Cambridge University launches Indian indentured Labour History Fellowship

The University of Cambridge has created what is believed to be the first-ever visiting fellowship into the study of indentured labour

The University of Cambridge has created what is believed to be the first-ever visiting fellowship into the study of indentured labour, the controversial system involving millions of Indians that replaced slavery during British colonisation.

The university’s Selwyn College appointed Guyanese-American Professor Gaiutra Bahadur last week as the “Ramesh and Leela Narain visiting bye-fellow in Indentureship Studies”.

Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture’, a major study of the lives of Indian women who became indentured labourers to colonial plantations in the 19th century.

I am honoured and delighted to be the inaugural visiting bye-fellow in indentureship studies, said Bahadur.

When I first began doing research in this area, the funding just wasn’t there, so it was in many ways a labour of love. That’s why I’m so happy to see there’s now visibility and funding like this to help future researchers, she said.

Selwyn College and the Ameena Gafoor Institute, which studies indentureship and its legacy, collaborated closely in setting up the programme which allows a scholar to spend eight weeks at the university to conduct their research.

The programme will run for an initial five years.

The study and documentation of indentureship is undoubtedly valuable, but it has barely been included in the history syllabi of British and European Universities a staggering omission considering the millions of individuals, and indeed entire cultures, irrevocably shaped by indentureship and its legacies, said Professor David Dabydeen, the Guyanese novelist, poet and academic who is the director of the Ameena Gafoor Institute.

That is why this fellowship, and hopefully eventually establishing a Professorship, is so important. Cambridge has created an academic subject, bringing it from the margins to the very centre. I am immensely grateful to the Gafoor family in Guyana for helping to make all this possible, he said.

According to the institute, in relation to the British colonial period and Empire, the largest and most concerted expression of indenture a temporary contract between employer and labourer occurred between 1834 and 1920, when 2 million Indians, and thousands of others from across Asia, Africa, and Oceania were exploited under a system intended to replace enslaved African labour in the Caribbean and Mauritius.

Often recruited with false promises and misinformation, workers had little recourse to justice from a colonial project that was entirely dependent on their labour for its capital. Wherever it has occurred, indenture has almost universally included forms of abuse and exploitation, it notes.

The study of indentureship and its legacies was one of the recommendations made in a university report on the Legacies of Enslavement’ by Cambridge Advisory Group.

The university said it is hoped that enough funding will eventually be raised to establish a permanent Professorship in the subject, based at Cambridge.

The initiative forms part of a wider debate in the UK around decolonising history and presenting wider perspectives.

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