The Indentured Archipelago: Experiences of Indian Labour in Mauritius and Fiji/1871–1916 | Reshaad Durgahee

Between 1834 and 1917, some 1.37 million Indian migrants travelled the length and breadth of the British Empire under contracts of indentureship. Chiefly contracted to work on colonial plantations, in the place of formerly enslaved Africans, Indian migrants found themselves in destinations as far flung as Mauritius (off the coast of Africa), Fiji (in the Pacific Ocean), British Guiana (in South America), and Trinidad (in the Caribbean).(1) Despite just how far reaching this migration stream grew to be, few historical works have engaged with its truly global nature, nor indeed of the connections that enabled and perpetuated it. Rather, as Reshaad Durgahee aptly notes, much of the scholarship on Indian indentured labour suffers from a somewhat ironic ‘methodological nationalism’ (p. 233), evident in a persistent tendency to focus on the experiences of indentureship within a specific colony or set of colonies. It is to Durgahee’s credit, then, that The Indentured Archipelago clearly, and convincing, illustrates the importance of considering the global nature of indentureship, offering a timely reconceptualization of both the system, and of the lives of those who lived through it.

As is perhaps fitting, this truly significant contribution to the historiography of indentureship is not written by a historian, but rather a historical geographer. Imbued with the geographer’s concerns for notions of ‘space’, The Indentured Archipelago presents a dramatic reimagining of both the spatiality of indentureship, and of the mobility of those who navigated this historical space. The first of The Indentured Archipelago’s most significant contributions is the book’s namesake: the ‘indentured archipelago.’ Drawing inspiration from prior invocations of the ‘archipelago’ metaphor, such as Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Durgahee stresses the need to look beyond the geographical remoteness of individual recipient colonies to see the connections which brought these disparate places together. As put by Durgahee, in one of countless beautiful metaphors, the fact that these colonies were ‘scattered confetti-like across the world’s tropical sugar-producing belt’ (p. 1) should not detract from the significant demographical, social, cultural, economic, and political changes these territories shared solely because of indentured migration. In doing so, Durgahee and the concept of the ‘indentured archipelago’ are to be praised for offering an important lens through which to re-examine indentureship, moving beyond a singular focus on what made a specific colony or colonies’ experiences unique, to instead examine the clear linkages between them. Whilst the most obvious of these connections were, of course, the migrants themselves, Durgahee reminds us that these also included the practices which regulated indentured labour, the networks which sustained it, and the inter-imperial relations which defined post-emancipatory struggles for access to labour (p. 237).

The second significant contribution of The Indentured Archipelago is the interrelated notion of ‘subaltern careering.’ Informed by David Lambert and Alan Lester’s work on ‘imperial careering,’ Durgahee stresses that, like the colonial officials and missionaries of the former work, some indentured labourers were also incredibly mobile individuals, who made ‘careers’ from themselves as they travelled the length and breadth of the Empire.(2) Specifically, Durgahee explores the trajectories which migrants forged across the Empire via ‘re-migration’, i.e., the signing of subsequent contracts of indentureship following the completion of their initial terms of service. Through remigration, Durgahee stresses the agency which migrants expressed, as they travelled between various British, as well as non-British, colonies to find further or better opportunities for work. As stressed by Durgahee, remigration is a topic which has seldom been addressed by scholarship on indentureship. This is, in large part, because of the significant challenges encountered in attempting to trace migrants across various archival sites. Despite such difficulties, this study of remigration is significant for two reasons. In the first instance, it goes some way to counteracting the effective pacification of indentured migrants in historical narratives, emphasising the clear choices that  migrants made in terms of where to travel, who with, and for what purpose. Secondly, subaltern careering also serves to flesh out the ideas of connectedness  which underpin the ‘indentured archipelago’, with the movement of Indian migrants within, and beyond, the bounds of the British Empire giving substance to the close connections between various recipient colonies.

