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Keynote Lecture: Prof. Dr. Andreas Eckert

Blurred Frontiers. “Unfree” and “Free” Labour since 1800 in a global perspective



In the world of work relations and labour policies, the distinction between “free” and “unfree” labour has been crucial. “Free labour” became a central element of a master narrative of the history of Western societies as a progressive path towards “freedom” and “emancipation”, embedded in particular forms of social relations, institutions, and values. “Free labour” was contrasted to slave labour, forced labour or bondage. In societies where slavery was central – as in the Americas and Africa – the distinction between “free” and “unfree” became essential too, especially since the formal end of slavery. This lecture critically discusses widespread assumptions which link “unfree” or forced labour to pre-industrial societies and instead argues that there was a close and complex connection between definitions and practices of unfree labor in Europe and in the colonies. For instance, indentured labour on the tea plantations in Assam (India) was not thinkable without the specific concept of English workers as “servants”. In a way, indentured labourers on platations in Asia and the Caribbean were neither slaves nor proletarians. But which categories are appropriate to describe them? The talk will present various historiographical debates related to the issue of unfree/free labour, but will also focus on what historical actors in different parts of the world themselves understood by unfree/free labour.