Indian Servitude in the British Empire

Authored by: Vinay Lal

Routledge Handbook of the Indian Diaspora

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138942899
eBook ISBN: 9781315672571
Adobe ISBN:


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The story of Indian servitude in the British empire remains little known, even to most middle-class Indians, though awareness of the diversity of Indian overseas communities has grown in recent years. The Indian diasporic population in the United States, in contrast, has hogged the limelight among what are called “overseas Indians”, and indeed it was pre-eminently Indian Americans that the Government of India had in mind when, commencing in the late 1980s, it began deploying terms such as “Non-Resident Indian” and later “Overseas Citizen of India” (Lal, 2003). One could take pride in the achievements of Indians in the United States, which in part explains why the present Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has made four trips to the US in the past two years, twice as many as to any other country; on the other hand, there was always more than a tinge of embarrassment about the older Indian diaspora. However, as David Northrup was to suggest in his influential history of indentured labour in the age of imperialism, even “most well-informed people” in the West know little or nothing of this history, and imagine that the term “indentured labour refers only to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century migration from Europe to the Americas” (Northrup, 1995, ix). The scholar of Indian indentured labour must therefore contend at the outset with the problem of the phenomenon’s relative invisibility.

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