School of History, Classics & Archaeology

'Becoming Coolies': Rethinking the Origins of the Indian Ocean Labour Diaspora, 1772-1920

This two and half year project, funded by the AHRC, aims to challenge existing assumptions about 'first wave' Indian migrants. Led by Professor Crispin Bates (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Andrea Major (University of Leeds), it situates Indian indentured labour migration within the broader story of labour mobility in the Indian Ocean region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Calcutta Coolies

The Project

'Becoming Coolies' centres on the perspectives of the migrants themselves: their motivations, understandings and personal stories. Through this focus on subaltern agency, it seeks to unearth radical new interpretations of the Indian diaspora. Those migrating drew on pre-existing patterns of labour movement, and on familial and other networks when considering their options. This growing web, in turn, informed the choices of later, ‘second wave’ migrants. The project shows how indentured migrants (re)negotiated the identities allocated to them by colonial observers, whether labelled as slaves and sepoys, or coolies and convicts.


Outreach and Academic Events

Through its outreach programme, the ‘Becoming Coolies’ project has organised a pop-up exhibition in a south London Mauritian Café, a gallery exhibition in Tottenham, the ‘Juxtapositions’ exhibition at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and a schools art project on roots-seeking and identity.

Its series of academic conferences includes ‘Becoming Indentured: Rethinking Labour Migration in Colonial India’ (Delhi, March 2016), ‘After Slavery: Labour and Migration in the Post-Emancipation World’ (Leeds University, June 2016) and ‘Indentured Lives: Rethinking the Experience of Indian Overseas Labour Migration, 1800-1920’ (University of Edinburgh, September 2016).


Project Team

Principal Investigator: Professor Crispin Bates (University of Edinburgh)

Co-Investigator: Dr Andrea Major (University of Leeds)

Research Fellows: Dr Marina Carter (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Ashutosh Kumar (University of Leeds)

Other contributors and collaborators: Dr Annie Devenish (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal), Professor Nira Wickramasinghe (University of Leiden), Professor Richard Allen (Ohio State University) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.


Useful Links

Project website:


Twitter: @south_asians