International Review of Social History

Mobility and Containment: The Voyages of South Asian Seamen, c.1900–1960 1

Ravi Ahuja 


In the political and economic context of imperialism, the enormous nineteenth-century expansion of shipping within and beyond the Indian Ocean facilitated the development of a new and increasingly transcontinental regime of labour circulation. The Indian subcontinent, it is well known, emerged as a seemingly inexhaustible source for plantation, railway, and port labour in British colonies across the globe. Moreover, the new and predominantly seaborne “circulatory regime” itself relied to a considerable extent on the labour power of South Asian workers, on the lascar, as the maritime counterpart of the “coolie” labourer was called.


1 Research for this article was undertaken during a fellowship at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (Berlin) and funded by the German Research Council. I have greatly profited from the lively discussions of the Centre's Indian Ocean History Group (K. Bromber, J.-G. Deutsch, M. Frenz, F. Hartwig, P. Krajewski, and B. Reinwald). Earlier versions were presented at the 4th International Conference of the Association of Indian Labour Historians (Noida, March 2004), at the biennial conference of the German African Studies Association (VAD, Hanover, June 2004), and at the 18th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies (Lund, July 2004). I am grateful for the critical comments and valuable suggestions received from many colleagues, especially from Gopalan Balachandran, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, and Marcel van der Linden, though I do not wish to implicate any of them in my conclusions. The location of archival material is indicated by the following abbreviations: ILO (Archives of the International Labour Organization, Geneva); NAI (National Archives of India, New Delhi); NMML (Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi); OIOC (Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library, London); PRO (Public Record Office, London).