Steam and Stokehold

Steamship labour, colonial racecraft and Bombay’s Sidi jamAt

Tania Bhattacharyya
In the late nineteenth century freedpeople rescued from slaving boats on the Indian Ocean by British anti-slavery cruisers were sent to Bombay, where many of the young men found employment as stokers in the stokehold of P&O steamships. British administrators discussed the future of freed “Africans” strictly as profitable sources of labour. Freedpeople however went on to form their own Muslim communities or jamãt in Bombay known as Sidis or Habshis. While colonial “liberation” was bound up with ideas of race, Sidis rejected ideas of singular racial biological origin with their itinerant notion of a community descending from the Prophet. This article is a historical critique of the terms of the colonial racecraft that gives us the category of “African” and the natural division of humans into races, and an effort to read the colonial archive against the grain for the explication of a subaltern Sidi or Habshi notion of jamãt.