Henry Polak and his sources

by Margaret Allen

In Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950, (with Jane Haggis, Clare Midgely and Fiona Paisley) I wrote about Henry Polak (1882-1959) ‘a British-born lawyer, journalist and activist who campaigned on behalf of Indians across the British Empire against racism and discriminations, in the first half of the twentieth century.’ He worked closely with Gandhi in South Africa, edited Gandhi’s newspaper, Indian Opinion from 1905-16, took part in the campaign to end Indian indentured labour around the British Empire and then both as a lawyer to the Privy Council and through the Indian Overseas Association, which he helped found, campaigned for Indians around the empire to enjoy their rights as British subjects.

H.S.L.Polak
Source: Golden Number of Indian Opinion 1914: Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, Courtesy Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie
H.S.L.Polak; Source: Golden Number of Indian Opinion 1914: Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, Courtesy Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie

I first came across Polak of the Indian Overseas Association writing to the Colonial Office on behalf the Queensland cane cutter Addar Khan, who was appealing his conviction under the discriminatory Queensland Sugar Cultivation Act (1913). My curiosity was sparked, who was this Polak and how was he involved on behalf of Indians in Australia? I soon found that he communicated with a bewildering number of people and organisations in Britain, India and around the Empire. I was able to research papers on Polak at both the British and Bodleian Libraries. I found that his letters could be traced through a number of collections, including the Sapru Papers, Gokhale’s papers, Gandhi’s correspondence, and India Office, Foreign and Colonial Office Files. Unable to spend the time to trace Polak through these files, I longed to locate the records of the Indian Overseas Association. Here I expected to read the letters from Indian activists around the Empire, in the United States and across the diaspora. However I was to be disappointed, for Gregory notes that these ‘voluminous files’ were destroyed in World War Two.[1]

But then with all the happenstance of research, I investigated Australian library holdings relating to Polak through the data base, Trove.

There, in the University of Sydney Library, I came across: S. Durai Raja Singam, H.S.L. Polak – Friend of Gandhiji, (Singapore: self-published, 1957). This was a roneoed compilation of a number of Polak’s writings and a short biography by the author.[2] It also comprised obscure publications, such as the first Gokhale Society Publication namely lectures on ‘India and the Dominions’ by Mr. Polak and Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, first published by the Allahabad Leader (1917). This slim work, of course, did not compensate for the loss of the records of the Indian Overseas Association, but Singam wrote of the regard with which Polak was held: ‘His name is a household word among Indians in India, Ceylon and South Africa.’

This ephemeral work threw up other questions. Who was S. Durai Raja Singam and how did this self-published work get into the Sydney collection? It was written at the time of the White Australian Policy when Australians apparently had little interest in their Asian neighbours. However the author’s inscription to Marie Byles, provided the probable answer. Marie Byles (1900-1979), an Australia solicitor and conservationist, travelled widely in Asia and became a Buddhist. She visited Gandhi’s ashram and in ‘The Lotus and the Spinning Wheel (1963) … she set the teachings of Gandhi alongside Buddha’s and saw both as necessary in the modern world.’[3] Like Polak, she was rather cosmopolitan in her outlook.

As I compiled this blog, my questions about S. Durai Raja Singam (1904-1995) were begun to be answered. Thanks to Google, I found information about an exhibition by Dr. Niranjan Rajah at the University of Malaya on Singam’s work on Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan philosopher and art historian. Here Singam was described as ‘a Malaysian scholar, historian, biographer and bibliographer of high international regard who collated, wrote, designed and published books on various topics.’[4] It seems that S. Durai Raja Singam, a secondary school teacher, was yet another cosmopolitan.


[1] Robert G. Gregory, ‘H.S.L.Polak and the Indian Overseas Association’, Vivekananda Kendra Patrika (Madras) February 1973, note 10, p. 38.

[2] The frontispiece records that ‘Hundred copies were duplicated for the Author by Kwok Yoke Weng & Co, 22 The Arcade, Singapore, 1).

