The Kleh Lecture

Contractual Intimacies: British Indentureship, from Kolkata to Kingston

By Eddie Bruce-Jones

Dr. Eddie Bruce-Jones

Monday, October 5, 2020
12:45 – 2:00 pm

The British colonial system of indentureship, bridging enslavement with the Windrush Era, was established to sustain global sugar production after the abolition of slavery, sending 1.5 million Indian and Chinese labourers to Jamaica, Guyana and other territories between 1845 and 1917. The 100th anniversary of the abolition of British indentureship in 2017 marked a renaissance of governmental, civil-society and scholarly activity on the legacy of indentureship. However, there is a great deal of scholarly work yet to be done on this important social, political and economic system of labour exploitation and racial capitalism.

The work required to fully understand and critically interrogate the indenture system and its significance both to the nation-building project of empire as well as the interior lives of the indentured labourers and their descendants, is by its very nature, interdisciplinary. It involves examination of the legal and administrative structures that enabled the indenture system to emerge in the orbit of the transatlantic slavery system. It also requires a close look at the literature written by descendants of indentured labourers, which allows a window into the effects of the system on the material conditions and identity of a significant part of the South Asian diaspora. Finally, a look at the archival records from the era, including for example indentures, colonial planning records and correspondence on mortality rates during the transport, allows critical historians to ask questions that demand imaginative interpretive inquiry.

This lecture outlines an ongoing project that exploring the relationship between the lifeways of indentured labourers through literature and archival records. The project interrogates the relationship between the various legal frameworks mobilised by the indenture contracts in the regulation of everyday lives of labourers, including immigration law, private contract law, criminal law, labour law, and family law. This aspect of the project is relevant to legal theorists and legal historians and helps situate indentureship as a legal form in the context of the British colonial era. The project suggests ways in which diasporic imaginings of indenture contest the temporal and spatial rigidity of conventional legal historical narratives.

About the Speaker

Professor Bruce-Jones is the deputy dean of Birkbeck College School of Law, where he is also head of the Department of Law. During his time at Birkbeck, he has served as the school’s acting dean (Autumn 2018), assistant dean for recruitment and internationalisation (2015–18), and as a member of the college board of governors (2015–18). Prior to joining Birkbeck, Dr. Bruce-Jones was visiting lecturer in Public International Law at King’s College London and an associate in the London office of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, where in addition to corporate practice, he handled several asylum and public international law pro bono matters.

Professor Bruce-Jones is the author of Race in the Shadow of Law: State Violence in Contemporary Europe, a socio-legal study of law and anti-racism work in Europe, with a focus on the German context. He is currently writing his second monograph, Kaala Paani: Law, Indenture and Colonial Imagination, which is a methodologically disruptive legal history of the indenture of South Asians to Jamaica during the British colonial era. This research has been supported by a visiting fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt. He is also coauthoring two textbooks with Hart Publishing. The first is the 3rd edition of Anti-Discrimination Law (with A. McColgan). The second is a new law textbook, Race and Law in Europe: Texts, Cases and Materials, dedicated exclusively to examining race in Europe (with C. Barskanmaz, A. Kocze and M. Möschel). This comparative and international law project analyses cases and controversies within both national and regional European jurisdictions.