The Indentured Archipelago is organised into four chapters (excluding its introduction). Chapters two and three explore migrant experiences of indentureship in Mauritius and Fiji respectively. As discussed in more detail below, these chapter discuss a wider range of topics—including housing, sanitation, children, suicide—examining some of the ways in which indentured labourers were able to exert agency over their lives whilst under contract. Far more interesting, I believe, are chapters four and five, which are by far the work’s strongest. In chapter four, Durgahee offers an in-depth examination of remigration, exploring some of the ways in which Indian migrants travelled between different labour sites after their first terms of indenture. The three chief trajectories that Durgahee explores are remigration from India, remigration from one colony to another, and finally remigration from plantations in the interior. First, Durgahee explores how some of the migrants who returned to India after the completion of their original ten years of service subsequently came to remigrate, either back to their original destinations or elsewhere. Perhaps most surprisingly, Durgahee illustrates the consternation which characterised official attitudes towards these ‘old migrants,’ who were often seen as more truculent than their less-experienced counterparts. This, in turn, illustrates one of the inherent tensions underpinning the system, namely the need for experienced, but also compliant, labour. After a brief discussion of colony-to-colony, remigration, Durgahee also considers the links between seasonal migration and indentureship. For instance, the chapter notes how those employed on plantations in Assam, Burma, and Cachar subsequently engaged in contracts of indentureship to work overseas. One such example of this is that of Johorruddy, originally indentured in Mauritius but who died on the way to Cachar, which Durgahee explores as an example of subaltern careering in the chapter’s final section (pp. 191–2). This emphasis on the links between overland and overseas migration is especially noteworthy, given the tendency to see these two migration streams as distinctive when, as Durgahee reminds us, the labour market in India at this time was fluid and presented various opportunities for mobility.

Equally interesting, and valuable, is chapter five, which explores how certain recipient colonies became entrepôts for subsequent remigration. This, in part I assume, explains the brisk discussion of colony-to-colony migration in chapter four. In a chapter that bears favourable comparison to Thomas Metcalfe’s Imperial Connections, Durgahee explores how the geographical significance of specific colonies facilitated migration beyond the official emigration machinery overseen by the Government of India.(3) Starting with Mauritius, Durgahee explores the colony’s growing importance as a site of remigration to the French colony of Reunion, quite despite official remonstrances about poor conditions in the colony. Secondly, Durgahee explores private efforts to recruit Indian labourers from Fiji to the New Hebrides, as well as attempts by a group of Punjabi migrants to travel to New Caledonia. Finally, Durgahee explores some outlandish examples of remigration, such as the introduction of Indian migrants to sugar plantations in Brazil, and the subsequent storm in a teacup their repatriation created between various governmental departments in Mauritius and Whitehall. The importance of this chapter, I believe, is threefold. Firstly, its focus on remigration illustrates the limits of British efforts to regulate indentured labour. Too often, there is a tendency to see indentured migration as a monolith and systematised assemblage, in which every aspect of a migrant’s progress was measured, and attended to, by some regulation or another. However, examples such as the difficulties officials in Mauritius faced in preventing remigration to Reunion (pp. 209–12), demonstrate the limits of colonial abilities to restrict migrant movement after the completion of their terms of service. Second, in focusing upon inter-, as well as intra-, colonial migration, Durgahee demonstrates just how important it is to look beyond national boundaries. Whilst some works have focused on Indian migration to non-British colonies such as Suriname, and Reunion, Durgahee’s integration of these into the same frame as intra-colonial migration emphasises the need to think about the broader challenges faced in overseeing the global labour market in the post-emancipatory world.(4) It also illustrates the fact that colonial officials were still held responsible for Indian migrants, even after their original terms of indenture were completed.

Finally, this chapter draws attention to the important, if overlooked, role which private interests played in facilitating indentured migration. There was, of course, some private speculation in the earlier days of indentured migration, most famously the ‘Gladstone experiment’, but historiography has seen indentureship as an increasingly government-run enterprise as the nineteenth century rolled on.(5) As Stan Neal’s Singapore, Chinese Migration and the Making of the British Empire reminds us, however, private individuals and firms, such as Jardine Matheson, were central to providing the knowledge, both commercial and logistical, which enabled indentured migration.(6) In a comparable way, Durgahee’s discussion of Indian migration to Brazil, as well as failed efforts to introduce labourers to the New Hebrides and Guatemala, remind us that private interests continued to assert an important influence on the geography of indentured migration. Moreover, they also remind us of the opportunities open to time-expired migrants in the global labour market. In consequence, future studies would do well to explore how time-expired migrants participated in this global labour market after indentureship, and how their involvement in such created the kinds of friction explored in the case of remigration to Reunion (pp. 109–12).

There is much to praise in The Indentured Archipelago, but it is not without its faults. Admittedly, some of these are quite minor. For instance, whilst Durgahee is correct to suggest that ‘little consideration’ has been given to remigration in existing scholarship, it’s surprising that he doesn’t engage with one of the few works which does discuss the issue, Lomarsh Roopnarine’s article in the New West India Guide.(7) The Indentured Archipelago certainly offers a far more in-depth discussion than Roopnarine’s article, but it does seem strange that this work doesn’t engage with it, given how little else has been written about the topic. More pressingly, I believe that Durgahee might have broadened the scope of ‘subaltern careering’ to also address the issue of Sirdars. Comparable to overseers, Sirdars supervised their designated labour gangs and were responsible for administrative tasks such as the weekly distribution of wages. As Marina Carter and Crispin Bates have illustrated, Sirdars also came to play an increasingly pivotal role in emigration to Mauritius. Serving as ‘labour intermediaries’, Sirdars became response for the recruitment of labourers in India, travelling seasonally between Mauritius and India to engage others.(8) The success of this system hinged on the bonds of trust and communality wielded by the Sirdar, who were seen as more reputable than professional recruiters, or ‘crimps’, as well as more capable of assessing the most suitable candidates for labour. To some extent, then, Sirdars also engaged in a form of ‘subaltern careering.’ After rising to the rank of Sirdar, some migrants effectively became just as, if not more, mobile than those who participated in remigration, travelling back and forth between India to recruit others. In short, the concept of ‘subaltern careering’ perhaps needs some expansion, to better acknowledge the various forms of mobility available to migrants beyond just remigration.

