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Interview with Jonathan Connolly

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: labour, south africa, walter d. love | 0 Comments


Jonathan Connolly is the recipient of the 2019 Walter D. Love Prize. Connolly’s winning article (for the best entry in British history) was “Indentured Labour Migration and the Meaning of Emancipation: Free Trade, Race, and Labour in British Public Debate, 1838-1860,” Past & Present 238 (February 2018).

In August 2020, he will take up his new position as assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

 How did you become interested in this topic?

Early on in graduate school, I began reading about indenture in the South African context, where I was interested broadly in processes of imperial expansion. Like many I think, I was struck by how quickly the indenture system took shape, so soon after abolition. An interest in origins led me to the southern Caribbean and then in particular to Mauritius. As I read more, I became increasingly concerned not only with what indenture ‘was,’ but with how it was represented. Many of my interests and nascent commitments as a historian involved the political culture of imperial rule—attempts to understand and rationalize power. So my earliest question, the question that eventually led to this article, was ‘why did indenture become less controversial over time?’ By extension, ‘how was indenture rationalized, alongside Britain’s commitment to antislavery?’ And, ‘what might debate on indenture tell us about the concept of “emancipation” and what it did and didn’t mean?’

Did you make any particularly important archival findings? Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research? 

I relied mainly on newspapers and other public representations for this project, and many of the individual articles I read are fascinating in their own right, rhetorically and politically. But if there was a sense of ‘breakthrough,’ it came through the gradual realization of a longer-term pattern of change. Seeing the dramatic transformation in the Times’ position on indenture for example, over the course of twenty-odd years. That pattern made many individual claims all the more striking. Meanwhile, teaching also played a significant role. In the midst of the project, I taught a small seminar on antislavery and abolition. Rereading canonical antislavery texts (with students encountering them for the first time, no less) helped emphasize how later representations of indenture subverted antislavery ideals, often radically.

Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?

I certainly hope so. My earlier training in comparative literature played a role in generating the project and in the close reading of political language more generally. One of the article’s key themes is discursive normalization, which is I think of interest broadly in cultural studies, but also potentially in the social sciences, especially historical sociology. And certainly the article takes inspiration from an interdisciplinary methodological tradition traceable back at least to Said: that is, the use of interpretive methods to uncover how, historically, particular modes of thought have helped justify and enable particular relations of power.

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

In large part, the project was an attempt to understand how indenture, in spite of its severities, came to be seen as a natural part of the modern world. If scholarly work on humanitarianism often foregrounds moments of recognition, histories of emancipation may emphasize an inverse trajectory: about the hiding of violence and responsibility. That dynamic is of both historical and contemporary interest. In this case, the logic that emerged in favor of indenture in the 1850s bears a striking resemblance to something that may seem inevitable today: that patterns of mass consumption in parts of the world depend on extreme low-wage labor far away.

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

The article is part of a larger book project, tentatively titled Worthy of Freedom. The focus of the project initially concerned political culture and ideologies of power, as this article attests. But over time, the project grew larger and more diverse methodologically. In addition to the ideology of indenture, the book examines the system’s legal structure and its local and global economic effects. I endeavor to show how the legal category of ‘free labor’ changed over time, and trace a set of private, official debates on the subject, whose trajectory largely mirrors that of the public debates analyzed in the article. Meanwhile, I became fascinated by the ways in which indenture shaped the political economy of emancipation, and by the material relationship between indenture and free trade. I published some of my economic arguments focused on state debt in “Indenture as Compensation: State Funding for Labor Migration in the Era of Emancipation,” Slavery & Abolition 40, no. 3 (2019). A key interest and challenge for the book is interweaving these three levels of analysis.

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How Class Worked in the Age of Empire. Comparative and Transnational Perspectives

3rd Congress of the European Labour History Network (ELHN)
19-22 September 2019
Amsterdam, International Institute of Social History (IISH)

As Pepijn Brandon and Aditya Sarkar underline in “Labour History and the Case against Colonialism” (International Review of Social History, 2019, pp. 1-37), labour historians are ideally placed to question the imperial revisionism and revivalism which at present seems so vivacious both in academia and in public debate. This was probably not so true, or so striking, half a century ago. Indeed it took the Global Turn of the 1990s, the rise of comparative and transnational approaches, and notably the efforts initiated in Amsterdam by the scholars in charge of the International Institute of Social History (IISH), for labour history to become less Eurocentric and consider the workers of all continents, whether “free” or unfree, as worthy of interest. Today the contribution labour history can make both to public discussions of imperialism and to a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of the past, is clear enough – and the panels we will present at the 3rd ELHN Congress will hopefully highlight that potential. Many new alleys have been explored over the past twenty years, but the way class worked in the Age of Empire – an age that did not end with World War One but culminated in the inter-war period and survived beyond long after 1945 – is still in need of further analysis. We know too little about the way cheap labour in the colonies and on the oceans was exploited and organised to serve metropolitan interests. We know too little about the plural mechanisms of class relations in the imperial world, relations that included subordination as well as accommodation and rebellion, relations that were defined and contested in a variety of official or militant languages.

The co-ordinators of the “Labour & Empire” working group welcome proposals for twenty-minute papers. Panels of three or four papers will be greeted with special attention. Potential topics include but are not limited to:

  • * Labour law in colonial settings and its relation to labour law in the metropoles.
    * Patterns of work and control of the workforce – notably in agriculture, mining and transport.
    * Transnational / transimperial / transcolonial labour activism.
    * The interplay of anticolonial nationalism with trade-union, syndicalist, socialist or communist internationalism.
    * The part played by labour movements in decolonisation; how they challenged the authority of the colonial state but also of the post-colonial states.
    * Working-class views of or implication in colonial atrocities: genocide, partition, famine...

These issues can be considered in relation to the European empires as well as the contiguous empires of East Asia and the United States. The focus of the papers should be on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Proposals should be submitted to Yann Beliard ([email protected]) and Gareth Curless ([email protected]) by 10 June 2019. Feedback will be given in the following week.

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