ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Biographies of Servitude: Life histories of Domestic Servants from the Colonial archive


Varma Nitin - Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, IGK Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History, Berlin, Germany


14 – Servitude and Mobility in Pre-Colonial and Colonial South Asia


Drawing upon a range of legal and ego documents from 19th-century northern India, this paper employs a microhistorical” methodological approach to reconstructing the life trajectories of individuals who worked as domestic servants in Anglo-Indian households. I contend that a “life trajectory” approach is more amenable to the nature of historical material and the possibilities of historical reconstruction from colonial archives. The paper, therefore, directly engages with the question and potential of a life course approach for subaltern groups in an early nineteenth-century colonial setting. Notwithstanding the methodological challenges that are inherent in the reconstruction of life trajectories of individuals who worked as domestics, I contend that such an attempt also has the potential to move beyond the normative and formulaic portrayal of domestics that is prevalent in the contemporary literature and specific established approaches in the existing scholarly literature. I employ the notion of life in a double sense. In a more familiar understanding, lives refer to the life trajectories of the individual servants that I will reconstruct. At the same time, I use the notion to probe the trajectory of the category itself (i.e. domestic servant) and shifts across space and time.