My second chief complaint with this otherwise excellent work is the “looseness” of chapters two and three, which address migrant experiences in Mauritius and Fiji. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these chapters. They are both well-cited and expressed, engaging with a much broader range of topics than much of the existing scholarship. For instance, these chapters included very interesting discussions about the specific experiences of Indian children, as they found themselves passed amongst relatives or family friends after the deaths of their parents (pp. 58–64). There is also a more typical, if not still original, examination of migrant dwellings, which considers their condition in the context of broader environmental factors, such as access to water and the topography of plantation environs (pp. 102–122). Rather than their specific content, then, my complaint is that these chapters lack a strong central narrative thread, feeling more like an, albeit interesting, an assortment of topics than a cohesive whole. I appreciate there are likely reasons for why this might be the case. Given that Durgahee emphasises the connective, rather than comparative, nature of his work, this perhaps represents a desire to allow the reader to see the clear similarities between migrants’ experiences in Mauritius and Fiji without engaging in blunt force comparison. On a separate note, there is also a subtle irony in the fact that these chapters have fixed geographical focuses, given the fluidity, and mobility, which Durgahee illustrates in his central thesis and final two chapters. To overcome these issues, Durgahee might have focused a bit more on the interconnected nature of migrant experiences in Mauritius and Fiji. For example, how did migrant experiences in one colony change because of migration from other colonies, and the differing perspectives this might have brought? In short, Durgahee might demonstrated some of the material consequences of their shared experiences as part of the ‘indentured archipelago.’

I must stress, however, that these reservations are minor. To be frank, The Indentured Archipelago offers one of the most novel, and transformative, contributions to indentureship scholarship yet written. Its stress on the interconnectedness of various recipient colonies as part of an ‘indentured archipelago’ hopefully heralds the start of a paradigm shift within historiography, encouraging a much more consorted engagement with the globality of indentureship as a system and an experience. Beyond bringing the geographer’s concerns for space to the table, however, Durgahee work also, and perhaps far more importantly, stresses the historical agency of indentured migrants exercised as they made their ways across the lengths and breadths of the Empire and beyond, reminding us that it was far more complex than simply a ‘new system of slavery.’ (9)


1 David Northrup, Indentured Labour in the Age of Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 156–157.

2 David Lambert & Alan Lester (eds), Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

3 Thomas R. Metcalfe, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860 – 1920 (Berkley: University of California Press, 2008).

4 Rosemarijn Hoefte, ‘A Passage to Suriname? Migration of Modes of Resistance by Asian Contract Laborers,’ International Labor and Working-Class History, 54 (1998): 19 – 39; Richard B. Allen, ‘The Mascarene slave-trade and labour migration in the Indian Ocean during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,’ Slavery & Abolition, 24.2 (2008): 33 – 50.

5 Purba Hossein, ‘A Matter of Doubt & Uncertainty’: John Gladstone and the Post-Slavery Framework of Labour in the British Empire,’ The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 50.1 (2022): 52 – 80.

6 Stan Neal, Singapore, Chinese Migration, and the Making of the British Empire, 1819–67 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2019).

7 Lomarsh Roopnarine, ‘The Repatriation, Readjustment, and Second-Term Migration of ex-Indentured Indian Laborers from British Guiana and Trinidad to India, 1838 – 1955,’ New West Indian Guide, 83, 1&2 (2009): 71 – 97.

8 Crispin Bates and Marina Carter, ‘Sirdars as Intermediaries in Nineteenth Century Indian Ocean Indentured Labour Migration,’ Modern Asian Studies, 51.2 (2017): 462 – 484.

9 Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830 – 1920 (Hertfordshire: Hansib, 1993).


Jamie Banks – Loughborough University.

Referências desta Resenha

DURGAHEE, Reshaad. The Indentured Archipelago: Experiences of Indian Labour in Mauritius and Fiji, 1871–1916. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Resenha de: BANKS, Jamie. Reviews in History. Londres, n. 2470, jan. 2023. Acessar publicação original [DR/JF]

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