Amrita Mishra
Orcid ID:
University of Texas at Austin, USA


This article seeks to reorient the frame of analysis within which Indian indentured labour–supplied from colonial India to sugar plantations in the Caribbean, Mauritius, and Fiji, amongst other sites–has been considered. While indenture is often treated in isolation or deemed a “new system of slavery,” (Tinker, 1974), this article takes up the interventions of Lisa Lowe (2015) and Clare Anderson (2009) to contend that indenture as a “colonial innovation” (Anderson, 2009) should be reckoned with intimately in relation to the transatlantic slave trade and colonial penal settlements, and the ways in which such connected systems enable a shift and transformation of the British Empire between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In keeping with this issue’s investments, this article uses the imaginative space of Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Exit West and Amitav Ghosh’s 2008 Sea of Poppies to argue that the system of indentured labor and the contemporary border industrial complex offer us specific similarities that afford a productive comparison. Ghosh’s representation of indentured labor, I contend, reifies mid-19th century liberalism’s central contradiction–that colonial narratives of freedom imagine a successful overcoming of enslavement through freedom in the form of expanded free trade, even as they at once require and obscure colonial violence and deny such freedoms to certain racialized bodies, such as indentured laborers. Similarly, Hamid’s novel helps to throw into relief our contemporary moment’s ostensible tension between the neoliberal fantasy of the unregulated borderless flow of goods, labor, and capital, and recent border fortification–a dissonance that echoes liberalism’s dissonances. In an effort to assemble a lineage of historical moments that expose the fault lines of liberal and capitalist fantasies of freedom, I compare indenture to the border industrial complex to ultimately demonstrate how border fortification actually does not oppose but rather furthers neoliberal desires for open borders.

Keywords: indentured labor, slavery, border industrial complex, migration, liberalism.