The histories we write of our modern world are still framed through the lenses of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism, and the discrete spaces of empires and nations. Nowhere is this more evident than in our understanding of the migration of people across continents over the last 400 years. While we know that the history of humankind has been shaped by the restless movement of humans – in search of better environments, more territory and trade as much as sheer adventure – the stories we write of these peripatetic ancestors have come to be shaped by questions of power and necessity alone. Slavery and indenture have become the dominant narratives for understanding the movement of people from Africa and Asia across the ocean. On the other hand, the movement of Europeans across continents has been characterised as arising from a desire for travel and discovery as much as from more practical concerns of new markets.

That historians from Asia and Africa largely subscribe to the idea of forced migration has been the other side of this paradigm. Asians and Africans don’t seem to travel voluntarily; they are forced into labour regimes. They don’t seem to open up new territories; their labour merely serves the interests of European expansion. So, for instance, we know that between 1830 and 1920, 1.3 million Indians worked on indenture contracts in places as far apart as Fiji, Mauritius, British Guinea, the French and Dutch Caribbean, and South Africa. What is less remarked upon is that in the same period 28 million Indians travelled across the world made by the British empire and the networks of capital and labour in the Indian Ocean – to Southeast Asia, particularly Burma, Malaya and Ceylon. A smaller number, about 1,00,000 – merchants, labourers, former soldiers – moved beyond Southeast Asia to Canada, the United States, Mexico, Panama and Argentina. Arguably, these people displayed the same restless energy as Europeans had in exploring already existing networks in the Indian Ocean.

One of the clichés that postcolonial writing has contested is that the native does not travel, the native is travelled to. Historians of Southeast Asia such as Michael Adas and Christopher Baker have shown how, under the carapace of British imperialism, Indian mercantile capital (the Natukottai Chetties) moved outwards from Madras Presidency and opened up Burma to rice cultivation. From the 13th century, the maritime expansion of the Chola empire had already begun to shape the politics, commerce and culture of Cambodia and Indonesia. In the modern period, throughout Southeast Asia, south Indian capital played a role in existing maritime networks, and expanded the frontiers of land cultivation and mercantile activity. Historians have been familiar, for a while now, with the role that Gujarati capital played in East Africa for centuries and in South Africa from the late 19th century.

Many threads

We need to study these histories alongside the histories of indenture if we are to understand more fully the long presence of Indians in South Africa, commencing in Durban through indenture but, over a period of time, becoming one of market gardening, cash crop cultivation and mercantile activity. The story of indenture is as much about forced labour and servitude as one of industry and advancement. Of course, we must also not forget that the first Indians in South Africa were the few thousand brought over as slaves by the Dutch East India Company to the Cape. In short, histories of indenture need to be situated within much larger paradigms than we are accustomed to doing. As Christopher Baker has remarked, alongside the history of European capitalism there is the parallel story of Indian mercantile capital that needs to be told. There is also the story narrated in Rajend Mesthrie’s pioneering Language in Indenture which demands a social history of black and Indian relations that is not governed by sentimentality, suspicion, or hostility. Also, as Gaiutra Bahadur’s work on British Guiana reminds us, indenture contracts not only allowed agency to women emigrating in search of new beginnings, but also restructured domestic arrangements and thereby patriarchy. Closer home Nafeesa Sheik’s work on Durban explores the connections between personal law and gendered authority within the paradigm of a new liberalism.

An Indian trader's family in Bagamoyo, German East Africa, around 1906. Photo credit: Wikipedia

If these several histories of migration have been collapsed into one narrative of enslavement (indenture as a “new kind of slavery” in Hugh Tinker’s old formulation), there is another problem in the historiography. Writing India’s history in terms of a burgeoning nationalism and a terrestrial hypothesis has led to the excision of maritime histories and the story of Indian capital and labour shaping places outside its borders. This is evident in the fixed ideas of the diaspora, the non-resident Indian and the person of Indian origin – ideas that are based on two contradictory notions. First, that no matter how much time passes, those who leave India are bound to India by an umbilical cord. Second, that people who have left India are no longer fully Indian but merely possess some kind of hyphenated identities: South African-Indian, Fijian-Indian and so on. This despite the fact that through the course of centuries, there has been a circulation of Indians across the ocean – settling, moving back, retaining kinship and marriage connections – which has created a space that belies the geography of national belonging. After India became independent, those of Indian origin in South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere were told that they needed to make their homes where they were as also that, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, they were “guests of the Africans”. In short, they were condemned to non-belonging; like the famed mythological king Trishanku, suspended between heaven and earth.

Fresh look

The challenge before us is to bring several overlapping histories of capital, labour, religion and warfare together across time and space, and break free of the amnesia created by histories of nationalism and the liberation struggle. Just as there are histories of pathos, there are histories of triumph and adventure as Amitav Ghosh’s magnificent Ibis trilogy reminds us. We now have to ask ourselves how the movement of Indians across the globe affected the making of nationalism and the nation. How can we bring together the history of indenture, for example, and the history of the making of the Indian nation?

In the 1920s, the Indian National Congress moved away from an elite politics of widening Indian participation in the colonial administration and towards an engagement with the peasantry and the agrarian question. At the heart of this agrarian turn were two contending figures, whose careers had been closely associated with indenture: MK Gandhi in South Africa and Shridhar Balwant Jodhpurkar, known as Baba Ramchandra, who had been an indentured labourer in Fiji. On his return to India, Gandhi continued to invoke the idea of imperial citizenship and the duties of the British Empire in his early campaigns in Champaran and Kheda. Baba Ramchandra, on the other hand, invoked a religious idiom and local traditions in launching a hugely successful peasant agitation in the United Provinces between 1919 and 1921. His charismatic and millenarian style of politics emerged as a threat to the secular style and hierarchical organisation of the Congress. Both Nehru and Gandhi worked to subdue and co-opt the peasant movement in the United Provinces, and delegitimise the maverick authority of Baba Ramchandra. I argue that Gandhi discovered the power of the religious idiom in mass mobilisation through this encounter, even as he went on to create his own distinctive idiom. Both of these figures were crucial to the reorientation of the Congress towards rural organisation given their experience of working with labour unlike the largely professional leadership of the Congress.

This essay is an initial foray into giving the histories of indenture a central place in the writing of modern Indian history rather than seeing it as merely external to the formation of the Indian nation.

Dilip M Menon is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand.