‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Luke de Noronha

The first response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is from Luke de Noronha, who is an academic and writer working at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London (UCL). He is the author of Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica, and producer of the podcast Deportation Discs. He has written widely on the politics of immigration, racism and deportation for the Guardian, Verso blogs, VICERed Pepper, openDemocracy, The New Humanist, and Ceasefire Magazine. He lives in London and is on Twitter @LukeEdeNoronha.


What I want to do in this short piece is to draw out some of the political implications of the arguments in Indian Migration and Empire, and to discuss how Mongia’s analysis of Indian migration from 1834 to the early twentieth century, resonates with and informs our present (or not).

Freedom and consent

The first chapter on indentured migration explores the emergence of the ‘contract’ as a guarantor of consent and freedom, particularly for indentured migrants whose movement had to be constructed as ‘free’. This was especially important because the system of indenture began in 1834, the year that Britain abolished slavery across the Empire. As Mongia puts it: ‘Since indentured labor was transported to replace slave labor, the primary concern animating these early regulations was to ensure that the migration was “free” and distinguishable from the slave trade’ (p. 16). She goes on: ‘the debates occasioned by Indian migration in the wake of abolition were one crucial site where we witness the rise of “consent” as a definitive element of freedom, which characterizes nineteenth-century transformations in contract law’ (p. 16). In short, if we sign a contract, we are free.

This distinction between freedom and unfreedom is central to liberalism: people should not be coerced or enslaved; they should be free to choose, even if that freedom amounts to little more than freedom to choose to be exploited by one boss or another. As Mongia explains, this means that slavery is simply the absence of contract, and with indenture, ‘freedom was merely the ritual of consent to a contract, severed from the material conditions it stipulated’ (p. 48, emphasis in original).

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