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Abstract

While slavery was abolished through much of the British empire in 1833, it took another ten years for similar legislation to be introduced in South Asia. This dissertation uses the case of southern Indian agrarian slavery to illuminate this little-known history, showing how the trans-Atlantic form became the paradigmatic form of slavery even in abolitionist discussions in South Asia. Agrarian slavery in South Asia was found to lie in the gray area between chattel slavery and serfdom, since the enslaved were largely bought and sold along with the land they worked. They could be bought and sold individually as well and families could be separated in the process. In this dissertation, I look at regional literature, colonial correspondence across native and colonial bureaucracies, and the periodic reports about slavery that were produced in the runup to abolition with particular attention to this form of slavery in Madras Presidency and the native-ruled state of Travancore. I demonstrate how the abolition of slavery drew back the veil cast over agrarian slavery in literature, customary law and the colonial archive in southern colonial India. To do this, I bring the methods of literary analysis to history, using close reading to attend to the vocabulary and grammar of the abolition of slavery in the region. Closely attending to colonial and literary records, I show how the practice of agrarian slavery came to be named illegal across native and colonial bureaucracies. By doing this, this research demonstrates how the global category of slavery produced by British abolitionism was translated into Tamil and Malayalam-speaking regions.

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