Indentured Lives: Rethinking the Experience of Indian Overseas Labour Migration, 1800-1920. A two day conference at University of Edinburgh, 8-9th September, 2016.


Whilst the study of race and migration is a vibrant and fast developing field, existing works on the Indian Diaspora have tended to homogenise the experiences of migrant labourers, ignoring the existence of different ‘categories’ of nineteenth-century Indian migrant, the communities and networks they established, and the interaction of indentured labourers with them. Beginning with Tinker (1974), many historians and social scientists have instead assumed that indenture was essentially a new form of slavery. Such assumptions often reflect an uncritical reproduction of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial and nationalist discourse in a contemporary form, however, rather than providing a careful examination of the diverse experience of migrants from a subaltern perspective. Misrepresentations produced as part of a polarised nineteenth century debate for and against indenture have persisted, despite the fact that they arguably tell us more about the subjectivity of the colonial observer than of the subaltern migrant. Indeed, many historians still fail to address the crucial issue of the subaltern’s own motivations, experiences and outcomes when analysing the functioning of Indian labour migration. Conversely, those historians who suggest that emigration was a result of rational, informed and deliberate choices on the part of migrant Indian labourers, which led to considerable improvement in their living conditions and could be equated with free white labour, have been too dismissive of the coercive elements of indenture, leaving them open to accusations of imperial apologia, or failing to acknowledge the limitations that Indian conditions placed on ‘free’ labour migration.

By placing Indian indentured and contract labour migration in the context of longer histories of labour mobility in the Indian Ocean region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this conference will seek to re-examine existing assumptions about who ‘first wave’ Indian migrants were, how much information they had, and why they decided to migrate. Above all, it will endeavour to place the migrants’ incentives, understandings and individual outcomes at the centre of the story in order to critically reassess patterns of Indian migrant labour. It will therefore aspire to look beyond longstanding tropes of victimhood and passivity to re-evaluate the role of subaltern networks and subaltern agency in the process of migration, exploring the degree to which labour migrants were able to navigate and (re)negotiate identities that were ascribed to them by colonial observers – as slaves and sepoys, ‘coolies’ and convicts. By involving multiple participants with diverse and overlapping expertise, the conference will seek to assess the extent to which migrants drew on pre-existing patterns of labour mobility, and on familial and other networks when choosing to migrate, and thus contributed towards the expansion of systems that would inform choices of later, ‘second wave’ South Asian migrants of the late twentieth century.

Call for Papers: Papers are invited that address any aspect of the indenture and overseas contract labour experience, particularly focussing on the Indian Ocean region. Themes that might be addressed include: subaltern agency; networks, family connections and information exchange; gender relations; the role of middle men and intermediaries; social mobility; and patterns of remigration. Abstracts of c. 250 words should be sent to later than 15th July 2016. We expect to be in a position to communicate decisions by the end of July 2016.

Registration: There will be no conference fee, but pre-registration is required. Expressions of interest should be addressed to the project administrator Francesca Kaufman at The conference is free for both speakers and non-speakers, and catering will be provided. Unfortunately the organisers are not able to contribute to travel and accommodation costs, except for directly invited participants. Assistance will be provided to locate and secure economical options for accommodation if required.

Contact Info: 

Francesca Kaufman, Project administrator, University of Edinburgh –

Prof. Crispin Bates, University of Edinburgh –

Dr. Andrea Major, University of Leeds –

Contact Email: