HST6069: Worlds of Labour: Working Class Lives in Colonial South Asia

HST6069 Image

15 credits (Semester 2019-20: Spring)

Module Leader: Dr Saurabh Mishra

Module Summary

'In proportion therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.' Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Together with the image of India as an emerging economic 'powerhouse', there is another image that receives a huge amount of international attention – that of over-crowded slums, pavement-dwellers, grinding poverty, filth and squalor. Behind such generalised depictions, though, lie rich and varied lives of working class individuals. This modules intends to examine these lives in some detail, and will situate them within a wide range of contexts (e.g. within mills, factories, plantations, the White Sahib’s bungalow etc).

In doing this, the module will focus on the long nineteenth century. This was the period when urbanisation gathered pace, factories and mills began to dot the cities, and plantations became an important part of the colonial economy. These developments fuelled the need for labour, and led to an unprecedented migration from rural areas. Such trends have strengthened during the post-colonial period and, though the module deals mostly with the nineteenth century, it will also use examples from the post-colonial context wherever necessary.


  1. Time, work and discipline – the new work regime in the nineteenth century
  2. Caste, religion and working class lives
  3. The experience of indentured servitude
  4. Wet-nurses, midwives, and female ‘coolies’ – colonial discourses around female labour
  5. Health, medicine and working class lives

Module aims

The module will introduce you to debates on a number of themes connected with labour history. This includes debates around 'free' and 'unfree' labour, race and the working class, the transnational circulation of labour, and the feminization of the work force. These issues will be explored while looking at working class lives in a wide variety of settings, including plantations, the domestic sphere, and factories/mills. Using primary sources, students will also examine dominant colonial discourses on the nature of the working class in the subcontinent. The overall attempt will be to move beyond narrow economic studies of this class, which tend to focus exclusively on wages, prices and subsistence, in order to understand the richness of the cultural universe that workers inhabited.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Critically evaluate the major debates on the history of labour in the subcontinent and beyond;
  2. Relate these historiographical developments to larger social and intellectual developments;
  3. Evaluate some of the methods historians use to construct their arguments;
  4. Present ideas in seminars and contribute to group discussions;
  5. Construct arguments concisely and persuasively through the completion of assessed written work.


Learning hours
Seminars Tutorials Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two-hour classes. Classes will enable you to research and present your ideas, share knowledge, debate controversial issues and listen and respond to the views of others in a structured environment. (LOs 1, 2, 3, 4) You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader in order to discuss your written work for this module (LOs 1, 2, 5).



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a 3,000-word paper relating to at least one of the key themes of the module. This will be the only formal method of assessment. However, formative feedback will also be provided throughout the module based on student participation in the seminars (LOs 1, 2, 3, 5).


Selected reading

  • Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working Class History: Bengal, 1890 – 1940 (Princeton University Press 1989)
  • Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920 (Oxford University Press, 1974)
  • Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry (Cambridge, 1999)
  • Nandini Gooptu, The Politics of the Urban Poor in Early Twentieth-Century India (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  • Nandini Bhattacharya, Contagion and Enclaves: Tropical Medicine in Colonial India (Liverpool University Press, 2012)
  • Chitra Joshi, Lost Worlds: Indian Labour and its Forgotten Histories (Orient Longman, 2003)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.