When Giovanni Gozzini utilized the phrase ‘strategic migration’ to describe the exploits and agency of migrant workers in the 19th and 20th centuries, he knowingly confronted a long-standing historiographical viewpoint on the subject of Indenture. As Hugh Tinker’s A New System of Slavery illustrates, historical writing on the emigration of labour often approaches the topic of indenture in a similar fashion to how historians study slavery. For Tinker’s ilk, Indenture was seen as a legal continuation of slavery following its abolition in the British Empire in 1834. As such, Gozzini’s ‘strategic migration’, and all its signifiers, will become a determining factor when analysing whether or not certain migrants had agency and choice within the indentured labour networks.[1] Moreover, a timeframe of nearly 100 years will allow thorough investigation into the nature of indentured labour on the west and east coasts of Africa, stretching as far east as the Indian Ocean and back across to the West Indies. In particular, this investigation into British indentured labour networks will attempt to explain the real levels of agency that indentured labourers held as well as the driving forces behind worker migration, which ‘strategic migration’ opponents would claim were primarily negative.

These makeshift boundaries, or networks of indentured migration, will provide ample evidence as to whether worker migration was determined by ‘push’ (economic hardship, little employment opportunities) or ‘pull’ (shortage of labour elsewhere, higher wages) factors. This, like ‘strategic’ vs ‘un-strategic’ migration, is a distinction that will be helpful when determining the true nature of migrant workers’ actions and mentalities. Employers’ ‘strategic’ actions will also be examined in the light of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ dynamic that drove migrant labour. Signifiers of ‘strategic migration’, including high numbers of single males, will be supported by records of dis-embarkation at particular port cities such as the Report of the Assam Labour Enquiry Committeee (Calcutta, 1906).[2] Further, rates of repatriation will reveal the obstacles to ‘remigration’ for indentured migrants in their given migrant network; ‘un-strategic’ migration has several developed arguments. It should be noted that repatriation was experienced and treated differently by each employer in their particular indenture network. This will be another point of contention in my analysis and, thus, will have the potential to skew my conclusions. This is why secondary works on migration systems will be crucial as they encompass a wide-range of historiographical viewpoints: from Brij Lal’s assessment of indentured labour’s stark contrast to slavery to Tinker’s conclusion that they are one and the same.

Besides utilizing an extensive bibliography, the aim of this indentured labour research will also be to explain, through mapping, why certain areas saw subjectively better (fulfilled promises of healthcare, accommodation, and wages) – in the eyes of the migrants – migrant experiences. With the help of network maps, it will also be possible to explain why rates of repatriation differed according to the place of embarkation and disembarkation. In contrast, analysis from a micro level will inform us of the conditions experienced by indentured workers and provide insight into worker mentality in a certain locale. In particular, efforts have already and will continue to be made to attain Consul Müller’s correspondence with English and German representatives during the worker exchange between German South-West Africa and British South Africa. Macro-level sources will also be referenced as with the statistics for levels of black migration throughout Africa during the gold rush of the 20th century.

Problems are not ubiquitous, as ample evidence and reporting on indenture exists (especially on a macro level). Yet, notable issues arise with the analysis of workers’ mentalities as well as their initial aspirations for emigrating to find employment. Plainly, did indentured servants and migrant workers understand the difficulties they were going to face and was an areas rate of repatriation dependent on the types of people who worked there and where they came from? Moreover, the ‘strategic’ aspect of my question will focus on whether indentured labour was a necessity, due to negative ‘push’ factors, or was it a choice that was enticed by positive ‘pull’ factors (‘push’ and ‘pull’ don’t always correlate to negative and positive, respectively).

In essence, the aim of this project will be to determine the nature of indentured labour and the processes (both macro and micro) behind it which led to a widely varied and misunderstood cluster of migrant worker networks. Even further, mapping and contemporary accounts should shed light as to whether indentured labour can really be distinguished from slavery by the terms ‘strategic’ and ‘un-strategic’.








[1] Giovanni Gozzini, “The Global System of International Migrations, 1900 and 2000: A Comparative Approach.” Journal of Global History 1, no. 3 (November 2006) p. 324.

[2] Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920 (London, 1974) p. 50.


Strategic Migration in British Empire? Yes or No?