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Abolition as a Racial Project: Erasures and Racializations on the Borders of British India

Global Historical Sociology of Race and Racism

ISBN: 978-1-80117-219-6, eISBN: 978-1-80117-218-9

Publication date: 30 September 2021


The abolition of slavery in the British Empire demanded a complete transformation of the global legal and political order. Focusing on British India, this chapter argues that this restructuring was, in and of itself, a vital racial project that played out on a global stage. Examining these dynamics over the nineteenth century, I trace how this project unfolded from the vantage point of the Bombay Presidency and the western coast of India, tightly integrated into Indian Ocean networks trading goods, ideas, and, of course, peoples. I show how Shidis – African origin groups in South Asia and across the Middle East – were almost the sole subjects of British antislavery interventions in India after abolition. This association was intensified over the nineteenth century as Indian slavery was simultaneously reconfigured to recede from view. This chapter establishes these dynamics empirically by examining a dataset of encounters at borders, ports, and transit hubs, showing how the legal and political regime that emerged after abolition forged novel configurations around “race” and “slavery.” Documenting these “benign” encounters shifts attention to the racializing dimensions of imperial abolition, rather than enslavement. Once “freed,” the administrative and bureaucratic apparatus that monitored and managed Shidis inscribed this identity into the knowledge regime of the colonial state resulting in the long-term racialization of Shidis in South Asia, the effects of which are still present today.




I would like to thank my advisors at the University of Chicago, Elisabeth S. Clemens and Marco Garrido, for reading and commenting on many drafts of this chapter. In addition, I owe a debt of gratitude to Sue Peabody, Indrani Chatterjee, Ralph Austin, René Flores, Julian Go, and the anonymous reviewer for their generous comments on earlier drafts of the chapter. I am solely responsible for any errors. Thank you also to Yinxian Zhang for her invaluable help in visualizing and assembling my data into the graph that appears in this chapter. The intellectual engagement that I received from fellow scholars and interlocutors at the Center for the Study and Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC) at the University of Chicago was crucial in helping me develop the argument that I make here. I would finally like to acknowledge the generous research support received from the University of Chicago's Committee on Southern Asian Studies (COSAS), Nicholson Center for British Studies, and Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR).


Khan, M. (2021), "Abolition as a Racial Project: Erasures and Racializations on the Borders of British India", White, A.I.R. and Quisumbing King, K. (Ed.) Global Historical Sociology of Race and Racism (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 38), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 77-104.



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