The period between the mid-1830s and early 1920s witnessed the migration of some 3.7 million Africans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Melanesians, and other peoples throughout and beyond the colonial plantation world to work as laborers under long-term written and short-term oral contacts. Studies of this global labor migration over the last forty years have been heavily influenced by Hugh Tinker’s 1974 argument that the indentured labor system was essentially “a new system of slavery.” There has also been a propensity toward specialized and compartmentalized studies of the indentured experience in various parts of Africa, the Caribbean, the southwestern Indian Ocean, India, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, with a particular emphasis on systems of labor control and worker resistance. Recent scholarship reveals that this labor system began two decades earlier than previously believed, and illustrates the need to explore new topics and issues in more fully developed local, regional, and global contexts.
Richard B. Allen
The Chagos Archipelago comprises fifty-five Indian Ocean islands on five coral atolls, which were little known and uninhabited until the 18th century. Small exploratory settlements were set up by the French and British from the 1770s, but the archipelago was not permanently occupied until after the Napoleonic Wars. Collectively—with Agalega—known as the oil islands because of the exploitation of coconut plantations, the atolls were leased and later sold to Mauritian and Seychellois settlers who employed slaves and later nominally “free” laborers to collect, dehusk, and press the coconuts to produce oil. Economically in decline for most of the 20th century, the Chagos archipelago was controversially detached from Mauritius during independence negotiations in the 1960s and reconstituted as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Some 1,500 islanders were displaced and, as Chagossians, have engaged in a series of legal battles to reclaim their homeland. Currently only one island on the southernmost atoll—Diego Garcia—is occupied, utilized as an American military base; it was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2010. Mauritius has been internationally recognized to have the strongest claim to sovereignty of the archipelago but some Chagossians are calling for independent statehood.
China’s history in the past one hundred to two hundred years has been full of dramas, changes, progresses, and setbacks. This article navigates China’s trial-and-error process regarding accepting incoming Western technology, trade practices, institutions, and ideology/cosmology, things that were genuinely attractive to the Chinese elite but were at the same time largely incompatible with China’s own age-old, well-entrenched, and highly functional traditions. This set the stage for a difficult birth for modernity in China in comparison with neighboring Japan, for example, despite the fact that most ideas of learning from the West originated in China before traveling to Japan. The more progressive party inside the Chinese establishment was made of enlightened individuals who understood the costs and benefits associated with learning from the advanced West. The real challenge came from the question of how to reduce the cost and thus tip the balance in favor of accepting good things from the West. Given that Qing China had a small and cheap Confucian state that commanded only a tiny proportion of China’s wealth, to build a larger state from within became the precondition for China to learn from the West, a point that has only recently been recognized with the rise of the progressive California School and the decline of the groundless Oriental Despotism Hypothesis. It has become clear that much depended on China’s domestic conditions and internal timing, rather than external persuasion accompanied with an increasing degree of political violence that stemmed from Western military supremacy. It is thus not surprising that the 1839–1840 Opium War merely woke China up while the 1850 empire-wide social unrest started to change China from within. What followed was a combination of state rebuilding and economic modernization with or without external threat, a national obsession that continued until Deng Xiaoping’s reforms after 1980.
A resurgence of writings on labor in India in the 1990s occurred in a context when many scholars in the Anglo-American world were predicting the end of labor history. Over the last three decades, historical writing on labor in India has pushed old boundaries, opened up new lines of inquiry, unsettling earlier assumptions and frameworks. Teleological frames that saw industrialization leading to modernization were critiqued starting in the 1980s. Since then, historians writing on labor have moved beyond simple binaries between notions of the pre-modern/modern workforce to critically examine the conflictual processes through which histories of labor were shaped. With the opening up of the field, a whole range of new questions are being posed and old ones reframed. How do cultural formations shape the specificity of the labor force? How important are kinship, community, and caste ties in the making of working class lives and work culture? What defines the peculiarities of different forms of work at different sites: plantations and mines, factories and domestic industries, the “formal” and the “informal” sectors? What were the diverse ways in which work was regulated and workers disciplined? What were the ritual and cultural forms in which workers negotiated the conditions of their work? How does the history of law deepen an understanding of the history of labor? Studies on mobility and migration, on law and informality, on culture and community, on everyday actions and protest have unraveled the complex interconnections—global and local—through which the lives of labor are made and transformed.
In Soviet Central Asia, efforts at the mass collectivization of agriculture began in early 1930, and by 1935, more than 80 percent of all farming and herding households joined collective farms (kolkhoz) or state farms (sovkhoz). The Communist Party’s main purpose was to control peasant lives and labor. Collectivization was supposed to lead to increased agricultural production due to modernized methods and intensification. The USSR’s Central Asian republics were given unachievable plans to raise their output of cotton, wheat, and meat, while wealthier herders and peasants were threatened with arrest and exile if they resisted collectivization. Collectivization was devastating for Kazakh nomadic herders, whose livestock numbers plummeted, and who endured a three-year long famine that killed more than one-fourth of the Kazakh population. Investments went into expanding irrigation canals and irrigable fields, forcing an ever-increasing number of kolkhoz members to expend most of their labor on cotton cultivation.
Various forms of labor obligation, coercion, and oppression existed in colonial India, but the supposed dichotomy between “free” and “unfree” labor was rarely absolute. European slave-trafficking, internal trades in women and children, domestic slavery, caste-based obligations for agricultural and other labor, and capitalist systems such as indenture represented distinct but overlapping forms of “unfree” labor in the South Asian context. Enslaved Indians were exported to various European colonial possessions in the 17th and 18th century or provided domestic services within the homes of both the European and Indian elites. Meanwhile, various preexisting local labor relationships such as begar, caste-based obligation, and debt bondage involved elements of coercion, control, and ownership that mirrored some of the characteristics of slavery. These underwent significant changes in the colonial period, as the colonial state both tapped into and sought to reshape the Indian labor market to suit the needs of the imperial capitalist economy.