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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Reviewed Work: Andrea Major, Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire In India, 1772-1843 (London: Liverpool University Press, 2012)

Over the last decade, scholars have made important inroads into the global and transnational histories of slavery and abolition.  Seymour Drescher’s Abolition (2009), David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage (2008), and Richard Huzzey’s Freedom Burning (2012) are only a few of the several works that have broadened our understanding of anti-slavery as a trans-Atlantic phenomenon.  Until recently, however, historians have done little with the issue of slavery in British India and its connections to the larger debates over slavery, freedom, and emancipation.  Andrea Major’s Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire in India provides the first work that helps fill in this historiographical gap.

Major explores how “slavery in India was erased within the British public discourses on empire at the very moment when the horrors of the transatlantic (slave) trade were being seared onto the national conscience” (7).  She convincingly proves this statement by showing how EIC officials and British politicians casted slavery as a “scandal of Indian society,” not the British state (314).  British missionary propaganda, moreover, argued that Indian slavery was the child of “‘Hindoo theological doctrines’” (266).  The British EIC, in turn, did not challenge the different slaveries (agricultural, domestic, etc.) in order to maintain colonial order.  And British abolitionists did not challenge this form of labor until after the emancipation of African slaves.

Major makes an important point, which might be somewhat overstated: “slavery in India…(was) absent from both abolitionist and missionary discourses throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century” (9).  Of course this it not completely true, especially considering the wide readership of works such as: James Mill’s The History of British India; George Saintsbury’s East India Slavery (1823); Robert Montgomery Martin’s The History, Antiquities, Topography, and Statistics of Eastern India (1836); or James Pegg’s India’s Cries to British Humanity (1830), only to name a few.  Ironically, Major discusses many of these works, but her main point is not lost: slavery in India was not considered or treated the same as African chattel slavery in the New World, at least until the 1840s.

This work, along with several other monographs read his semester, has clarified a question that has haunted me since the beginning of my graduate studies: why have scholars who study slavery and abolition in the fields of South Asia and the Atlantic World not engaged with each other?

One answer that I have found is that until Richard Huzzey’s Freedom Burning, scholars of British abolitionism have assumed that anti-slavery sentiment died in the Victorian Era (1837-1902), which also happened to be the same period that the issue of Indian slavery was reevaluated and challenged by abolitionists such as Joseph Pease, Thomas Clarkson, Daniel O’Connell, and George Thompson.  Put differently, the lack of attention on British India in the early nineteenth century has led historians of slavery and abolition to overlook the importance of Indian slavery, and its role in the larger discussion about freedom and emancipation.

Major, however, does not miss the opportunity to bridge these two fields.  She intertwines works by Indrani Chatterjee, Gyan Prakash, and Jane Brenman with studies by Atlanticists such as David Brion Davis, Howard Temperley, and Seymour Drescher.  To understand the role of India in the Age of Emancipation, scholars need to start interacting with other fields, especially as we start discussing slavery and anti-slavery in a global context.  How does Indian slavery provided a new lens for understanding emancipation in the British Empire, the United States, Cuba, Brazil, or Puerto Rico, and vice versa?

Methodologically, Major’s work provides a wonderful model for handling the issues of slavery, religion, and freedom in different contexts (i.e. the East and West).  She does a wonderful job of identifying the various forms of Hindu and Islamic slavery and its relevance to conversations taking place over African slavery and the future of labor.  She briefly touch upon issue such as coolie indentured servitude and the problems of identifying slavery in multiple forms.

In relation to my dissertation, Major’s work will fit nicely into my examination of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the British India Society between 1840 and 1865.  She provides a wonderful foundation for understanding the role of British India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but stops with delegalization of Indian slavery in 1843.  She might have brought her coverage up to 1862 with the criminalization of slavery in India, or better yet, discuss how the issue of Indian slavery, labor, and freedom interacted with discussions over slavery in Brazil, Cuba, or the American Civil War.  Thankfully, however, she has left room for future scholars to pick up where she left off.  Andre Major’s Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India provides an important glimpse into the colonial and metropolitan debates over slavery in India.  Her work will help scholars rethink the role of the Eastern Empire in debates over labor, freedom, and slavery taking place in the New World.


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