[3] See Heather Radi on Marie Byles at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byles-marie-beuzeville-9652

See also http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0298b.htm

[4] See Koboi project, https://koboiproject.com/2017/11/16/the-gift-of-knowledge/

P&O Massilia

by Ella York

P&O Massilia was launched in 1884, although other sources cite 1891, weighing in at 2,9695 tons. In this instance I have preferenced information obtained from P&O heritage. Although their archives hold sparse information on the ship, included is a photograph dated April 1884 on the occasion of her maiden voyage, ‘MASSILIA (1884) leaving the Thames on her maiden voyage’ and a charming crew photo from 21st October 1889 There was an earlier vessel, also the Massilia built in 1860 for P&O’s Southampton/Alexandria service.

P&O Massilia courtesy of P&O Heritage
P&O Massilia courtesy of P&O Heritage

SK Datta first travelled to Europe aboard the Massilia to attend both the 5th Meeting of the World’s Student Christian Federation and the 15th World’s Conference of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Norway. Both his mother and his aunt approved as it was during the vacation period from his studies and would not interfere with their plan for him to complete. This required Datta to travel from Lahore to Bombay (Mumbai) for departure to Europe. Once he arrived in Bombay (Mumbai), his was disappointed with having to wait for 10 days for departure. The Massilia sailed from Bombay (Mumbai) 1 July 1902, stopping in Aden and then through to Marseilles where Datta disembarked. 1902 passenger lists are elusive at this time, especially when it comes to passengers embarking or departing outside of the UK!

From Marseilles, Datta travelled to Sorø, Denmark. He was invited there as a delegate to 5th World’s Student Christian Federation conference commencing 1 August 1902. Datta then travelled to Norway for the 15th World’s Conference of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Norway, held 20 Aug 1902 – 24 Aug 1902. Other WAYMCA delegates included Annie M Reynolds, Morse, Karl Fries, John Raleigh Mott, von Moltke, WC Chen, Uichiro Sasamori, Fred B Shipp, James Stokes, Oscar Carl August Bernadotte (President), Munck af Fulkila Ebba Henrietta.

Datta returned to India 1 October 1902 and the Massilia was later scrapped in 1911.

Writing this post has drawn from the Heurist database we are creating. This database is a significant project outcome, with the references used from Barns’ biography SK Datta and His People held at the British Library. Future posts will cover our work with Heurist, I’m especially looking forward to sharing geographic and network maps.

Adventures of SS Conte Rosso

Ella York

I was fortunate enough to exchange a handful of pleasant and informative emails with David Asprey of the Caledonian Maritime Research Trust early in February as a result of looking for images of the SS Conte Rosso. At the time we began communicating, my interest in the Conte Rosso was tethered to its role in transporting the women of the Continental Study Tour which left Bombay(Mumbai) for Europe 23 May 1935. However, since that time, the Conte Rosso has appeared again in our research as the ship SK Datta had previously travelled the same route.

W.Breadmore & Co, Ltd advertisement early 1920s

Conte Rosso was built in 1921 in Glasgow by W.Beardmore & Co, Ltd for Lloyd Sabaudo of Italy. Named in honour of Amadeus VII, Count of Savoy, the ‘Red Count’, Conte Rosso was noted for extravagant Italian interior decoration. The designers included an al fresco dining area, unusual for the era due to much of its sailing being in warmer climates. There’s some discrepancy as to the exact size although conservative reports have Conte Rosso at 18,017 gross tons, overall length of 588.2ft x beam 74.2ft, two funnels, two masts, twin screw and a speed of 18 knots the Conte Rosso was an impressive ship indeed. There was accommodation for a total of 2,356 passengers on board, split across 342 first, 214 second and 1,800 third class and an unknown number of crew. Launched on 10 February 1921, this image is a touched-up version of a photo (only seen in a poor newspaper version), taken for the shipbuilder during the ship’s speed trials in the Firth of Clyde on 13 – 14 February 1922.

SS Conte Rosso speed trials, Firth on Clyde 13 – 14 February 1922

Conte Rosso would have then sailed to Genoa to embark on her maiden voyage to Naples and South America on 29 March 1922. After this voyage, she commenced sailings from Genoa to Naples and New York on 15 May 1922. In 1925 accommodation for 188-economic second class passengers was added and on 27 February 1928 she commenced her last Genoa – New York crossing.

One of the photos particularly caught David’s eye as he knew immediately where it was taken – the port of Rio de Janeiro with the liner moored by the entrance to the Passenger Terminal. David shared his recollections of cooling off quite a few times with a cold beer there in the 1980s and 90s.

