled on Chinese junks. Their recommendations gave rise to the first state-sponsored schemes through which labourers were brought to Ceylon. These schemes as well as Chinese experiences of movement provide a nuanced picture of early labour migration, agency, and the origins of indenture away from its traditional identification as a mutant form of apprenticeship or slavery. Chinese labourers were not coerced into moving but were granted incentives like money and land which they readily accepted. There were nonetheless hints of what was to come. Depictions of Chinese migrants focused on their supposed laziness. Officials proposed the use of contracts to ensure that migrants paid for their journey and sustenance, while advocating coercion to keep them working. In these migration schemes we see the origins of indentured labour as it would later appear: a confusing mixture of different impulses regarding the treatment of migrants and complex factors driving migrants to move. By looking at the Chinese example, we can contextualise questions of agency as they relate to Indians and understand movements towards indenture as multi-sourced and diverse.

Jerome Teelucksingh
Seeking reliable labour: Examining the causes of indentureship schemes
My proposed paper will focus on the causes and conditions that resulted in the indentureship schemes in selected areas such as Australia and the Pacific regions. During the 1860s, the plantation system in the Pacific region became widespread. However, the  outbreak of the Civil War in the United States resulted in the disruption of raw materials to factories in Europe As a result cotton and other plantations emerged in areas as Queensland, Samoa Islands and Fiji.
Planters in New Caledonia, Samoa Islands and Australia soon faced labour problems on the cotton, sugar and copra plantations because of the unwillingness of pacific islanders to work on the plantations near their communities. This forced planters to search for an alternative labour supply and soon there was the recruitment of workers from China, Phillipines, India, Korea and Japan.
In Hawaii, a similar situation occurred as the sugar planters initially utilized local labour. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, the refusal of local Hawaiians to accept low wages resulted in the implementation of an indentureship scheme in 1850. Initial imports of Norwegian, German, Portuguese and Spanish indentured workers led to Hawaiian planters seeking a more reliable labour force, initially from Japan and then from 1875, workers from China were imported to fill the labour void.

Kalpana Hiralal, University of KwaZuluNatal
Why were the Women left behind? Chinese and Indian Migration in the Indian Ocean Region  A Historical Perspective
This paper examines transnational families in the context of indentured (Chinese) and free Indian migration to South Africa at the turn of the century. A closer examination of their histories reveal that they share many similarities: both Chinese and Indian migration were an integral part of the Indian Ocean region, it was male centred, early immigrants were “sojourners” and women were “left behind” and arrived years later to join their spouses. This paper askes the question “Why did the women not come?”, “Why were the women left behind?” This paper argues that the reasons for “women left behind” and the male centred nature of migration must be viewed in the context of socio-economic, political and cultural factors that both impeded and restricted women’s decision to migrate. Traditional arguments have often focused on patriarchy as a social and cultural impediment for women’s migration. It was far more complex. Whilst cultural and patriarchical factors played an important role, there were other factors: “sojourner mentality” of male immigrants, high cost of living, institutional barriers, personal circumstances and the socio-economic value of overseas migration (remittances) all collectively inhibited and facilitated the mobility of women immigrants to Africa. This paper moves the migration narratives to the other side of the Indian Ocean region thereby making the lives of left behind women a significant area of analysis.

Saurabh Misra, University of Sheffield
Violence, Surveillance and the Coolie Identity: The Long Sea Voyage to the Caribbean, 1834-1920
Historians have often explored the massive impact that nostalgia had on almost every aspect of the lives of migrants. While this is no doubt true to some extent, this paper will argue that the migrants’ lives were also defined by a deep sense of rupture from the life back ‘home’. This rupture was arguably experienced for the first time at the depot and on the ships, both through the overt and subtle forms of violence that they were subjected to, and through the medical surveillance that they had to endure. The time spent within these confined spaces was instrumental in forming a nascent sense of the ‘coolie’ identity, as well as in setting the tone for their future relationship with the state and other authorities. This paper will explore these issues with particular reference to Trinidad and British Guiana.

