Children on Board: Child labor on ships in the Indian Ocean, c. 18th – 19th Centuries

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A growing body of research has focused on adult Asian sailors’ employment on European ships in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. However, the experiences of children who worked on ships in the Indian Ocean World have received comparatively little attention. The scholarly lacuna is striking considering the tremendous increase in the scope and sophistication in the discussions on child slavery and abolition. This article examines the use of children as maritime laborers in the Indian Ocean World between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In doing so, it examines the multiple pathways through which children were brought for work on ships and studies the recruitment patterns of adult and child sailors. It focuses on the various types of labor performed by children on ships and discusses how conditions of servitude on land were transferred to a ship when children accompanied their masters. It then also discusses how prevailing understandings of childhood, domestic service, and child labor shaped the actions of English East India Company officials towards child sailors while undertaking anti-slavery measures during the nineteenth century.

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