Imperial Anxieties and Abolitionist Efforts in Early Colonial India (1770-1850)

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Avishi Gupta


This paper argues that the period between 1770 and 1850 saw a dramatic growth in the enslaved population in the Indian subcontinent, particularly due to prolonged climatic instability. While other factors, such as faulty colonial taxation policies, equally contributed to the crisis, it is possible to establish direct proportionality between the worsening environmental crisis and an increase in enslavement. On a conceptual level, I argue that the abolitionist discourse on what constituted a ‘legal’, ‘permissible,’ and ‘normal’ slavery largely depended on colonial anxieties surrounding the governance of this growing enslaved population. This process of legislation was further governed by British territorial aspirations. Looking at case studies from the Rajputana, Bombay, Delhi, and Assam, I argue that the applicability of the abolitionist rhetoric was determined by critical political and economic considerations, such as subsidiary alliances with the Princely States and emerging labour demands of the burgeoning colonial empire.

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