Abolitionist Imaginaries: Precarity, Unfreedom, and the “Prior” in 20th c South Asia and 19th c Brazil

Reema Rajbanshi
Abstract

This paper does a comparative reading of abolitionist writings from two significant sites of slaveries: 19th c Brazil & 20th-21st c India. Colonial Brazil, as locus of the largest transport of enslaved black peoples via the Black Atlantic Slave Trade in the New World, was key to the emergence of not only global capitalism in the early modern period but hierarchies of difference underpinning the Brazilian myth of racial democracy. Contemporary India, which bears half the world’s enslaved subjects highlights transnational economic circuits reliant on unfree labor from the Global South as well as complicates political economic theories eliding the persistent link between caste oppression and class subjugation in South Asia. My reading of abolitionist texts thinks through the writers' varied conceptions of precarity and unfreedom in relation to these context-specific hierarchies, such as the impact on and legacies for Afro-Brazilians of chattel slavery versus the historical vulnerability of Dalits and tribals to South Asian debt bondage. My reading also situates the current abolitionist formulation of slavery, especially as understood in South Asia, within a genealogy of rhetoric and definitions that not only circulated between 19th c sites such as Brazil, the West Indies, and India, but privileged Western paradigms of bondage within abolitionist imaginaries, such as natal alienation, the duration of bondage, and forms of coercive violence, and which are contested today by abolitionist writings on South Asian labor realities. Brazilian materials include abolitionist journalism, fiction, docuhistories, and visual archives (Nabuco, Firmina dos Reis, Alves, Cruz e Sousa, etc); accounts of bonded labor and sex trafficking in South Asia include new media, documentaries, Bollywood films, memoirs, and political essays in Anglophone anthologies (Kara, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Mardan, Voices of the World, etc.) recording the varieties of slaveries in a global context. Thus, this project additionally traces the interventions and contradictions of select genres in articulating specific slaveries, as it argues for slaveries’s recruitment from and reproduction of new and pre-existing hierarchies such as raciality, caste, and “the prior."