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The African diaspora in the Indian Ocean is inextricably intertwined with slavery and slave trading in an oceanic world that encompasses southern and eastern Africa, the Red Sea, the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, South Asia, the Indonesian archipelago, and parts of East Asia. A combination of factors, including the cost of free labor, high morbidity and mortality rates from diseases such as malaria and smallpox, and the perceived attributes of different African peoples spurred the exportation by Arab, Muslim, and Swahili merchants of an estimated 2.9–3.65 million men, women, and children from diverse populations in southern and eastern Africa, Madagascar, and the Horn of Africa to Arabia, the Persian Gulf, South Asia, and Southeast Asia between 800 and c.1900. European involvement in this transoceanic slave trade began during the early 16th century and continued well into the 19th century. This diaspora’s legacy includes the presence of communities of African descent in modern Iran, India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

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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.