The University of Cambridge has inaugurated a visiting fellowship focused on the study of Indian indentureship, a significant yet often overlooked chapter in history. This fellowship aims to shed light on the plight of thousands of Indians who were subjected to laborious conditions in British colonies during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Originating in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1834, indentureship saw waves of Indians embarking on journeys from their homeland to destinations such as the Caribbean, South Africa, Mauritius, and Fiji. Their labor was primarily employed in sugar plantations, a challenging period spanning from 1838 to 1917.
While many returned to India, a considerable number chose to remain in these far-off lands, forming what we now recognize as the Indian diaspora.
The distinguished Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge has taken a pivotal step towards comprehending the lives of these individuals. Professor Gaiutra Bahadur, a prominent Guyana-born scholar, has been appointed as the Ramesh and Leela Narain Visiting Bye-Fellow in Indentureship Studies. This unique position, commonly held by scholars not directly affiliated with the college, is set to pave the way for deeper insight into this transformative period of history.
“I am truly honored and thrilled to assume the role of the inaugural visiting bye-fellow in indentureship studies,” expressed Bahadur, who currently serves as an associate professor in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at Rutgers University in Newark. She added, “The recognition and funding now available for research in this area are truly heartening and will greatly aid future researchers.”
Bahadur, acclaimed for her work ‘Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture’, a book that was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, is a leading authority on the lives of Indian women who were indentured laborers in colonial plantations during the 19th century.
Collaborating with the London-based Ameena Gafoor Institute, Selwyn College has devised an eight-week research program for the visiting fellow. This initiative, scheduled for an initial five-year term, seeks to unravel the intricacies of indentureship and its enduring impact.
Professor David Dabydeen, the director of the Ameena Gafoor Institute, emphasized the pressing need to document and study indentureship, a facet often marginalized in British and European history curricula. He labeled the neglect of this topic a “staggering omission,” given the profound influence of indentureship on countless lives and cultures.
This fellowship, according to Dabydeen, signifies a significant leap in elevating the study of indentureship to a central academic position. He added, “Cambridge has brought this subject from the periphery to the forefront, paving the way for potential establishment of a professorship.”
The impetus for this initiative came in part from the recommendations of the Legacies of Enslavement at Cambridge Advisory Group. The University envisions that sustained funding will eventually facilitate the creation of a permanent professorship dedicated to this crucial subject, firmly rooted within the institution.