SS Conte Rosso moored at the Passenger Terminal, Rio de Janerio 1928-1932

It was from David that I learned the building was completed in 1926 by French architect Joseph Gire in art-deco style; the liner is in Lloyd Sabaudo colours but, apart from one voyage in 1922, she did not serve the South America route until 1928. This detail narrows down the photo to 1928-1932.

In 1932 Conte Rosso was taken over by Lloyd Triestino of the Italian Line. That year, due to the depression and widespread unemployment, the major Italian shipping companies were combined into one state controlled syndicate under the name name Società Italia Flotte Reuniti. Lloyd Triestino was a part of this syndicate.

That same year Conte Rosso commenced the Trieste – Bombay – Shanghai route. As it were, this was a major escape route for the Jewish population of Germany and Austria as Shanghai was one of the few places that did not require paid emigration visas. Quite unexpectedly, on her recent research trip to the India Office archives at The British Library, Jane Haggis came across a familiar name showing that within the first few months following the transfer SK Datta was a passenger on Conte Rosso. I’m looking forward to finding out more from her about this journey! UPDATE: SK Datta took 8 pages of notes on Lloyd Triestino Conte Rosso blue notepaper and wrote in blue ink en route to Shanghai. These are dated 22 February 1932 and are pinned together.

SS Conte Rosso early 1930s following transfer to Lloyd Triestino, location unknown

Around the same time as I began talking with David, I also started another series of conversations with Mary Filsell at Flinders University Library about the Conte Rosso. I was wanting some assistance in gaining access to passenger lists. That search continues, however, now have located some shipping schedules. Although the brochures are missing for May-June 1935 for Conte Rosso, they’re still lovely aesthetically!

Access to May – June 1935 brochures would provide a useful chronological supplement to what we have already learned about the 1935 Continental study Tour lead by Mrs Rena Datta and their time on board.

October 1935 Conte Rosso became a troopship during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Conte Rosso returned to service into the Second World War. On 24 May 1941 she was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine HMS Upholder while 16 kilometres from Sicily with the loss of 1,212 lives.

The Europe They Visited

Jane Haggis

The 1935 tour’s itinerary was extensive, cutting a swathe through a Europe that was about to tip over into war. One of the recommended readings for the tour was a book titled Will War Come in Europe? The Japanese had already invaded Manchuria in 1931; Hitler was re-militarising Germany and Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in October 1935. Indeed, the build up to the invasion of Ethiopia looms large in Mrs Nair’s accounts, as they do in the issues of the Hindustan Times her accounts appear in. Indians such as the women on this tour and the readers of such newspapers were clearly interested in, concerned and up-to-date about international affairs even as 1935 was an important year in India’s struggle for independence and freedom from its colonial overlords.

Mrs Kuttan Nair

While Mrs Nair and her colleagues were touring Europe, the British Parliament was debating a revised Government of India Act, passed in August of that year, just as our travellers returned to India. This Bill was hugely important to the Independence Movement in India, although its results, while delivering a degree of constitutional autonomy, fell far short of Indians’ hopes. The tour group was fortunate enough to visit Westminster to hear parts of the debate. Mrs Nair also records that the women attended an informal discussion on the Bill in the evening, with special reference to the “opportunities for Indian women to serve their country under the new Constitution”’. The audience was a mixed English and Indian group and Mrs Nair asserts that the tour participants ‘made it clear that we were by no means satisfied with the franchise extended to us’, especially the limitations which prevented suffrage to the wives of ‘educated men’ while ‘those with military and property qualifications – conservative elements – have been granted the right to vote’.

Continental Study Tour group when they left for Europe 23 May 1935

Already some of the fuzziness of our photograph is receding. These women were a reasonable cross-section of educated middle-class women in 1930s India. They were metropolitan and provincial in background and adventurous enough to apply for the tour and consider a lengthy period away from home, family and country. None of the women on the 1935 tour knew each other before they met in Bombay. They were also, as Mrs Nair’s report of their public participation in London suggests, supporters of Indian independence and female suffrage and not averse to voicing their opinions to strangers in a strange land.

