New Methods for the Study of Indigenous Forms of Human Bondage in the Indian Ocean World

Millions of people are trapped in modern forms of human bondage despite international prohibitions of slavery such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1956 UN Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. Indeed, some experts argue that globalization has accentuated the problem of human servitude. An affront to human rights, slavery endangers political and economic stability and health in regions where it is prominent, notably the Indian Ocean world (IOW)—a vast region running from East Africa to China.

Anti-Slavery International (ASI) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) highlight three main reasons for the concentration of human bondage in the IOW: (i) poverty and illiteracy, (ii) the unwillingness or inability of governments in the region to enforce anti-slavery legislation, and (iii) the hands-off attitude of Western governments who consider servitude in the IOW to be a problem solely for authorities in the region. An additional difficulty is that governments and concerned organizations, such as ASI, the ILO, and UNICEF, employ different definitions of slavery and servile labour. For example, Kevin Bales, President of Free the Slaves (the US sister organization of ASI), estimates that some 27 million people are trapped in modern forms of bondage worldwide; but UNICEF subsumes all labour involving children below the age of 14 under its definition of bondage, and hence considers that 250 million children alone to be in human bondage, the bulk of whom live in the IOW, notably South Asia.

Concerned organizations and policy makers lack a clear understanding of the historical roots and structures of IOW servitude. This stems in large part from a general identification of historical slavery with the Atlantic slave trade. However, scholarly research is increasingly demonstrating the existence of a large and vibrant IOW slave system (i) that predated, co-existed, and, in some instances, overlapped with the Atlantic system; (ii) continued in modified forms into the twenty-first century; and (iii) in which concepts of "slave" and "free" derived from the Atlantic slave paradigm are often inapplicable.

In an effort to clarify the historical roots and structures of the IOW slave trade, as well as contemporary forms and networks of human bondage, this project will, for the first time, begin to map the various forms of bondage and bondage networks in the IOW. This initial case study will focus on India, a country characterized by several forms of unfree labour, many with traditional, inter-generational roots, which also has the benefit of having ample source material, both historical and contemporary. Using qualitative and quantitative data generated from such sources, both primary and secondary, this project will use interdisciplinary collaboration to create novel applications of social network analysis for the study of slavery, which will allow researchers to dynamically view the propagation of Indian systems of servitude over the longue durée in a geographical, temporal and interconnected way that will help elucidate how these systems evolved and continue to be reinforced or limited by each other and other wider regional factors.

This project is a collaboration between the Indian Ocean World Centre (IOWC), directed by Gwyn Campbell, and the Geographic Information Centre (GIC), directed by Pablo Arroyo, both at McGill University. It is sponsored by an Insight Development Grant (IDG) from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).