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Academic first

31 July 2023
Submitted by on 31 July 2023
Professor Gaiutra Bahadur

The University of Cambridge has created what is believed to be the first ever visiting fellowship into the study of indentureship, the controversial system that replaced slavery in the British Empire.

Selwyn College has appointed Professor Gaiutra Bahadur as the Ramesh and Leela Narain visiting bye-fellow in Indentureship Studies. Professor Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. It is a major study of the lives of Indian women who became indentured labourers to colonial plantations in the nineteenth century.

Selwyn and the Ameena Gafoor Institute - whose director is the novelist, poet, academic and alumnus Professor David Dabydeen - collaborated closely in setting up the programme which allows a scholar to spend eight weeks at the University conducting research. The programme will run for an initial five years.

The study of indentureship and its legacies was one of the recommendations made in the report of the Legacies of Enslavement at Cambridge Advisory Group, and it is hoped that enough funding will eventually be raised to establish a permanent professorship in the subject, based at the University.

Professor Bahadur, who works at Rutgers University-Newark, said: "I am honoured and delighted to be the inaugural visiting bye-fellow in indentureship studies.

"When I first began doing research in this area, the funding just wasn't there, so it was in many ways a labour of love. That's why I'm so happy to see there's now visibility and funding like this to help future researchers."

Professor Dabydeen said: "The study and documentation of indentureship is undoubtedly valuable, but it has barely been included in the history syllabi of British and European Universities - a staggering omission considering the millions of individuals, and indeed entire cultures, irrevocably shaped by indentureship and its legacies.

"That is why this fellowship, and hopefully eventually establishing a Professorship, is so important. Cambridge has created an academic subject, bringing it from the margins to the very centre. I am immensely grateful to the Gafoor family in Guyana for helping to make all this possible."

Professor Bahadur gave a public talk and Q&A on the writing of Coolie Woman on Thursday 27 July in the Quarry Whitehouse auditorium. The event is available to view on our YouTube channel: