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Abstract

This paper explores the social relationships of wage labour formed or stabilized in British merchant shipping in the course of "off-shoring" employment in the late-19th century. It argues that Asian wage-workers were mobilized for employment on British merchant vessels as "coolies", i.e. nominally free but mediated labouring subjects who could only be stabilized through legal, penal, social, debt, or other forms of coercion. Once introduced "coolie" relations were not confined to Indian crews. They also affected wage labour relations more generally in British shipping. While occurring against the backdrop of anti-colonial struggles, the seafaring coolie's transformation into maritime worker was closely mediated by employers and the colonial state and produced hybrid outcomes. The creation of the modern seafaring "coolie" and the nature and context of his transformation into a "worker" thus shed interesting light on wage labour relations in the modern and contemporary global economy.

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