Naina Manjrekar, SOAS
Lascar Lives: Shipboard Authority and Resistance, 1900-1939
Colonial Indian seamen or lascars, had been employed by British shipping for over 350 years, constituting a quarter of its workforce on the eve of WWII. Through lascar’s oral histories and memoirs, as well as ships logs, this paper looks at lascar’s experiences of labouring in steamships and the structure of authority and disciplinary regimes under which this work was carried out.  It traces the changes in the disciplinary regime accompanying the transition from sail to steam shipping – from the official use of corporeal violence to a codified system of graded fines. It argues, however, that with the structural stratification of the steamship, the structure of authority was also further stratified, and that the exercise of violence was simply displaced from the official right of the ships’ master, to the unofficial prerogative of the junior officer.
It also shows, however, that this authority was not uncontested by lascars. Despite the reputation of the lascar as a docile subordinate, popularised by Captain Hood in his polemic against the insubordinate British ‘Jack Tar’, lascars contested authority at sea and in port. The paper looks at the different forms which these ‘molecular’ contestations took on individual vessels – from violent attacks against junior officers to collective refusals to work at sea, to the practise of leaving the ship en masse and refusing to return until their grievances had been resolved. Such cases were usually resolved between the master and local police and magistrates. At certain moments, as in the case of the first week of WWII, however, these ‘molecular’ instances broke out simultaneously in a number of vessels, creating a wave of strikes which forced the intervention of the State to negotiate a general wage increase.

Reshaad Durgahee, University of Nottingham
“A hive of human beings and of human needs and human ills”: Exploring the lived spaces of indentured labourers in Mauritius, 1871-1916
Increased importance is now rightly being attributed to the macro-geographies of Indian indenture in order to highlight the agency of labourers and to place the Indian indenture system in which they took part, within the context of a continuum of global labour mobility. This paper shifts scale from the macro to the micro to investigate the indentured lives of the men, women and children who migrated to Mauritius during the second half of the indenture era (1871-1916) and explores the personal experiences of specific spaces within the colony. With the timely research that is now being conducted on subaltern agency, the paper seeks to highlight the harsh conditions in which many labourers found themselves living, regardless of the agency they exhibited. The paper explores the lived space of indentured labourers in Mauritius – the camp, the estate, the district – with the aim of illustrating how an understanding of the global system of Indian indenture can be gained by analysing practices within smaller geographies of an individual colony. Thus, in day to day spaces, what did indenture actually mean and how did it affect the lives of labourers? The paper draws on examples concerning the sanitation regulations on camp accommodation, the threat of vagrancy laws on mobility and, as Arthur Hamilton-Gordon described, “the extraordinary frequency of suicides among Indian immigrants”. In doing so, the paper demonstrates that whilst labourers did display agency, they were nevertheless living in a highly regulated environment, rendering the indentured landscape akin to a carceral one.

Yoshina Hurgobin,
Indian Indentured Workers, Petitions, and Citizenship in Colonial Mauritius, 1826 – 1900
Between 1826 and 1920, more than one million Indian indentured workers journeyed to corners of the British empire to labor on various plantations (sugar cane, tea, rubber, and cocoa). The largest contingent of workers - more than 450,000 - reached Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island. Through a set of multifaceted circumstances, many re-imagined their lives through various means. One of them was through petitioning. By investigating the content of workers’ petitions, colonial correspondence, and reports, this paper examines how indentured workers sought labor and social rights and why these can be interpreted as claims of citizenship between 1842 and 1900 in colonial Mauritius. While earlier scholarship on Indian indentured labor has embraced two broad narratives of either victimhood or active decision-making, more recent work has provided nuanced and complex considerations of the indenture journey. This paper furthers the latter approach and adds to our understanding of citizenship in colonial context through the two- pronged approach of rights and rights of citizenship. While citizenship has often been firmly located within the modern nation-state, this paper suggests that kernels of citizenship could be found within the colonial state. More specifically, the paper contends that instead of impeding on indentured workers’ rights of citizenship, the colonial bureaucratic infrastructure itself contributed to the crafting of such rights.

