Specters of the Indian Ocean: Dispossessed Asian Sailors in Transatlantic English Literature, Culture, and Politics, 1780-1900

Humberto Garcia
UC Merced

During the height of the African slave trade, British officials initiated the lesser known forced migration of lascars or Asian sailors, known as “black slaves.” They manned Atlantic-bound ships for little or no pay, under conditions that resembled those of enslaved Africans. This  book project addresses this gap in critical histories of racial enslavement by examining literary representations of lascars, a workforce that fueled east-west commercial shipping from the late seventeenth century to the end of World War II. As evident in the works of Thomas De Quincey, Mary Darby Robinson, Emily Brontë, Herman Melville, and Arthur Conan Doyle, lascars who cried out for humanitarian relief did not incite citizens to end an immoral system of coerced labor but to imagine these metropolitan migrants as a spectral death. The project’s cross-oceanic approach renders such figures historically legible for the first time. This project challenges hemispheric paradigms in humanities scholarship by tracing the aesthetics of blackness in the transatlantic slave trade to an Indian Ocean labor economy that haunted the British empire. Analyzing such a hauntology shows how race functions as a geographically capacious term in this period and how abolitionist rhetoric was co-opted by state authorities to define national citizenship as white.