Class, Cotton and “Woddaries”: a Scandinavian Railway Contractor in Western India, 1860-69

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Abstract

This article makes use of a recently-unearthed archive in Sweden, complemented by research in the India Office Records and Maharashtra State Archives, to explore the business networks of the small-scale railway contractor in
1860s Bombay Presidency. Manuscript records of early rail contractors are extremely rare anywhere in the world, even more so in the colonial setting, which enables this article to make a contribution to its field that is almost
unique. The article presents early contractors in India as a diverse professional class, incorporating Parsis alongside various European nationalities, who became specialists in local milieux, sourcing timber and stone at the lowest prices and retaining the loyalty of itinerant labourers. It proposes that the 1860s cotton boom in western India provided them with a short-lived window of opportunity in which to flourish, and to diversify into a variety of speculative enterprises including cotton trading, land reclamation and explosives. The accidents and bridge collapses of the 1867 monsoon, and subsequent public outcry, are identified as a watershed after which that window of opportunity begins to shut. The article's concluding section analyses the contractors' relationship with their labour force and its intermediary representatives, and strategies for defusing strikes. Ultimately, small independent contractors were agents of modernity not formally affiliated with the imperial project, and forced to bargain with merchants and strikers without official backing. Theirs is a record of complex negotiations at the local level, carried out in the immediate post-Mutiny
settlement.

© 2017, Cambridge University Press. This is an author produced version of a paper published in MODERN ASIAN STUDIES uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self- archiving policy. The final published version (version of record) is available online at the link. Some minor differences between this version and the final published version may remain. We suggest you refer to the final published version should you wish to cite from it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1369-1393
JournalModern Asian Studies
Volume51
Issue number5
Early online date13 Jul 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017

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