Lina Medhi and Crispin Bates

Annie Devenish and Crispin Bates

Rochelle Almeida, New York University
The Anglo-Indian Female Work Force and Imperial Britain: harnessing domestic labor by people of mixed racial descent
My paper will focus on Anglo-Indian presence in the British job-market before India’s Independence. As much as India’s people of mixed racial descent are ‘invisible’ in the South Asian diaspora as immigrants today, so too have they remained uncounted among labor forces in England during the decades of the British Raj. Yet, hundreds of women traveled to the metropolitan ‘center’ from the colonial ‘periphery’ as ‘ayahs’ (nannies) to provide domestic assistance to upper class English families.
Shompa Lahiri’s book, Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930 (Routledge, 1999) throws some light on the presence of women who served in this capacity. It is my contention that Anglo-Indian women were present in large numbers among Britain’s domestic work force as they were well-educated, fluent and articulate in English and Christian by religious faith. Although not strictly indentured laborers, these women were every bit as enslaved by the terms and conditions of their employment.
‘Ayahs’ in imperial Britain regularly ‘visited’ the UK for a few months each year as part of the traveling domestic entourage of British families. Lahiri speaks of a considerable number left behind in Britain either by their employers who found them redundant in Britain or out of personal choice. When abandoned, they found refuge in boarding houses in London until newer Britain-based employment was secured.
My presentation examine duties expected of them, treatment meted out to them by their British employers and their assimilation into the British mainstream when they ceased to function as domestic help.

Nafisa Essop Sheik, University of Johannesburg
Degrees of Freedom: Women, Work and Reproduction under Indenture in Colonial Natal
The demise of slave systems in the early 1800s and their replacement by fixed-term indentured labour contracts entailed new understandings of and provisions for labouring populations in the British imperial world. Foremost among these was the problem of reproduction given that a key difference between slavery and indenture was that workers were no longer bonded for life and their offspring were not born into bondage. Marriage and family formed the fulcrum around which indentured labour’s difference from slavery turned and women’s labours were at the heart of this. Women’s social reproductive labours no longer reproduced a perpetual slave workforce but came to be part of the formation of an area of domestic and family life that was putatively private and that marked the new masculine possibilities afforded to male wage workers. When indenture got underway in colonial Natal in 1860, a quota of women was laid down as it had been for other indenture colonies in order to emphasize the supposed ‘freedom’ of indentured men to pursue a family life independent of their work contracts. For Natal, the quota was raised year on year so that fully half of all indentured workers were envisioned as women by the third year of the indenture scheme. This quota was never fulfilled but, under pressure from abolitionists, women’s presence in the indentured labour scheme had to be dealt with by authorities in ways that had to elaborate key differences with a slave system. In this paper, I will examine how the mandatory presence of women and their unanticipated mobility challenged the strictures of the scheme and how conflicting claims on their productive and reproductive labours by employers and indentured Indian men and their place as potential lovers, wives and mothers marked indenture as a post-slavery system of labour. In doing so, I will demonstrate how the desires and actions of indentured women and men shaped a new world of labour, love and life in British colonial Natal.

Prinisha Badassy, University of the Witwatersrand
Stewed Plums, Baked Porridge and Flavoured Tea: Poisoning by Indian Domestic Servants in Colonial Natal.
Relations between colonial settlers and their bonded labourers were highly contested sites of struggle and emotionally charged, as both masters/mistresses and servants struggled to own, shape and define the power relations between them. The experiences and emotional strain associated with being a domestic servant gave rise to a culture of anger, resistance and violence within the ranks of Indian servants and the domestic space in colonial Natal. This paper posits that poisoning, as a criminal act, reveals a great deal about the feelings and circumstances of those who were accused and tried by the colonial courts as well as the ubiquitous feelings of inequity and ill-treatment as experienced by Indian domestic servants at the hands of their white masters and mistresses. Poisoning occupies a special place in the history of crime. It requires a considerable degree of premeditation, planning and knowledge for its successful execution. The delegation of responsibility for the preparation and cooking of food to these servants frequently placed masters and mistresses in a particularly vulnerable position, but also caused masters and mistresses to distrust their servants and aroused feelings of suspicion and fear. Between the years 1880 to 1920, there were several high-profile cases that reached the Supreme Court. However, because of the calculated and clandestine nature of poisoning, as well as the difficulty of detection as it produced very little incriminating evidence, the cases that come through that Natal courts only represent a small proportion of the actual number of attempted poisonings. These crimes were situated at varying points on a continuum of distressed interactions between masters, mistresses and servants, and each possessed its own performative terrain.

