Long Reads

Bangladesh Research Visit

by Clare Midgley


I’m just back from a fascinating visit to Dhaka, Bangladesh. This visit was an outcome of our ARC project panel at the International Federation for Research in Women’s History (IFRWH) conference in Vancouver last August. On finding out about the Bengali dimensions of my research, Professor Asha Islam Nayeem, General Secretary of the Bangladesh History Association, invited me to deliver a lecture on my research in the Society’s quarterly lecture series.


I seized this opportunity to visit Dhaka for the first time. I wanted to find out more about the history of the Brahmo Samaj, the monotheistic movement for religious and social reform among Hindus whose transnational inter-faith connections and collaborations on the ‘woman question’ I am studying in connection with the ‘Beyond Empire’ project. Books about the Brahmo Samaj tend to focus on Kolkata, the city where it was founded, but Dhaka was the hub of the organisation in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and I was keen to learn more about its activities in this region.


Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Asha and of Dr Zahida Naznin, the Treasurer of the Bangladesh committee of the IFRWH, I was able to make the most of my short visit to Dhaka. I’m very grateful to them both for taking time out of their busy schedules to make my visit rewarding and fun! Asha, who teaches at Dhaka University, is just completing a book (in English) on the history of women’s education in East Bengal. She is a true cosmopolitan, having lived and studied in Britain, the USA and Japan. Her fluency in Japanese and story about learning over 500 Japanese characters put my own faltering attempts to learn Bangla into perspective! Zahida is a senior civil servant in the Education Directorate who has a PhD on women and development in Bangladesh.


Photograph of Dhaka traffic

Asha and Zahida were ideal guides to Dhaka, which is a great city, but hard to negotiate as a first-time visitor. Thanks to them I did not spend my time trapped in the confines of my luxurious but ultra-high-security hotel! Even the two-hour car rides stuck in the endless traffic jams also had an expected benefit of time and space to talk, and I feel very happy to have made two wonderful new friends.


It was such a relief to be away from Brexit-mad Britain during the very week when Parliament was voting on Theresa May’s negotiated deal (though I did get some questions about Brexit!). In the global north we still tend to mainly hear bad news stories about the global south, and reporting on Bangladesh has been particularly negative. Thus even a short visit was eye-opening: I was struck by the city’s energy and dynamism, its sociability (no ‘Bowling Alone’ in Dhaka!), the variety of women’s dress in this majority-Muslim nation, and the amount of construction work going on, from high-rise flats to over-passes and a new metro line. Signs in Bangla were everywhere, of course, and I was excited that I could actually read them. This visit has certainly prompted me to take my Bengali-language learning up the next level with my excellent teacher in London, Sahana Bajpaie.


Photograph of Dr Mamoon in his library with Dr Clare Midgley and Dr Zahida Naznin

On the first day of my visit Asha and Zahida took me to meet Professor Muntassir Mamoon, who has written the standard history of the Brahmo Samaj in Eastern Bengal. The fact that I did not even know about this book, which is in Bengali, brought home to me the limits of my knowledge as a western scholar with rudimentary language skills beyond English. Books in English published by western presses continue to get the lion’s share of international attention, to the detriment of the development of truly cosmopolitan scholarly perspectives. I was privileged to visit Professor Mamoon’s amazing private library cum museum, and I was able to learn more from him about the history of the Brahmo Samaj in East Bengal, including their efforts for women’s education and the activities of prominent women. Monorama Majumdar, for example, caused a sensation by becoming the religious preacher for the Brahmo Samaj at Barishal in 1881.


Photograph of Dr Clare Midgely and Dr Asha Islam Nayeem in front of Jagannath University

The following day Asha took me to meet members of the history department at Jagannath University, the oldest higher education institution in Dhaka where I was also introduced to the Vice-Chancellor and photographed for a press release. The University has recently moved into postgraduate education, and it is organising an international conference on State and Society in South Asia this March (conference organisers may be contacted at [email protected] while the link is being updated).


Photograph of Dhaka Brahmo Samaj mandir exterior

Two members of the History Department kindly escorted us to the mandir (place of worship) of the Brahmo Samaj, on the edge of the bustling Old City. The environment, with a peaceful garden with flowers providing respite from the bustle of the street, reminded me of the grounds of the Ramakrishna Mission in Kolkata, where I had stayed on my visit to that city. The mandir is a beautiful building, constructed in 1869, when the movement was in the midst of a major revival.  It was a privilege to be shown round by the current Secretary of the organisation. Like the mandirs of the Brahmo Samaj which I visited in Kolkata, the interior is very plain, rather like a British nonconformist chapel, with no religious images – in complete contrast to orthodox Hindu temples. Women originally sat separately in the gallery, but I need to find out whether this practice was maintained in Dhaka or whether, as in Kolkata, it was abandoned following a campaign by the more radical wing of the movement.

Photograph of Brahmo Samaj mandir interior


Photograph of Dr Clare Midgley at the Memorial to the Independence War, Dhaka University

Sadly, I found out that the extensive library of the Dhaka Brahmo Samaj had been destroyed in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. A memorial on the campus of Dhaka University commemorates the contributions of women, peasants and students to the struggle.


Photograph of Dr Clare Midgley and Dr Zahida Naznin in front of Rokeya Hossain’s portrait
The following day I had the opportunity to see some of the most famous historic sites of Dhaka, and to learn more about the history of the city in the company of Zahida and her family. Among the portraits of famous Bangladeshis that we saw was one of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, author of Sultana’s Dream (1905), a Muslim feminist utopian novella set in a world turned upside down where women rule and men are kept in seclusion! This was a really fun day out, including a proper Bengali lunch in the Officer’s Club, which is open to senior civil servants. Zahida and her husband also took me to visit the branches of the Education Directorate where they worked, and I gained some interesting insights into the efforts being made to develop education provision in Bangladesh. They are moving away from final school examinations towards continuous assessment and were surprised to hear that in England there have been recent moves in the opposite direction!


Photograph of the lecture at Dhaka University
On the final day of my visit I delivered my lecture ‘Creating Cosmotopia: Rammohun Roy, William Adam and the Calcutta Unitarian Committee’ to an enthusiastic audience of around 80 staff and students at Dhaka University. This lecture was a development of the talk I delivered as part of the ARC project symposium on ‘Cosmotopias: Past and Present’ at Sheffield Hallam University in December 2017, and I’m currently preparing it for publication as an article. William Adam was a Scot who went out to India as a Baptist missionary but who was then ‘converted’ to Unitarianism by Rammohun Roy, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement, much to the horror of his former missionary colleagues. The lecture provided a good opportunity to meet with members of the history department at the university, including Professor Sonia Amin, President of the Bangladesh committee of the IFRWH and author of the pathbreaking study, The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939 (Leiden: Brill, 1996). Sonia and I are putting together a panel proposal for the Women’s History Network Conference in London this September.



All photographs supplied by Clare Midgley and published with permission of those they portray.



CF Andrews and the Future of Indian Indenture in Fiji

by Fiona Paisley


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 the historical connection between Indian indenture into Fiji and the ending of South Pacific Island indenture into Australia in the previous century, and in the context of Native Fijians under British colonial rule, 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.

For more on 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.

For more on (de)colonisation in the Pacific, see the collected scholarship of Tracey Banivanua Mar.