Research on Indentured Labor in British Empire Reexamines Cultural Narratives about Indian Ocean World

Alexandra Sundarsingh (History) is a 2023–2024 HRI Graduate Fellow. Sundarsingh’s dissertation, “Unraveling Indenture: Racial Indenture and Unfree Labour in the Indian Ocean World, 1815-1965,” argues that to understand the creation and operation of racial indenture in the British Empire as well as the expansion and racialization of unfree labor, it is necessary to examine its operation in the Indian Ocean World.

Learn more about HRI’s Campus Fellowship Program, which supports a cohort of faculty and graduate students through a year of dedicated research and writing in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment.

What is unique about your research on this topic?

My dissertation explores the way that replacing chattel slavery with indentured labor in the British Empire unevenly mapped onto the racial landscape of the Indian Ocean World, and what that history can tell us about the traditional narrative of a world that progressed from slavery to ‘free’ labor. Racial indenture meant that the old practice of indenture was revived, haphazardly stitched onto local understandings of debt bondage and migrant labor, and given a racial character wherein certain people filled the role of the indentured across empire – so much so that other empires asked for the loan of those people to labor in their territories as well!

While prior histories of indenture have focused almost entirely on the Caribbean, or have skirted the IOW, focusing on Fiji and South Africa, my work takes as its heart the practice of racial indenture in British Malaya, now Malaysia and Singapore. This helps us to dislodge the traditional narratives of the way race figures into the story of global labor migration, and to contribute a new thread to the understanding of how South Asians come to be seen as a pliable, mobile workforce even in the present. As well, my work really focuses on the role that different cultural understandings of debt and the slippage between them played in the success of indenture as an imperial institution that came to overlap with and consume several others that ran in parallel to it in the region.

What drives your interest in this research?

My interest in this research is partially born out of my heritage; my dad’s family are descended from indentured South Asian laborers who worked in Trinidad. But it is also partially born out of a love of Malaysia and a recognition of common experiences that I see there.

Malaysia was one of the first countries I visited alone as a young adult, and I was amazed at how similar I found some of the South Asian food and culture there on my first visit. In the years since, I’ve learned that the same institutions that brought my ancestors to the Americas brought some South Asians there at the same time. I was really inspired to try to connect the experience of those workers who travelled to Malaysia to the stories about indenture that I had grown up with, and to try to learn more about both histories in the process through seeking both similarities and differences.

Sundarsingh presenting during HRI's Graduate Student Open House and Resource Fair in 2024.
Sundarsingh presenting during HRI’s Graduate Student Open House and Resource Fair in 2024. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

How has the fellowship seminar impacted the way you approach your research?

The Fellowship seminar has really helped me cement my commitment to writing in experimental and interdisciplinary ways. I’ve been encouraged and challenged to hone and justify my use of personal narrative in my academic writing, and to communicate the urgency of these histories to people who not only work on other things, but who might not initially see a connection between their work and mine. I think both things have made me a little sharper as a scholar and more compassionate as a reader and writer. It’s hard work to make your findings available to more than a specialist audience, but it’s work I think we should all be doing more of.