Sophia Dobson Collet, a cosmopolitan at home

Clare Midgley

My contributions to the Beyond Empire project centre on my research into links between members of the Brahmo Samaj and British and American Unitarians.  The Brahmo Samaj was an influential but controversial movement for religious and social reform among Hindus; Unitarians, who rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity and were thus considered heretics by many mainstream Christians, were also in the forefront of social reform movements.  A pivotal figure in cementing transnational exchanges among this interfaith group of activists was Sophia Dobson Collet, the subject of my chapter in our co-authored book Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire.


 Portrait of the feminist author Sophia Dobson Collet (1822-1894) taken from The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy, edited by Hem Chandra Sarkar (1914)

Sophia Dobson Collet (1822-94) is little known today. Thanks to the efforts of feminist historians over the past 30 years we now know quite a lot about the women who gained public recognition or notoriety as activists during the nineteenth century, at a time when women’s ‘proper’ place was meant to be in the home. However, we still know much less about other fascinating individuals like Collet who worked mainly ‘behind the scenes’.

Collet lived close to where I now live in the multicultural area of Finsbury Park in north-east London, but as yet no blue plaque marks out her residence as the hub of a transnational inter-faith network, or records her role as official record-keeper for the Brahmo Samaj and author of the standard biography of its famous founder, Rammohun Roy. In contrast, Roy himself, widely celebrated as ‘Father of Modern India’, is commemorated in Bristol (where he died while on an extended visit to Britain) by an impressive funerary monument and by a statue positioned facing that of Queen Victoria outside city hall. It seems particularly important with the global rise of populist forms of nationalism which are zenophobic, Islamophobic, antisemitic and racist that we draw more public attention to people like Collet, a feminist who devoted her life to cultivating and sustaining transnational and inter-faith connections.

Collet is a fascinating example of the sedentary cosmopolitan. She was a single woman whose physical disabilities, health problems and limited financial resources prevented her from ever making the long journey from Britain to India. Yet she came to identify so closely with the lives of her Indian friends that, in letters to them written from her house in London, she described India, not England, as her ‘home’. How different this is from the self-positioning of most ‘ex-pat’ Anglo-Indians, who, no matter how long they had spent living in the sub-continent, continued to see England as home. Distinctive, too, from the way in which people living in Britain felt ‘at home’ with the Empire in the sense discussed in Catherine Hall and Sony O. Rose, eds,  At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Collet’s positioning is, in contrast, a cosmopolitan one: it involved feeling ‘at home’ in the world on the basis of fostering respectful cross-cultural connections which, though they did not directly challenge British imperialism, undermined the racist hierarchies through which it was maintained and the civilizational hierarchies through which it was justified.

Read my chapter in Cosmopolitan Lives to find out more!

United Theological College Bangalore Research Visit

by Margaret Allen

When in India in February/March 2019 I was able to do some research in the library of the United Theological College in Bangalore. This college is said to be the first ecumenical theological college in the world, being founded in 1910, in the spirit of the World Missionary conference held in Edinburgh in the same year.

Margaret Allen outside the library of the United Theological College in Bangalore.

The conference took stock of Protestant missionary activity and recommended co-operation between and even joint ventures to be supported by the various Protestant churches and missions. The conference was supportive of the growth of indigenous churches in the place of western directed missions, which had developed in Asia, Africa and the Pacific and encouraged the development of indigenous leadership. The foundation stone of the central administration building was laid by the American, John Mott, who had ‘initiated and chaired the [Edinburgh] conference.’[i]

Photograph of Foundation stone by John Mott, taken and supplied by Margaret Allen

The gracious buildings in a lovely garden setting are reminiscent of an American liberal arts college, perhaps a sign of the source of its finance in those days. One building is named the Azariah wing, for V.S. Azariah (1874-1945) the first Indian Anglican Bishop and an important figure in the development of the Indigenous Indian National Missionary Society. In his speech at the Edinburgh Conference he confronted the racism and paternalism of much of the missionary movement famously pointing out that :

‘The problem of race relationships is one of the most serious problems confronting the Church today’.  He asked the missionaries to change their attitudes towards Indians, to be ‘not a lord and master but a brother and a friend…..We ask for love. Give us friends.’

Azariah wing United Theological College Bangalore

The naming of another building after the Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, echoes the post-1910 approach of more progressive Christians to build communication with Hinduism and other Indian faiths.

