Rethinking the movement of people
The challenge is to bring histories of capital, labour, religion and warfare together across time and space
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.