Coolies to Cosmopolitans: the Global World of Indian Seafarers, c.1870-1945

Gopalan Balachandran (Genéve)
12 March 2015
This talk discusses some key aspects of my research on Indian seafarers in international shipping in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Numbering in the tens of thousands and sailing round the world on British, American, and other merchant ships, seafarers were India’s, and possibly the world’s, first global workers. Working on decks, and in engine rooms, kitchens, and cabins of luxury liners and tramps, in times of peace these maritime workers were an invisible but indispensable part of the world forming at the time, not only through the vessels they sailed and the cargoes and passengers
these carried, but also their own lives afloat and ashore. When Britain went to war, they made a crucial difference for it between life and death, survival and starvation, victory and defeat. 
Indian seafarers left their footprints on every continent. Pioneers and precursors of South Asian overseas presence who prised open insular doors long before any era of ‘multiculturalism’, seafarers from the sub-continent were also among the earliest mass carriers of south Asian cuisines and cultures to the West. Peasants, coolies, workers, pedlars, traders, entrepreneurs, sojourners, migrants, and political couriers, agitators, and militants, they maintained an open-ended engagement with the worlds around them, yet all the while subsisting in their shadows and eluding easy identification or classification. As ‘flexible subjects’ exploring or improvising flexible locational and occupational possibilities long before the era of flexibility, and experimenting with transnational lives long before political spaces and identities evolved to enable such lives for an affluent few, their lives and experiences do not answer to conventional trajectories or known summaries. Yet perhaps in more ways than we understand, they emblematize our unfolding presents and hold a clue to their constitutive logics.
Professeur d’histoire internationale au Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, à Genève, Gopalan Balachandran est notamment l’auteur de Globalizing Labour? Indian Seafarers and World Shipping, c. 1870-1945 (Delhi et Oxford, 2012).
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