In our project Beyond Empire: Transnational Religious Networks and Liberal Cosmopolitanisms we are exploring the affective relationships, which developed in particularly between Indian Christians and non-Christians and Western Christians and missionaries in the period c 1890-1940s, as they worked together to advance common projects.

Around 11am each morning the arrival of the chai man on his motor-bike, draws readers and researchers to gather on the library steps to talk over chai or coffee. Along with degrees in Theology and Divinity and college offers a diploma in Women’s Studies and a Diploma in Young Men’s Christian Association Professional Secretaryship. Students come from across India with a significant proportion drawn from the North East, including from Nagaland. It seemed to me that these friendly and collegial discussions on the library steps echoed the directions, which saw the establishment of this college.

United Theological College Administration Building, Bangalore

[i] Renate HOWE, A Century of Influence: The Australasian Student Christian Movement,1896-1996,  p. 98.(UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009)

CF Andrews and the Future of Indian Indenture in Fiji

In 1916, in order to focus Indian manpower on the imperial war effort, Indian indenture into Fiji was temporarily suspended. But should it resume after the war? A year earlier, two British men with personal and career connections in India, had travelled to the British colony of Fiji with this question in mind. They travelled from India into the Pacific, via Australia and New Zealand, in order to investigate the conditions of indentured Indians on the islands’ sugar plantations. Through their critical report published in 1916, Charles Freer Andrews and William Winstanley Pearson would contribute to the ‘ending’ of indenture after the war, and, they hoped, to the campaign for Indian independence and free Indian migration into the Pacific.

As the historian of Fiji, Brij Lal, has pointed out, the Andrews and Pearson report was only one instance in a much larger story of political agitation by ‘girmitiyas’ (the indentured) themselves. They worked with a range of Indian-Fijians, Indian unionists and others already active in Fiji during this same era. It is also the case that beyond the activism of Indians and Fijians themselves, the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand were invested in the outcomes of the report also, as each had their own ambitions in the Pacific. In the post-war era, these would be advanced through becoming the mandatory powers – administered through the League of Nations’ – in Samoa, New Guinea and Nauru.

That British imperial reputation was at stake in debates about indenture was also important to the White Dominions. By the first decades of the century, the ‘problem’ of indenture within the British empire had been increasingly difficult to ignore. By the interwar years, it would attract renewed significance thanks to the League of Nations’ Slavery Convention and the Forced Labour Convention of the International Labour Organisation that followed. Already in 1910 the Sanderson Commission had been established by the Colonial Office to investigate indenture in the British colonies of Mauritius, Jamaica, Fiji, and Natal (and also in Sri Lanka in relation to traditional forms of unfree labour). The commission found that indenture was a humane form of labour, as long as it was operated efficiently, and properly administered from recruitment through to monitoring conditions at destination. To achieve the required standards, the commission recommended a series of reforms. Andrews and Pearson would show five years later that the system of indenture from India into Fiji had not been improved: it remained far from just or efficient, and, in reality, created untold suffering in the lives of individuals while demeaning the reputation of the Indian people in general. Their findings contributed to the decision by the government of India and by British authorities to end indenture from India to Fiji, already suspended, following the war.

Beyond the conditions of indenture, Andrews and Pearson framed their investigation in the larger context of the Indian nationalist cause. Both were supporters of Indian Dominion status within the British Commonwealth, and, as such, they declared the system to be not only poorly administered, unjust, and cruel (women and men who had been tricked into signing contracts being ill-treated during their period of indenture with little hope of returning home) but as having an intrinsically negative influence upon the reputation of the Indian people in the eyes of the world. Thus indenture was having a retrogressive impact on the prospects of Indian independence.

Already a key issue within contemporary humanitarian reform agendas to reform empire, indenture held particular significance for the Australasia Pacific. The conditions of unfree labour – of which indenture was one – were part of the claims of a range of Anglo-Australian reform organisations for modernisation in the region, including for Aboriginal rights within Australia. Among them was the Association for the Protection of Native Races in Australasia, with missionary origins, that formed in 1911 and sought to model itself upon the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society in London. By the interwar years, the involvement of Australian governments in perpetuating unfree labour conditions among Aboriginal people would bring into question the international and national reputation of Australia as a British Dominion and as a mandatory power in the Pacific.  The question of Indian indenture into Fiji intersected with these debates, being an earlier feature in the reframing of empire globally, as well as in the modernising of whiteness and settler colonialism sought by both associations.

