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Dr Sascha Auerbach
University of Nottingham
Research Fellowship

Race, labour and the ‘overseer state’ in the British Empire, 1838–1917

Sascha Auerbach will re-appraise indentured labour in the nineteenth-century British Empire and offer an important critical angle in current debates over the legacies of slavery

Illustration of Indian and Chinese indentured labourers on a plantation in British Guiana, from John Edward Jenkins, The Coolie: His Rights and His Wrongs (New York: Routledge, 1871).

My project will address some of the crucial political, economic, social and moral questions raised by the long history of migration and exchange between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. It will also offer a significant new perspective on current debates over the legacies of slavery and other forms of coerced labour. Both public and scholarly discussions of these legacies are often animated by a key question: should our historical understanding of Britain and the Empire in the post-slavery era be defined by its earlier role in sustaining plantation slavery and the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, or instead by its suppression of the trade in 1807 and abolition of slavery in 1834?

The proposed project will break new ground on this subject by examining how indentured labour (long-term, semi-coercive contract labour by Indian and Chinese immigrants), widely adopted across Britain’s tropical possessions after 1834, reshaped the role of the state in labour organisation and race relations. In particular, the project will ask if, instead of transforming from a “slave state” into an “abolitionist state” or “post-slavery society,” as current scholarship asserts, Britain instead transitioned into the role of an “overseer state.” In this latter formation, state agents colluded with employers to control a multiracial labour force that was legally free, but ensnared in a dense web of punitive labour laws and coercive management practices. In the broadest frame, my research will offer new perspectives on the historical relationship between the West and the Global South, on how modern structures of labour organisation evolved to allow the former’s domination of the latter, and on the many modes of response and resistance that developed in consequence. 

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