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Centre for South Asian Studies: News


Crispin Bates and Andrea Major win funding for major RCUK project

Crispin Bates, PI (University of Edinburgh) and Andrea Major, Co-I (University of Leeds) have succeeded in winning funding for a major RCUK project.

Becoming Coolies: Rethinking the Origins of the Indian Labour Diaspora, 1772-1920

AHRC £770,000 (2.5 years from March 2015)

By placing Indian indentured labour migration in the context of longer histories of labour mobility in the Indian Ocean region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Becoming Coolies project seeks to challenge existing assumptions about who 'first wave' Indian migrants were, how much information they had, and why they decided to migrate. It will place the migrants' own incentives, understandings and individual outcomes at the centre of the story in order to critically reassess patterns of Indian migrant labour. It will look beyond longstanding tropes of victimhood and passivity to re-evaluate the role of subaltern networks and subaltern agency in the process of migration, demonstrating how indentured migrants navigated and (re)negotiated identities that were ascribed to them by colonial observers - as slaves and sepoys, coolies and convicts - and exploited opportunities for social mobility. It seeks to show that 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' migrants. By privileging a grassroots, subaltern viewpoint, the project will suggest an interpretation that restores subjectivity and agency to labour migrants' experiences, provide a new approach to the study of Indian labour migration in the nineteenth century, and argue for a more fluid, and multifaceted analysis of the origins of the Indian Diaspora.

The project will hire two PDRA’s, a project manager (part-time), and research assistants in India and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region.

Damaged fishing boat, Telwatte, July 2005