Contract, Work and Resistance: Boatmen in Early Colonial Eastern India, 1760s-1850s

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JournalInternational Review of Social History
DatePublished - Dec 2014
Issue numberS2
Number of pages33
Pages (from-to)11-43
Original languageEnglish


In the period between 1760s and 1850s boatmen were the most important transport workers, at least numerically. Unfortunately they have received little scholarly attention so far. By looking at the regime of work, which surprisingly had strong bases in the notion of contract from as early as the 1770s, this article explores the nature of work, work organization, and resistance by boatmen. It argues that although work was structured along the wage or hire-based (thika) contract regime, the social, political, and ecological conditions in which contract operated was equally crucial. The centrality of contract was premised upon how effectively it was enforceable and historically enforced. Boatmen being one of the most important “native” groups with which the British were left on their often long journeys, this article suggests that contract helps us to understand the formal “structure of work”, and the minute details of the journey help us to understand the “world of work”, of which clandestine trade, weather, wind, rain, torrents, tracking, mooring, internal squabbling, and, not least, preparing food were some of the main components.

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