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New Settler Histories at the Edges of Empire: “Asiatics,” Settlers, and Law in Colonial South Africa

Bose, Neilesh
Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

The history of Indians in colonial South Africa betrays a long history of settlement, from at least the mid-seventeenth century, regulated by inter-imperial spaces of negotiation, first via the regulation of religion and custom in the 1795–1814 period and then via the regulation of mobile laborers a century later in the high era of legal intervention from 1885–1914. During the latter period, Indians were still categorized as “Asiatic,” even though many Indians began to identify as Indians in the context of political protest against discrimination. In this essay, I argue that a history of law governing “Asiatics” in colonial South Africa reveals important processes of settler colonialism in the British Empire that situate Indians as settlers in a complex landscape of power. Because of their ever-increasing settlements and attachments to land, legal regimes sought to control their movement and residence. Through a brief review of early Indian migration into the Cape region from the mid-seventeenth century through the early nineteenth century assumption of power by the British Empire, I discuss how Indians, though still categorized in a blanket “Asiatic” category by the colonial state, as in previous time periods, were increasingly monitored and controlled because of their expanding settlements from 1885 to 1914. Such a process shows how Indians of South Africa fit into contemporary frameworks of settler colonialism, particularly those developed by Lorenzo Veracini, and the concept of an “exogenous others,” or settlers who were blocked from indigenization in the process of empire. If extended into larger histories of “settler colonies” in the British Empire, such a new vantage point will allow histories of the British Empire that transcend narrow strictures of race, ethnicity, or community.