Reforming Everywhere and All at Once: Transitioning to Free Labor across the British Empire, 1837–1838 Academic Article uri icon


  • AbstractIn late 1837 and early 1838 the British imperial government was preparing for an empire-wide transition from bonded to nominally free labor. This article builds upon recent scholarship that promotes a holistic, global approach to this transition, by narrowing the temporal frame and expanding the spatial. We emphasize interconnectivity and simultaneity rather than chronological succession, and we analyze the governance, rather than the experience, of this transition. Our approach is founded upon analysis of correspondence passing from every British colonial site through the Colonial Office in 1837–1838. We suggest that this hub of imperial government sought to reconcile the persistence of different conditions in each colony with the pursuit of three overarching policy objectives: redistributing labor globally; distinguishing between the moral debts owed to different kinds of bonded labor, and managing tradeoffs between security, economy, and morality. We conclude that the governance of the transition to free labor is best conceived as an assemblage of material and expressive elements of different spatial scales, whose interactions were complex and indeterminate. Through these specific governmental priorities and a particular communications infrastructure, these elements were brought into critical alignment at this moment to shape a significant transition in relations between people across the world.

publication date

  • 2018