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Research Seminar - Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, Birkbeck University of London, School of Law

Location: Room S2.12 Law School, Social Sciences Building

Title: ‘Fleshed in the Emptiness of Folk’: Law, Literature and Indenture

Abstract: The British colonial indentureship period contracted over one million South Asian and East Asian people to carry out mainly agricultural labour in British colonies around the world from the 1830s until the 1920s, crossing over a dozen jurisdictions and involving a range of ethnicities, religions and social castes in the process. This mass migration was administered by both governmental and private entities, and the resulting labour economy was exploited, both politically and financially, by the British ruling classes.

Literary writing on the indentureship period reveals, in contrast to historical or legal writing, what Toni Morrison (1987) and Katherine McKittrick (2006) calls the ‘interior lives’ of migrants and their descendants, who laboured for subsequent generations on sugar and rice estates. Examination of the everyday lives of indentured labourers and their descendants is an important and overlooked window into understanding the indentureship period on a systemic level. Features of international legal concepts, from universality to forms of ethno-national subordination, are present in the mundane, everyday occurrences in the lives of these labourers (L. Eslava & S. Pahuja, 2011). More important, perhaps, are the ways in which descendents of those who migrated experience time and place in their own relationships to indenture history, via a choral and itinerant engagement with memory and ancestry. Literature, with its range of temporal, physical and narratival perspectives, makes this engagement legible, and is thus an indispensible contribution to imagining the indentureship period as it relates to history and legal thought.

The first part of this paper examines concepts of TWAIL in several literary texts on the indenture period from India and the Caribbean, including Amitav Ghosh’s novel A Sea of Poppies, and the poetry of David Dabydeen and Mahadai Das. The second part of the paper examines the relationship between imagery of the living, the dead, and the inanimate, the present, the absent, and the spectral in the negotiation of the global labour economy of indenture and its aftermath. To this end, the paper seeks to underscore the role of the international legal order in shaping the everyday lives of the labourers and their descendants. It also aims to, through reading the silences of administrative records, depict the reconfiguration of time, space and location by way of an intergenerational awareness—one that is keenly aware of the continuities of colonialism in the present day.

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