Nira Wickramasinge

Ruma Chopra, San Jose State University
 Not Slaves: Indians in Jamaica
This paper forms part of a longer book project titled, “From Slavery to Silicon Valley: East Indians in the Making of the Americas.” The nineteenth-century history of indentured laborers from Asia is interlinked to the history of slavery in the Americas and merits deeper study. Only by connecting these two migration strands – involuntary and voluntary - can we understand the limits of Atlantic anti-slavery agitation, the persistence of slavery in Africa, the dynamics of race in the Caribbean, and the resilience of the British empire.
Between the end of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery in the British empire, various decision-makers (missionaries, politicians, surgeons) discussed the best candidates for replacing slave labor in the Caribbean colonies. Because no one suggested jettisoning the plantation system as the primary mode of production, ideas about new suitable laborers drew from earlier notions about suitable African slaves. Not only Chinese and Indians but also, surprisingly, Africans were considered as a replacement for ex-slaves. Questions were raised about each group’s adjustment to the climate, to their relations with ex-slave women, and to their long- term loyalty to the empire. As in the era of slavery, it was implicitly supposed that the first- wave migrants would primarily be younger men. My work explores the argument made to support the migration of each of these groups and the process whereby Indian laborers became a chosen subset imported into the British Caribbean.

Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon
Questions for Per Ajie: Alter-narratives of Indian Indentureship in the West Indies
In her prize winning poem “Per Ajie—A Tribute to the First Immigrant Woman” Rajkumari Singh, celebrated Caribbean writer and great granddaughter of Indian indentured laborers, asks her Per Ajie if, when she left the Indian subcontinent for the West Indies, she was aware of the arduous labor she would endure on the sugar plantations.  While the imagery used by Singh captures her admiration for the courage, strength and beauty of her Per Ajie and other Indian women who braved the dark waters, hidden in her verses are other questions.  Who was Per Ajie?  And why did she leave India?  
Little is known about Per Ajie.  She arrived in the West Indies, a single woman with a child.  The circumstances behind her indentureship are still unknown, but by moving she altered the trajectory of her family, resulting in multiple generations moving back and forth across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans dedicated to organizing and elevating Indian communities in the West Indies.  By exploring the stories of movement and social mobility of the ancestors of Rajkumari Singh, this paper offers a series of alter-narratives of crossing the dark waters that will complicate prevailing understandings of indentured lives in the West Indies.  

Darrell Baksh, The University of the West Indies
The Chatak Matak Invasion: Reviving, Re-cycling, and Re-mixing Tradition in Contemporary Chutney Soca
Chutney is the name ascribed to transplanted Bhojpuri folk music traditions remembered and reconstructed in the Caribbean by descendants of mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century sugarcane workers from north-eastern India. First performed privately, it has evolved into chutney soca, the popular Indian sound of the Caribbean shaped through fusion with Afro-Caribbean Carnival music produced primarily in Trinidad. In response to public disillusionment by the music’s audio-visual proximity to the 'blackness' of Carnival; its glorification of alcohol in song; and its forthright use of Hindi film melodies, leading producers have since embarked on projects resulting in the 'chatak matak invasion': a body of recordings that tackles the desire and demand for the return of 'real' chutney rooted in a sensory bombardment of 'hot' and 'spicy' folk cadences.
In this paper, I explore how the contemporary revival of folk styles and sounds deemed 'traditional' is revitalizing Indo-Caribbean popular music; re/energizing Indo-Caribbean communities; protecting Indo-Caribbean cultural legacies; and bridging generational gaps and ethnic divides in Trinidad. I show how new cultural meaning, that re-cycles and re-mixes temporality by making the 'traditional' relevant, is being produced, while considering the implications of the 'traditional' on modern contexts. As such, I contribute to critical dialogues on the politics of Indo-Caribbean identity after indenture, enriching and addressing the dearth of scholarly inquiry on Indo- Caribbean popular music culture, which is part of my larger dissertation project investigating the evolution of chutney soca as a transgressive medium through which to examine the tensions and negotiations surrounding identity formation in Trinidad.

