Crises of Empire: Colonial Economies, Labour, and Post-War Protest, 1945-1966.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


Using Malaya, the Gold Coast, and British Guiana as case studies, this project will investigate the causes and consequences of the industrial unrest that affected the British Empire in the period 1945 to 1966. This project will address two broad research objectives. Firstly, it examines the causes of the industrial unrest, investigating the relationship between economic conditions, social organisation, and labour protest. Secondly, it analyses what factors conditioned the 'Imperial response' to the strikes, focusing on how metropolitan ideas relating to Keynesian economic management and social welfare influenced colonial labour policy.

The first part of the project investigates the causes of the post-war industrial unrest. The study will focus on the war-time legacy of austerity, investigating how low wages and increased labour demands contributed to the outbreak of the post-war protests. The study will also investigate the relationship between the unrest and the particular structure of the colonial economies, examining why workers in key strategic industries often played prominent role in the protests. The study will contend that key sector workers, such as transport employees in the Gold Coast, plantation labourers in Malaya, and bauxite workers in British Guiana, gained considerable industrial power in the post-war period. As the demand for primary commodities increased, sites of strategic economic importance, such as the mining, railway, and port cities, emerged as potential bottlenecks, where strike action could bring an entire economy to a halt.

The second part of the study will investigate how in the wake of the strikes, colonial administrations, influenced by domestic policies in post-war Britain, came to regard economic development and social welfare as solutions to the labour protests. It was hoped that better infrastructure and improved social services would produce not only a more efficient workforce but a less combative one. The limitations of these development and welfare-orientated policies were quickly exposed. Having demanded that colonial subjects live and work like Europeans, the trade unions insisted that the colonial governments pay them like Europeans. It was in this way, as this study will document, that the post-war justifications for colonial rule - development and welfare - served to undermine the very project they were supposed to consolidate.

The study will be of relevance to those historians and social scientists working on the social and economic aspects of colonial history. The study will challenge the assumption that the post-war industrial unrest was simply a product of imperial decline or nationalist struggle. Having documented the economic and social inequities that served as the catalyst for the post-war industrial unrest, the study will contend that the labour movements had their origins in specific patterns of mobilisation that combined emerging forms of corporate identity with existing forms of affiliation relating to class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Academic outputs will include a monograph, an international conference, peer-reviewed journal articles, and the creation of a Colonial Studies Network.

The study will also be of significance to policy makers and civil society organisations. This study will equip organisations, such as the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at the Institute of Development Studies and the Trades Union Congress, with the contextual knowledge to make evidence-based policy decisions regarding labour rights and the capacity of trade unions in developing countries. Research results will be communicated to non-academic users through the Colonial Studies Network's website, seminars and workshops, and a public exhibition: 'Crises of Empire: Trade Unions and Decolonisation'. The exhibition will be held at the University of Exeter from January to March 2016 and will then be transferred to the TUC in London.

Planned Impact

1. The project will be of significance to policy makers and civil society organisations, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the Department for International Development (DIFD). Other organisations include the International Labour Organisation and the Trade Union Network of Amnesty International. Owen Tudor, head of the TUC's International Relations Department, has expressed his enthusiasm and support for the project. The TUC work closely with trade unions and civil society organisations in developing countries in order to improve labour rights, reduce poverty, and increase the capacity of labour organisations. This project will provide the TUC with the historical antecedents and context that inform current debates on labour rights and the capacity of trade unions in development countries. By providing the TUC with the contextual knowledge this project can contribute to evidence-based policy making.

2. The study will be of relevance to trade union organisations in Malaysia, Ghana, and Guyana. Key stakeholders have already been identified, including the Trade Union Congresses of Malaysia, Ghana, and Guiana. The project will raise awareness of labour history among these unions and will help to inform current debates regarding labour rights and trade union responsibilities. The project will also be of relevance to the Commonwealth Trade Union Group (CTUG). The TUC has stated that it will assist the PI to develop links with CTUG's members in order to disseminate the research results.

3. The study's focus on colonial development initiatives will be of relevance to think tanks and policy makers involved in international development, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. Potential research users have already been identified, including: Oxford Analytica, Chatham House, and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Allister McGregor, head of the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at IDS, has emphasised to the PI the importance of the project, particularly as trade unions are an understudied area in international development. Allister McGregor has expressed his willingness to participate in workshop planned for October 2015 (see Pathways to Impact).

4. The project will be of interest to History and Policy's Trade Union Forum. The Trade Union Forum includes trade union practitioners, professional historians, and other interested groups, such as policy makers. It is expected that the PI will deliver a seminar to the Trade Union Forum. As a result of the seminar the PI will also publish a 'Policy Paper' on History and Policy's website. These two activities will enable the PI to disseminate the project's results to research users.

5. Members of the public will be exposed to the research from this project in a number of ways. The exhibition, which is planned for January to June 2016, will serve as a public engagement event. The exhibition will be hosted at the University of Exeter (January to March) and then at the TUC in London (April to June). The exhibition, which will include examples of the research data collected during the course of the project, will help to raise awareness of the study. To further disseminate the findings of the research, the Exeter branch of the Historical Association will be invited to a specially convened lecture, which will be delivered by the PI in January 2016. The Colonial Studies Network, which will be launched in January 2014, will also help to increase public understanding and awareness of the issues related to colonialism. The website will include articles by leading public intellectuals and policy makers.
Description I am in the process of writing up my research for my first monograph.