Andrews and Pearson were deeply affected by the conditions of the indentured Indians they met in Fiji. These former Anglican clergymen were part of a generation of Christians who embraced the ecumenicalism and religious relativism of the sort promoted by the International Missionary Council held in Edinburgh in 1910. Through their work as educators in India, Andrews in particular formed close personal bonds with Indian liberals and nationalists. He became a close ally of Rabindranath Tagore, for example. Both of the men who were Cambridge graduates had become adherents of the aim of self-rule within the British empire, as articulated by Gandhi and others, including in the name of the Indian diaspora, indentured among them.

Aware of the controversial nature of their support for Indian independence, Andrews and Pearson were quick to emphasise that they undertook their enquiry into Fijian conditions with the support of Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy of India. They were also encouraged in their mission by G.K. Gokhale of the Indian Imperial Legislative Council who was founder of progressive movement, The Servants of India. In 1912, Gokhale had presented a resolution to the Indian Legislative Council declaring that indenture was a form of slavery. In recognition of his influence upon their thinking, Andrews and Pearson dedicated their report to Gokhale who died shortly before it was published.

Their investigation of Fijian indenture began in India among recruiters and newly contracted workers awaiting departure. From there they sailed across the ocean via Australia and New Zealand into the Pacific and finally to Suva, Fiji. They were struck by the conditions on the ‘coolie line’ where, they reported, corals not unlike those provided for farm animals provided little privacy. Moreover, the lack of women among the indentured led to sexual exploitation. In general, they argued that Indian women and men taken from the traditional ways of village life found themselves adrift in a harsh world without rights or sympathy. As Mrinalini Sinha and others have argued, the Indian woman was a key figure in both nationalist and anti-nationalist literature and worldviews, and she was certainly a pivotal figure in debates about indenture within India where sensational stories describing the abuse of indentured Indian women were widely circulated and contributed to nationalist agitation.

Travel into the region provided the two men with insights into the views of a range of Australian and New Zealander progressives. Mostly the opponents of indenture, some of these women and men were of the opinion that Fiji should become a colony of Australia following the war. This would formalise the role of Australians already based in the islands. Thus the findings of Andrews and Pearson were shaped not only by the Indian nationalist cause, and by the global context of humanitarian concern about colonial labour, but also by local articulations of concern among Dominion progressives invested in linking their investment in the Pacific with improving labour standards through distancing themselves from the notorious reputation of indenture. This local perspective interconnected the future of India with the future of Fiji within the British empire, reminding us of the largely subsumed presence of Native Fijians on the British colony of Fiji in debates about replacing indenture with free migration.

According to Andrews and Pearson, the island economy as a whole, and specifically the profits of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), required the replacement of indenture with freely contracted Indian immigrants who would be invested in remaining in Fiji and contributing to its development. By focussing on indenture without taking into account the British occupation of Fijian land, their report veiled the pivotal point that Native Fijians were cast as insufficiently advanced as a racial group to play an active role in the development process. At the heart of this account of indenture was not an end of Indian arrivals on the islands, but rather their transformation into a scheme of migration that would provide Indians living in Fiji (presumably soon also nationals of their own country) with increased status alongside white settlers. The assumption underlying the report was that while indenture was an intrinsically outmoded system, migration would resolve the need for labour supposedly never to be filled by the indigenous population. Contrary to the case being made for Indian migration, the ‘natives’ of Fiji were to be excluded from modern labour relations in order to preserve their traditional way of life.  Ironically, moreover, by representing India migration into Fiji as a benign project, the report was entirely silent on the ‘blackbirding’ or forced indenture of Pacific Islanders (‘Kanakas’) into Queensland in the previous century. This earlier form of indenture had involved the very same company, the Australian and New Zealand company, CSR, that, by the 1910s, ran the sugar economy of Fiji and from which Andrews and Pearson sought permission to make their study.  During the 1870s, CSR had featured in appeals made to the Anti-Slavery Society in London by humanitarians on behalf of indentured Fijian workers employed under terrible conditions by the company in northern Australia. It was the end of the traffic in ‘Kanaka’ labour, encouraged by such reports that had provided the context for the rise of Indian indenture into Fiji over following decades.

