International Conference on Slavery, Unfree Labour Camps; Revolt in Asia and the Indian Ocean Region

Michael Salman
Associate Professor, Department of History
University of California, Los Angeles

Project description:

This proposal requests financial support for an international conference on slavery, unfree labour and revolt in Asia and the Indian Ocean region that will be held at the University of Avignon in France from 4-6 October 2001. The conference is being co-sponsored by UCLA through the efforts of Michael Salman and Ned Alpers of the History Department. The Dean of the Social Science division at UCLA and the University of Avignon's Center for North-South Studies (CERINS) are the primary funding agencies, but the conference will receive additional funding from the American Institute of Avignon, the Franco-Indian Cooperation Program of Paris, and the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS) in the Netherlands. We hope CIRA will be able to contribute $4,000 to support this comparative and interdisciplinary conference. Our single largest expenditure will be on international travel expenses for scholars from Africa and Asia who could otherwise not afford to participate. If CIRA agrees to furnish support, it may earmark its funds for such travel expenses.

The Center for North-South Studies (CERINS) at the University of Avignon has hosted an annual international conference since 1999. The first conference addressed migrations between third and first world countries. Last year's conference focused on slavery and abolition in Asia and the Indian Ocean. Both were resounding successes, drawing eminent scholars from across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Last year's conference produced enough papers of sufficient quality to merit the acceptance for publication of two edited collections by Frank Cass of London, a leading publisher in the field of comparative slavery studies. The 2001 conference will also produce at least one edited volume that will be published by a European or American press.

The study of slavery, unfree labour, and resistance in Asia and the Indian Ocean provides a rich field for interdisciplinary and comparative analysis. Bondage and resistance in this part of the world have frequently involved the movement of people, trade goods, and cultural practices in patterns that do not accord with the standard boundaries of area studies. Paths of trade and migration stretched from the eastern coast of Africa and through the Indian Ocean to the Southeast Asian archipelagos, which were also engaged in exchanges with East Asia and beyond. Although not all participants will present papers related to these historic maritime connections, assembling scholars under the rubric of "Asia and the Indian Ocean" expands the scope of comparative possibilities in novel ways. It is rare enough to find comparative engagements among scholars of South, East, and Southeast Asia. The conferences hosted by the University of Avignon have been rarer still for making connections and comparisons to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Slavery and unfree labour have been among the richest subjects of comparative study in many disciplines, especially in history, anthropology, and sociology. One thinks of exemplary comparative works by scholars such as Orlando Patterson (sociology), Claude Meillesoux (anthropology), Suzanne Miers (history) and Igor Kopytoff (anthropology), and many others. Most of these works, however, have emphasized the Atlantic system of slavery that incorporated Africa, the Americas, and Western Europe. The Indian Ocean slave system figures less prominently in this literature and bondage in Asia less than that, except for in two geographically broad anthologies edited by Martin A. Klein and James L. Watson, respectively.

In contrast, the study of revolt and resistance has produced an especially rich literature in South and Southeast Asia. The subaltern studies collective and James Scott's several books on everyday forms of resistance have had profound influence on the study of agency and resistance internationally. Although slavery in the Americas and the ancient Mediterranean have furnished analytical models and cultural archetypes for rebellion and resistance in the global modern world, neither Scott nor the subaltern studies collective (with the exception of Gyan Prakash) have devoted attention to slavery in Asia and the Indian Ocean. We therefore see the 2001 conference in Avignon as an opportunity to make connections and interventions in several influential sets of literature and scholarly debates.

Published: Thursday, November 14, 2002