From Plantation Slavery to Imperial Labour: Exploiting Workers in Britain, India and Australia


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This PhD project will explore how economic thinking, colonial governance and business practice shifted to generate new forms of imperial labour in Britain and its empire between 1750 and 1850.

This period saw the radical transformation of work in colonial and industrialising contexts. In particular, the PhD will focus on workers in Lancashire, Bengal and New South Wales. From the second half of the eighteenth century, imperial and economic conditions resulted in the exploitation of labour in these sites in ways that had not previously been common in Britain or its empire: child labour in Lancashire’s factories; the corporate exploitation of indigenous labour in Bengal; and convict transportation and assisted migration to New South Wales. However, too often these diffuse but economically connected experiences of labour have been examined independently, undermining the opportunity to examine a broader, global perspective, and making it more difficult to assess the implications of these experiences when examining inequalities generated during this period of British imperialism. By combining them, this PhD will undertake an important comparative study of labour regimes in regions that were rapidly changing in light of their connection of Britain’s imperial and economic development, vitally drawing them together to identify and analyse how workers across the world were exploited by common (or not) conceptions of labour and economic activity.

This PhD project will focus on the following questions:

  • How did labour practices change in response to economic and imperial change in Britain, India and Australia?
  • What impact did private business enterprise have on exploitative labour practices?
  • How did imperial labour regimes influence the Abolitionist movement, and how were they shaped in turn by abolition?
  • To what extent was Britain’s imperial system understood as a connected economic system, and how did this shape labour policy?
  • To what extent did labour practices in each location shape the others?
  • How did labour practices across Britain’s empire generate local and global inequalities, and how did these shape local economies?

The collaborative structure of this PhD programme offered by Manchester and Melbourne will allow the student to draw on the expertise and support of the academic community at both institutions, as well as being able to spend time in relevant archives in both the UK and Australia. The primary supervisor at Manchester, Dr Edmond Smith, is an expert in imperial and economic history, while the second supervisor at Melbourne, Prof Zoë Laidlaw, specialises in colonial regimes and imperial networks. Together, they will provide the student with a strong supervisory and training agenda designed to ensure the best possible outputs from this PhD programme.

The project will draw on business, government and family records relating to the organisation and exploitation of labour in Lancashire, Bengal and New South Wales. Specifically, the research will engage with on extensive private archives in Manchester and the north-west of England, as well as East India Company and British state records in London, and early colonial, convict, and business records in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

Supervision team

The University of Melbourne: Professor Zoë Laidlaw

The University of Manchester: Dr Edmond Smith.

*Click on the researcher's name above to learn more about their publication and grant successes.

Further details

The successful candidate will be based at University of Manchester with a minimum twelve-month stay at the University of Melbourne.

Applications for this project will close once a suitable candidate is identified, and no later than 17 March 2023.

To view the entry requirements please visit How to apply. Intending applicants should contact Professor Zoë Laidlaw and Dr Edmond Smith with a 1-2 page cover letter outlining your expression of interest, a recent writing sample, academic transcripts, and Curriculum Vitae.

First published on 3 December 2022.

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