Imperial Visions of “Race” and “Slavery”: Shidis as Laboring Subjects in and beyond British India

Mishal Khan, University of Chicago

Focusing on the British Empire, this paper traces the processes whereby conceptualizations of “race” and “slavery” became intertwined, in motion and over time, after abolition. I trace these processes from the vantage point of one particular site, the Bombay Presidency and the western coast of India, tightly integrated into Indian Ocean networks trading goods, ideas, and of course peoples. We gain particular insight into the power of imperial constructs of “race” by focusing on the shidis – the term for African origin groups in South Asia and across the Middle East. The shidis were a small minority in India, but were managed in distinctive and uniquely visible ways after abolition, as they weaved in, out, and through colonial regimes of labor and order making. By examining a dataset of colonial legal cases and political encounters with “slaves” in India, I show that shidis were greatly over-represented – consistently “recognized” as “self-evident” slaves by the colonial regime. The assumption of the natural relationship between racial groups and slavery across imperial sites speaks to the power of the colonial state in transporting racial categories, and projecting them onto contexts with very different histories and conceptions of social hierarchy. This is thus a story about the power of the colonial state in attempting to universalize racial categories, but how these processes were refracted by the complex structures of social hierarchy within India.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 142. Race and Power in Transoceanic Circuits