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Free and Unfree Labor: A Review Essay. All Essays from the Journal of World History 14:2 (June 2003).

  • David Northrup, "Free and Unfree Labor Migration, 1600-1900: An Introduction";
  • Marcus Vink, "'The World's Oldest Trade': Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century";
  • Anand A. Yang, "Indian Convict Workers in Southeast Asia in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth, and Centuries";
  • Matthew Pratt Guterl, "After Slavery: Asian Labor, the American South, and the Age of Emancipation."
      The June 2003 issue of the Journal of World History contained three articles and an introductory essay on "Westerners' mobilization of Asian and African labor." [1]   The articles are probably too "scholarly" to be used in most high school or even introductory college-level classrooms, but for teachers of World History, they yield some useful information about little-known labor systems that can be worked into discussions of indigenous Asian labor systems, migrations, trade routes, Western ideas about slavery and race, and the processes of cultural and economic adaptations. 1
       The terminology of "free and unfree labor" (which originated in studies of American labor history) may be unfamiliar, but it can be useful in discussions of the wide variety of labor systems in a World History classroom and course. "Unfree labor" refers to a spectrum of restrictive, enforced labor: chattel slavery, serfdom, debt bondage, prisoners of war, convict labor.  "Free labor" refers to a spectrum of contractual labor relations: often labor for wages in a job which the worker could quit without punishment.  These terms are not absolute. For example, there is some scholarly debate about whether indentured servitude constituted free or unfree labor since it was technically contractual. However, indentured servants generally could not choose to leave their jobs during the term of indenture. Historians of labor also talk about slavery in terms of "open" and "closed" systems. Closed systems, as in India and North America, meant that slaves were held in the system for life with little possibility of manumission. Moreover, children born to slaves in closed systems also became slaves. Open systems, as in some Southeast Asian societies, were characterized by regimes in which upward mobility and manumission were distinct possibilities. In other words, slavery varied from place to place; it was not a static concept in Asian history. 2
     Slavery, or unfree labor, has a long history in Asia and was widely accepted for centuries.  Writings and legal codes in the Hindu, Islamic, and Southeast Asian traditions all dealt with a wide variety of types of slavery. One could become a slave because of legal punishment; as payment for debts; sale by one's parents, husband, or oneself; capture in war; one could be inherited, or one could be bought. [2]   Marcus Vink writes that the Dutch East Indies Company (the VOC) took advantage of this situation and pragmatically used Asian slaves and traded for them along the traditional, indigenous trade routes and markets.  The majority of slaves were used as domestic servants in private households of company officials, free burghers, and Asian subjects in areas of Dutch control. [3]   The rest were used on farms; in shops, refineries and mills; and on public work projects.  The VOC bought slaves from local suppliers who drew them from Indian Ocean trade routes: from East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and to a lesser extent from Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea and the southern Philippines. [4]   The majority of enslaved people were from tiny microstates or stateless societies and were brought to the major trading port centers controlled by the VOC.  Others were captives from the numerous conflicts the VOC had with indigenous societies.  Slave revolts were rare, but slaves engaged frequently in less spectacular forms of resistance, especially escapes. The slave population was not self-reproducing because of high mortality rates (war, famine, natural disasters, manumission, desertion, creolization)--as a result, it had to be replenished by trade.  The numbers fluctuated, but in the late 17th century, there were perhaps 60,000 slaves in the Dutch East Indies, and that number needed to be replenished by between 4,000-8000 slaves annually. [5] 3
          Anand Yang writes about Indian convict workers in the late 18th and early 19th century.  (The phrase "convict workers" is deliberately used to emphasize their importance as productive laborers and de-emphasize their criminal pasts.) The numbers involved were smaller than the 18th-19th century transportation of British convicts to Australia (80,000), and Maryland and Virginia (50,000): somewhere between 1,500 and 15,000 convict workers were shipped from India to Southeast Asia between ca. 1780 and 1857. [6]   Yang explains that the British Crown had a dual purpose for the forced migration of Indian convicts to Southeast Asia: it was seen as an equally-harsh alternative to capital punishment, and therefore could function as a deterrent for Indians, and it provided labor to British Imperial projects, especially in Southeast Asian colonies. In addition to being private house servants, Indian convict laborers were credited with building the infrastructure of Singapore roads, bridges, canals, jetties, piers, temples, churches, batteries, and government buildings. [7]   A sizable minority (40%) of convicts elected to stay in Southeast Asia after they had served their terms, and folded into the local populations. [8]   This reciprocal system worked well until the British began dumping Indian mutineers and rebels from the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-59) into the Southeast Asian colonies. At that point, the local administrators refused to accept any more transportees, and the system of forced Indian convict migration came to an end. 4
              Matthew Pratt Guterl's essay on Asian labor and the post-emancipation US South places the labor problems of former slave owners into a global perspective of labor shortages and migrations. According to Guterl, "the United States was . just one of many white settler colonies in the New World struggling to stay alive." [9]   The British turned to Indian labor when they ended slavery, the Cubans experimented with both European immigrant and Chinese contract labor, and the industrializing Northern and Western businessmen of the US turned to Irish and Chinese laborers. American southerners tried the same strategies of encouraging European immigration, contracting Chinese laborers, and hiring newly-freed slaves. All these free laborers showed the same understandable inclination to leave the low-wage agricultural jobs of the South for the higher-wage jobs available the North and the West.  Unable to hold onto free laborers and without a modernized infrastructure to replace human labor, southerners resorted to the authoritarian control of "the Negro" to solve their "labor problem," supplementing it with convict labor, and debt peonage/share-cropping.  Guterl also writes about the tangled relationship of white American southerners with Cuba, which they saw as both a potential colony of the US in terms of Manifest Destiny and as a fellow struggler in a post-emancipation world. 5
       These articles can be used to amplify a discussion or lecture on comparative labor systems, or they can be used to buttress a teacher's knowledge of the diversity of labor systems. David Northrup's introductory essay frames these and other points nicely.  General points of particular resonance for a survey course include the following: 

a. Free and unfree workers were transported across the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well as the better-known and better-studied Atlantic in the 17th through 19th centuries;

b. There were indigenous, Asian forms of unfree labor, and Europeans adapted them to their imperial purposes.  The Dutch used existing systems and networks of slavery in the Indian Ocean region and the British adapted their earlier systems of indentured and convict servitude to their imperial needs;

c. the experiences of southerners in the United States were not unique in either their distress or their options in replacing slave/unfree labor;

d.once unfree labor was illegal, free labor was available to replace it in the form of Asian contract laborers, European immigrants, and freed blacks;

e. Western racial attitudes and stereotypes of "white," "black," and "colored"  were part and parcel of the labor systems employed in that period.

Ane Lintvedt
McDonogh School


[1] D. Northrup, "Free and Unfree Labor Migration, 1600-1900: An Introduction," 125.  For subscription information to JWH, see

[2] M. Vink, "Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean," 150-1.

[3] Vink, 160.

[4] Vink, 139.

[5] Vink, 176.

[6] Yang, 180.

[7] Anand Yang, "Indian Convict Workers in Southeast Asia," 201.

[8] Yang, 204.

[9] Matthew Pratt Guterl, "After Slavery: Asian Labor, the American South, and the Age of Emancipation,"211.


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