AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 452

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Session 452: Bodies in Motion: Gender, Labor, and Resistance in the Colonial South Asian Diaspora

Organizer: Anand A. Yang, University of Washington, USA

Chair: J. C. Masselos, University of Sydney, Australia

The proposed panel looks at how mobility by men and women from South Asia has been constructed and experienced at home and abroad during the colonial period. It examines the particular experiences of several different groups of migrants who moved or were moved to highlight the repertoire of strategies they employed to adapt to and resist their new conditions of work and living. Papers will range from a broad overview of intraregional and transnational migration of lower caste north Indian women to specific portraits of the lives of lascars in British East India Company ships between the 17th and mid-19th century, the predominantly male convict workers in Singapore during the early nineteenth century, and the changing interactions between Indian and British inhabitants residing in Singapore during the Mutiny/Rebellion of 1857.

Working Across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans: Lascars in Maritime Labor Gangs, 17th to mid-19th Centuries
Michael H. Fisher, Oberlin College, USA

From the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries, tens of thousands of lascars (Asian seamen) worked European ships across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. In Indian ports, lascars boarded as collective, all male, bodies of laborers, a recruitment system that resisted repeated efforts by British authorities to control. Most lascars sailed aboard the English East India Company's armed merchant ships sailing between India and London, where they served alongside--but separately from--Euro-American, Chinese, Arab, and African seamen, distinguished by race, language, culture, and conditions of service. Lascars took orders and were represented by their own petty officers (serangs and tindals) as opposed to the British ship officers. Disembarking in London, they stood as alien men among Britons. This paper explores the lives of lascars as they worked aboard, from the first English East India Company voyages to India (1607) until the Company's loss of its trade monopoly with Asia (1834). Autobiographical, archival, and ethnographic evidence from Britain and India will enable this paper to reconstruct the experiences of lascars in their own terms as they engaged in everyday and overt resistance but also as their labor enabled the intercontinental trade so vital to the burgeoning British Empire in Asia. Case studies and collective patterns will illustrate the condition of being a lascar during this crucial age, from the onset of colonialism in Asia up until the industrialization and routinization of maritime labour produced by the establishment of transoceanic steam-shipping and the opening of British-Asian trade to private merchants.

The Making of Colonial Singapore: Indian Convict Workers and the Emergence of Singapore, 1825-1857
Anand A. Yang, University of Washington, USA

This presentation will focus on the labor contributions that convicts transported from South Asia made to the construction of the colonial entrepot of Singapore in the first half of the nineteenth century. The convicts—overwhelmingly male—were organized and disciplined to maximize their labor input in fabricating the infrastructure of the emerging city of Singapore, from the building of its roads and bridges to the clearing of forest and reclamation of inundated lands to the construction of many of its major edifices. In discussing their roles as convict workers and their efforts to become part of an ‘Indian’ community, it will also consider the disciplinary regime and regimen that they lived under and the resistance strategies they employed to counter British control of their bodies. It will also compare the experiences of convict workers in Singapore with those of their counterparts in other settlements in Southeast Asia, particularly in Bengkulu and Penang.

The 1857 Panic and the Fabrication of an Indian ‘Menace” in Singapore
Rajesh Rai, National University of Singapore, Singapore

This paper examines how local and transnational developments converged in 1857 to transform European attitudes towards Indians inhabitants in Singapore. Recognised in preceding years as dependable servants crucial to the security and development of the colony, by late 1857, Indians in Singapore had come to be viewed as a ‘menace’ and an existential threat to Europeans in the settlement. That change in disposition was largely the product of factors extraneous to the actions of the local Indian inhabitants themselves. Besieged by news of multiple challenges to the British Empire, European nerves were rattled by perceived threats emanating from sections of the ‘native’ populace in Singapore in early 1857. A dispute between Tamil-Muslims and Europeans brought to the fore the latter’s anxieties and prejudices early in the year. That episode was followed, in May, by news of the massive rebellion of native troops in India. The emerging distrust for Indians was exacerbated by public rumours and fanned by editorials and reports published in the local press. Perceptions of immediate danger from the colony of transported convicts, and the fear of an Indian conspiracy during Muharram, sparked a panic that would have major ramifications on the position of Indians in Singapore and leave an imprint on the long term political development of the Straits Settlements.