Recent work on cosmopolitanism has aimed to engage with the possibilities of cross-cultural interaction experienced ‘at home’ or in transit. For historians of cosmopolitan political networks the personal engagements formed across ‘racial’ or colonial lines have suggested spaces or moments of potentiality and interaction easily overlooked. But as indicated by this report on indenture in 1916, such interactions are always complicated and partial – in this case, those operating between British and Indian elites in India, or between British interlocutors and their Indian informants in Fiji, expressing something of the universalisms as understood by the indentured themselves.

Moreover, as the report by Andrews and Pearson indicates, these two worldviews – the one British humanitarian and the other indicated by Indian indentureds’ testimonies of injustice – were interpreted additionally through the lens of Australian and New Zealand interests as Dominion powers in the Pacific. Transnational histories of the international, the imperial and the (settler) colonial have brought renewed attention to the formations of zones of contact involving anticolonial nationalists, Indigenous critics of settler colonisation, and Anglo liberal reformers and humanitarian imperialists. The latter, while asserting the ultimate virtues of western-style modernity, calling also for its present reform through collaboration with non-western and/or colonised peoples. New studies have described, for example, Indigenous or ‘native’ representations for rights on the international stage such as to the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations (for example, see Patricia O’Brien’s work on Samoa), or the informal and affective interactions, as well as strategic alliances, between Anglo and Black British and African American, Indian and other intellectual and activist networks in London (such as by Jonathan Saha).

But as these same studies have revealed, formal or informal international or transnational networks of political activism did not so much transcend hierarchies of difference but articulated them in alternative ways via interactive zones of contact and exchange. As my collaborators in @Beyond EmpireARC have shown in their impressive scholarship, many Anglo progressives saw in their ‘eastern’ counterparts opportunities to learn from non-western knowledges, spiritualities, and ways of being, in the hope of ameliorating the alienating and dehumanising effects of industrialisation experienced in the Industrial Revolution. These same effects were now wreaking terrible impacts across the colonised world.

Of course, humanitarianism and the desire for humane modernisation are not external to the imperial project, but have been integral to its long history (as Christina Twomey has argued). Similarly are immigration restrictions and protective policies in the settler colonies, with their claims of humane treatment towards Asian peoples from outside of the nation, and native peoples from within. The imperial and Dominion intersected in the case of indenture into Fiji. When interrogated through these dual lenses, the 1916 report on indenture by Andrews and Pearson provides a window onto the complex transnational histories of empire, nationalism, and settler colonial rule circulating within and between (in this case) India, Britain, and Australasia during WW1. They would only intensify following the war, when, once again, local agitation would be required before indenture in Fiji actually came to an end. Needless to say, the legacies of that history continue into the present.

***

For more on this report and its implications, see Fiona Paisley, ‘Sexuality, Nationalism, and “Race”: Humanitarian Debate about Indian Indenture in Fiji, 1910-18’, Labour History, 113 (2017): 183-208.

And for indenture and forced labour as part of a humanitarian critique of settler colonialism in Australia in the interwar years, see Fiona Paisley, ‘An Echo of Black Slavery: Emancipation, Forced Labour and Australia in 1933’, Australian Historical Studies, 45:1 (2014): 103-125.

Fiona Paisley

Visiting Scholar

Today’s Public Lecture Masculinity, romance and ‘temperate heroism’ given by Dr Alison Twells as part of the Gender Seminar Series was well attended at the Victoria Square campus.

Further information and video will be available online soon under our past events tab.

Ella York

Dr Gahlot

“Dr Miss Gahlot of Jodhpur the first Marwari lady to go to England. She means to continue her studies in medicine.” appeared in an April 1935 issue of The Hindustan Times. While Dr Gahlot was not part of one of Mrs Datta’s continental study tours, it is worth noting the manner in which her achievements were acknowledged.

Ella York

Mrs Kuttan Nair


“Mrs Kuttan Nair, a well-known social reformer of Kerala, one of the members of the party of Indian women teachers and students who are in Europe now.” as published in The Hindustan Times 24 June 1935.

Mrs Kuttan Nair published a series of articles about the Continental Study Tour, of which she was a member, in The Hindustan Times. These articles were drawn from her diary which was later published as A Peep at Europe and is a seminal text of the work being undertaken by Jane Haggis as a part of this ARC grant.

Ella York