Planters’ Raj or British Raj? : coffee capitalism and the imperial state in South India

Sridhar, Siddharth
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Between the mid-18th century and the early 19th century, British capitalists, South Indian Dalit labourers, and the British colonial state engaged in a struggle over the availability and docility of labour for a sprawling landscape of coffee plantations. What emerged was the “system of advances,” a technique of labour recruitment marked by debt contracts between maistris and labourers from the plains. In this paper, I explore this “system of advances” from the late 19th century to the 1930s, focusing on two key documents regarding plantation production in South India: Edmund C.P. Hull’s guide to operating a plantation, Coffee: Its physiology, history, and cultivation, published in 1865, and the Report of the Planters’ Enquiry Committee of South India, published in 1896. Reading these documents as commentaries on the structure of the migrant-labour market of South India in this period, I suggest that they shed light on the nature of the colonial state as a collection of agencies with differing interests with regards to capital and labour. More specifically, the history of plantation labour recruitment and treatment highlights the incompatibility of the state’s mission to promote the interests of British capital as well as uphold the liberal mission of the empire that received purchase across the colonial bureaucracy and elite.