Chan Choenni

Govinden Vishwanaden, Mauritius
Journeying into Indenture: Remarkable Stories of Returnee Migrants to Mauritius
This paper focuses on the role played by returnee migrants to Mauritius and the remarkable stories of a number of migrants who journeyed across India in a quest to re-embark for the island. Mauritius was one of the first of the British sugar colonies to import Indian labour following the abolition of slavery, in 1834, principally from the present-day states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. As early as the 1840s a significant number of Indian migrants from Mauritius were returning to their own regions to influence family and co-villagers to migrate to Mauritius. The paper seeks to shed light on the role and ability of returnees to influence people around them and the extent to which they perceived themselves as agents. Sirdars or job contractors on the sugar estates were among those assigned the task to recruit labourers from their villages. Others returned to India with the hope of reuniting with their relatives and perhaps persuade them to remigrate. The planters in Mauritius looked upon returnees as a means of obtaining a more stable labour workforce, and their demand for labour power, paved the way for the opening of the three ports, Calcutta, Madras and Bombay under the Order in Council in January 1842. However, over succeeding decades, for reasons of economy, Madras and Bombay emigration agencies were closed at various times. This disrupted returnee recruiting and the paper highlights the remarkable stories of several groups of re-migrants who travelled from port to port in a quest to find a ship that would carry them to Mauritius. The paper makes use of Mauritius immigration records to uncover details of who these migrants were, their villages of origin and their lives on the island to uncover a little known aspect of the indenture system.

Ashutosh Kumar, University of Leeds
Naukari, Network and Indenture
My paper looks at the pre-history of long distance migration amongst north Indian peasants and attempts to provide a link between this migratory behaviour and indentured migration. A particular focus is on conceptions of the indenture system among north Indian peasants. The paper also probes peasant awareness of the indenture system through an analysis of official colonial ethnographic reports. I explore in two particularly rich official enquiries done in 1882 by Major Pitcher in United Provinces and George Grierson in Bihar, the two major labour catchment areas from which migrants were recruited.

Nalini Moodley Diar, Tshwane University of Technology
Reading the popularised image as a phenotype for Indenture
Visual culture and its transformative academic agenda has received much attention in the past few years, particularly so in South Africa. Amidst a post democratic society grappling with zealously maintaining minority culture the question of transformation is always under scrutiny. But within this context the image of the indentured Indian was confined to the popularisation of some images from the popular and widely read Inside Indenture by Desai and Vahed. These images present an impoverished Indian visibly experiencing the challenges attached to the notion of being alien in South Africa. This paper will present the shifting positions of the Indentured Indian as evidenced through a series of images never seen before in any public forum. The paper will focus on these images to highlight the value attached to the Indian and expand on how their position in South Africa has been navigated to ensure citizenship and develop a sense of nationhood.

Sheetal Bhoola, University of KwaZuluNatal
Food as a point of social and financial mobility for the South Asian migrants in Durban, South Africa
The migration of indentured -Indians to South Africa between 1860 and 1911 represented a broad regional diversity that included people who spoke mainly Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Gujerati and Urdu. Each of these language groups were also made up of Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and each had pride in their cuisines that reflected both region and religion.
Legislature was initially passed to regulate indentured immigrants into the Natal region and one of the regulations of Law 14 Clause 9 of the Law 14 of 1859 stipulated that after the first 5 years the labourers should be discharged and be permitted to engage in the hiring of their skills and services. This clause then also served as a stimulus for ‘passenger’ migrants to come to Natal during this period (Harris, 2010:152). ‘Passenger’ migrants came from diverse occupation backgrounds” farmers, unskilled labourers, craftsmen and jewellers. On arrival many worked as salesmen, hawkers and petty traders because they lacked appropriate educational qualifications, limited capital and were not fluent in English. . For some the option of small business (particularly eating houses) offered meagre earnings, and served as a step towards great financial mobility.
The preparation and trading of ‘authentic Indian cuisine’ became both primary and secondary source of revenue for many migrant homes. This then contributed to the development of small to medium sized businesses specialising in authentic Indian cuisine and the localised version of Indian cuisine such as the ‘bunny chow’ which has become iconic to Durban city in recent years. This paper examines the intersections of migration and food and how it evolved in the diaspora.