Accepted paper:

Political economy of unfree migration: imperial and colonial policies on indenture labour migration from 1838 to 1910


Neha Hui (University of Reading)
Uma Kambhampati (University of Reading)

Paper short abstract:

We look at the policies on indentured labour migration following the abolition of slavery from British Colonies. We find that unfree migration was facilitated within a policy discourse of economic and individual freedom & was a significant contributor to colonial revenue, sugar trade & consumption.

Paper long abstract:

When slavery was abolished in the British Colonies, a new form of unfree labour migration was facilitated and encouraged by the British Government in the form of indentured labour migration from British India. This form of migration came about in a period when the discourse of economic freedom and individual liberty strongly resonated in the British academia especially in the works of Adam Smith and J S Mill. Indentured labour migration was hugely contentious, with active promotion from the Colonial (especially West Indian) plantation lobby but significantly opposed by the abolitionist movement as well as nationalist movement from both the Indian sub-continent and natives from the host colonies. In this paper we analyse why partially un-free migration in the form of indentured labour coexisted with the rhetoric of freedom that was essential to the political economy of the time. Using historical archival material including India Office Records, Colonial Office Records, Hansard notes, newspaper coverage, Colonial 'Blue Books' as well as original works by important political economic thinkers of the time, we argue that indenture labour migration was an 'in between' of slavery and free labour migration and could be justified in the language of economic freedom, though not necessarily in terms of individual liberty.This argument is especially validated by the fact that indentured labour migration had a significant impact on colonial revenue as well as sugar trade and consumption thus contradicting the idea that un-free labour was inefficient.

panel E1
Large-scale migration, remittances and development: historical and contemporary evidence