Re­think­ing the move­ment of peo­ple

The chal­lenge is to bring his­to­ries of cap­i­tal, labour, re­li­gion and war­fare to­gether across time and space

The Mercury - - NEWS -

THE his­to­ries that we write of our mod­ern world are framed through the lenses of im­pe­ri­al­ism, colo­nial­ism and na­tion­al­ism. Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent in our un­der­stand­ings of 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, trade and sheer ad­ven­ture – the sto­ries we write of th­ese peri­patetic an­ces­tors have come to be shaped by ques­tions of power and ne­ces­sity. Slav­ery and in­den­ture have been 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 an en­er­getic im­pulse char­ac­terised by the de­sire for travel and dis­cov­ery, as much as more prac­ti­cal con­cerns of new mar­kets. The fact that his­to­ri­ans from Asia and Africa largely subscribe to an idea of forced mi­gra­tions 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.

For in­stance, we know that be­tween 1830 and 1920, 1.3 mil­lion In­di­ans worked on in­den­ture con­tracts in places as far as Fiji, Mau­ri­tius, Bri­tish Guinea, the French and Dutch Caribbean and South Africa.

What is less re­marked upon, in the same pe­riod, is that 28 mil­lion In­di­ans trav­elled across the world made by the Bri­tish Em­pire and the net­works of cap­i­tal and labour in the In­dian Ocean to South East Asia, par­tic­u­larly Burma, Malaya and Cey­lon. Ar­guably, th­ese in­di­vid­u­als dis­played the same rest­less en­ergy as Euro­peans had in ex­plor­ing al­ready ex­ist­ing net­works in the In­dian Ocean.

One of the clichés that post-colo­nial writ­ing has con­tested is that the na­tive does not travel, the na­tive is trav­elled to. His­to­ri­ans of south east Asia like 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 South East Asia, south In­dian cap­i­tal played a role in ex­ist­ing mar­itime net­works and ex­panded the fron­tiers of land cul­ti­va­tion and mer­can­tile ac­tiv­ity. His­to­ri­ans are more fa­mil­iar with the role that Gu­jarati cap­i­tal played in East Africa for cen­turies and in South Africa from the late 19th cen­tury.

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 then 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. 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.

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.

If th­ese sev­eral his­to­ries of mi­gra­tion have been all 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 the his­tory of In­dia in terms of a bur­geon­ing na­tion­al­ism and a ter­res­trial hy­poth­e­sis, has led to the ex­ci­sion of mar­itime his­to­ries and largely for­got­ten the story of In­dian cap­i­tal and labour out­side the bor­ders of the na­tion. This is ev­i­dent in fixed ideas of the di­as­pora, the non-res­i­dent In­dian, the per­son of In­dian ori­gin which are based on two con­tra­dic­tory ideas. First, that no mat­ter how much time passes, those who left In­dia are bound to In­dia by an um­bil­i­cal cord. Sec­ond, that those who have left In­dia are no longer fully In­dian but merely 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 and a space has been cre­ated through this move­ment of peo­ples that be­lies the ge­og­ra­phy of na­tional be­long­ing.

Af­ter In­dia be­came in­de­pen­dent, those of In­dian ori­gin in South Africa, Kenya and else­where were told they needed to make their homes where they were, and also that they were “guests of the Africans”, in Nehru’s words. In short, con­demned to non-be­long­ing, like the famed king of mythol­ogy, Tr­is­hanku, sus­pended be­tween heaven and earth.

The chal­lenge be­fore us is to bring th­ese sev­eral 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 has re­minded us.

We now have to ask our­selves: how did the move­ment of In­di­ans across the globe have an im­pact on the mak­ing of na­tion­al­ism and the na­tion.

How can we bring to­gether the his­tory of in­den­ture, for ex­am­ple, along with the his­tory of the mak­ing of the In­dian na­tion? The story of Gandhi, forg­ing the tools of po­lit­i­cal strug­gle in South Africa among wealthy Gu­jarati mer­chants and op­pressed Tamil, Tel­ugu and north In­dian labour­ers and then car­ry­ing this across the ocean to change the face of the na­tion­al­ist move­ment in In­dia is merely one such story. There are many such sto­ries wait­ing to be re­cov­ered. More­over, a his­to­rian of in­den­ture can­not merely be a his­to­rian of South Africa or In­dia.

The move­ments of In­di­ans have cre­ated a his­tory in the world that needs a rewrit­ing of world his­tory in mod­ern times.

Ship names and ra­tions.

The first auc­tion of sugar in Natal.­cury TheMer­curySA Mer­cpic TheMer­curySA

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