The Port of Calcutta (1860-1910)
This dissertation is a study of state power, technological change, and class conflict at the port of colonial Calcutta. It explores the period between 1860 and 1910 in order to recast historical understandings of the relationship between the colonial state, science and technology, and labor. The dissertation explores a period of great change, resulting from massive increases in public investment. These investments transformed the port's infrastructure, making the loading and unloading of cargo ships significantly easier. They were also designed to secure the supply of cheap labor, and better supervise the port's labor force. The investments involved the deployment of new technologies and scientific knowledge. This included various new kinds of machinery, such as cranes and railroads that were designed to speed up the pace of work or occasionally to automate the loading and unloading of cargoes, as well as, the use of new medical knowledge to prevent the spread of disease. International trade benefited greatly from these investments, but their effects on labor were more complex. The new machinery made the work of loading and unloading easier, but also more dangerous. Moreover, many workers resented the enhanced supervision that they were subject to. In a bid to secure the supply of labor, the government authorities managing the port attempted to alter the existing casual hiring practices of the port with new hiring systems wherein laborers were locked into long term contracts with their employers. Many workers fought back through acts of everyday resistance and well organized strikes. They were most successful towards the turn of the century when a plague epidemic disrupted the supply of labor in Calcutta. While some workers fled the city, others fought for, and won higher wages. The state was also forced to invest in expensive automation and labor welfare projects in order to secure their workforce. The dissertation highlights the critical role of technology in the reshaping of labor relations in the British Raj. It also underscores the central importance of trade for the colonial state. Finally, the dissertation underscores the dialectic that characterized the relationship between labor and colonial capital.