Cambridge aims to create Professorship in Asian diaspora

Monday 29th November 2021 19:37 EST

More than a century ago the British Empire abolished ‘Indenture’ - state sponsored forced migration across its territories. The chain of migration and re-migration unleashed by organised global labour recruitment is the reason why many of us originally from South Asia are living in the UK, the US and all over the globe today. Indentureship was the first manifestation of the Asian diaspora.

The University of Cambridge and the Ameena Gafoor Institute are now campaigning to establish a Professorship in the study of Indenture, named permanently after an Asian philanthropist. Launched at the House of Lords in October by Lord Bhikhu Parekh, this initiative will fill the gap in knowledge in the UK and elsewhere between Empire and 21st century Britain, highlighting the vital role the South Asian diaspora played in building modern Britain and the Americas. 

“Both the Founder of the Institute and Director are descendants of Indentureship,” said Professor David Dabydeen, Director of the Ameena Gafoor Institute, speaking at the event.

“In the short duration of less than a century, the Indentureship system translocated more than two million Asians to Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, the Caribbean, North and South America.  Crucially, however, there were other flows of migration alongside, which is often ignored. Along with indentured workers, there was ‘free migration’ argues Samita Sen, Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge.

Over 20 million people moved from India across the Bay of Bengal alone. Indenture has shaped our world in a way that is often ignored today. Professor Sen points to its “invisibilities” and refers to “the silence of the archives”.  The Indenture system grew out of slavery—it was introduced in the wake of Abolition-- as an alternative—or even as a solution to the labour shortage following Abolition.

Spreading knowledge of the losses and surprising benefits of Indenture will dispel the myth of monocultural, monochrome Britain and reveal a rich shared history of movement, enterprise and endurance that has resulted in the ethnically diverse world we know today.

“The study of Indenture is timely in the context of this enterprise, as well as the wider public debates that are currently taking place in British society, about roots, heritage, belonging and identity,” said Alex Walsham, Professor of Modern History and Chair of the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge.

“Securing support for this initiative would help the University to establish an important hub for inclusive and global intellectual exchanges around Indentureship and its far-reaching ramifications, which reverberate on so many levels today,” she said.

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