ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Occupational Mobility and Labour Migration in the Colonial Indian Ocean




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


 It is a well-known orientalist trope to describe India as a ‘static’ society, a country of ‘village republics’ inhabited by castes, each with their own particular occupational specialisation. This trope of statis featured in James Mill’s History of British India, and continued throughout the 19th century in data like official censuses which summarised the varnas and castes of India and ascribed an occupation to each. The idea of a ‘static’ rural India locked into a cycle of backwardness which could not be penetrated by urban capital survived into the modern era. Anthropologists have argued that colonialism even ‘fixed’ identities and occupational specialisations to a greater extent than before (Dirks 2001). The purpose of this paper is to highlight the contrary evidence, that colonial India saw not only a massive increase in mobility, but also created opportunities for flexibility in employment.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the movements of Indians from rural to urban areas and in migration for employment overseas. The paper also argues that traditional demarcations of subaltern migrants, for example as sepoys, servants, lascars and coolies have not served historians well in the task of unravelling the complex multi-generational and imaginative routes to re-employment in a variety of occupations and destinations, in the course of which recruitment for service at home and overseas was a means to an end and not an end in itself.