The argument is as follows: The strikes and labour riots that swept through the empire during the late 1930s are widely regarded as a watershed moment in the history of British imperialism. According to conventional histories the unrest was a catalyst for a major reorientation of not just colonial labour policy but colonial attitudes towards social and economic development in the empire. In the wake of the strikes colonial governments sought to modernise colonial labour regimes through the legalisation of trade unions, the repeal of punitive labour legislation, and the replacement of casual migrant labour with permanent workforces with access to adequate housing, sanitation, and medical care. These reforms were linked to the wider modernisation project enshrined in the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act, which provided increased investment for social and economic infrastructure, as colonial states aimed to raise colonial living standards, increase economic production, and thereby provide imperialism with renewed moral legitimacy.
The aim of this book is to reconsider this established narrative. While accepting that colonial states intervened more directly in the social and economic spheres of colonial rule following the unrest of the late 1930s, I argue that this was a question of scale and intensity, rather than novelty. Colonial states had always sought to control the supply and reproduction of labour, primarily through strict legal codes and by regulating African and Asian workers' access the means of production and basic social welfare infrastructure. In this respect the book's principal objective is to highlight continuities in colonial labour policy from the late nineteenth century through to the era of decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century. The book argues that as the civilising mission gave way to the language of modernisation, the aim of colonial labour regimes remained the same: above all else colonial states were concerned with the control, regulation and reproduction of African and Asian workers. Indeed, for all the imperial rhetoric regarding the modernisation of colonial labour regimes after 1940, colonial labour policy remained distinctly 'colonial': international norms concerning the use of forced labour and penal sanctions continued to be flouted throughout the empire; trade union legislation imposed strict limitations on basic labour rights; industrial protests and strikes were violently suppressed by colonial police forces; and even the social welfare reforms of 1940s and 1950s were designed to extend colonial state's control over the workplace and the domestic sphere, rather than address the structural inequalities of colonial rule.

This is not to imply that the power of the colonial state was absolute. Police violence in response to workplace stoppages betrayed the anxieties of colonial officials, who, time and again, conflated labour unrest with nationalist insurrection, fearing that strikes and labour riots were the prelude to the violent overthrow of the colonial order. Not all work-related resistance to colonial rule took the form of organised strikes and industrial stoppages, however. African and Asian workers frequently practiced more subterranean or 'everyday' forms of resistance. Acts such as absenteeism, industrial sabotage, theft and go-slow protests enabled workers to retain autonomy over working practices and subverted the racialised hierarchy of the colonial workplace. In other cases colonial subjects sought to appropriate the material benefits of increased welfare provision, whilst remaining ambivalent about colonial planners' attempts to reshape colonial societies through social policy. Put simply, this book is as much about the limits of colonial state power and the agency of African and Asian workers, as it is about the colonial authorities attempt to secure a stable and orderly supply of labour. The project concludes by asking what happened to the regulation of labour once empire ended. The answer is, again, one of continuity, rather than dramatic change. The structure of the colonial economies - a dependence upon arterial infrastructure and export revenues from primary commodities - meant that in many colonies the organised labour movement wielded considerable industrial power. This influence helped to forge alliances between organised labour and nationalist political parties, for whom strike action served to disrupt the colonial economic order and provide a basis for mass mobilisation against colonial rule. These alliances found expression in the language of the age, as political and labour elites drew on rights-based discourses to condemn the inequities of colonial rule. Once self-government was achieved, however, the alliance between nationalist regimes and organised labour collapsed. During the 1940s and 1950s the language of rights and self-determination had undermined legitimacy of colonial rule, but following independence these discourses were regarded as a threat to primacy of state sovereignty and national development. As a consequence, nationalist governments across Africa and Asia responded to industrial unrest in much the same way as their colonial predecessors, demanding the workers focus on raising productivity and arguing that unions should eschew strike action, all in the name of the more immediate task of nation-building.
Exploitation Route Although the continuities in terms of strategies of labour control across the colonial and post-colonial periods are emphasised, one of my project's key concerns is with the 'global transformation of work in the mid-twentieth century' (Cooper, 1987). Reflecting on changes to the labour regime in the port of Mombasa during the 1940s and 1950s, Frederick Cooper argued that the post-1945 stabilisation policy had a 'global dimension'. Across the British Empire, from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia, colonial governments and employers were simultaneously seeking to transform transient and mobile labourers into permanent and stable workforces through similar stabilisation policies.

However, although Cooper drew attention to these 'empire-wide processes' and encouraged 'scholars to look outward and think anew about the history of labour and the history of empire in a global perspective', no historian has yet responded to this specific challenge (Cooper, 1987). My project has taken up Cooper's challenge by focusing on the case studies of British Guiana, Singapore and the Gold Coast. In doing so, I hope the project encourages other historians to consider the transformation of work in the mid-twentieth century in global terms, ideally by transcending the boundaries of imperial systems and metropole-colony divides in order to bring the imperialist north, the colonial south and the socialist world into a single frame of reference and analysis.

The project's focus on the mid-twentieth century 'transformation of work' and the forms of workplace management and social security that emerged during this period are relevant to historians concerned with social and cultural history; labour history; the history capitalism, empire and decolonisation; and, finally, colonial and post-colonial state formation.

Beyond academia, at a time when labour rights and 'traditional' forms of work and workplace security are being eroded, this project examines what factors gave rise to the emergence of basic forms of social and workplace security in colonial contexts and how this shaped worker and state-employer relations. This research will be of use to trade union and organised labour representatives. Specifically, it is hoped that the project will provide historical examples regarding how workers and their supporters and representatives have mobilised in order to protect and enhance workers' rights, with a particular focus on the infringement of such protections by states. In the contemporary context, as evidenced by the workshop held at the TUC in January 2016, my research will be particularly concerned with the challenges posed by economic globalization and the informalisation or casulisation of employment.

As the research outputs for the project are finalised, I will return to the impact-related activities linked to this project over the course of the next REF cycle. This impact activity will be associated with a new research project. I hope to develop a new project on the global history of 'women's work'.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description There is no impact to date but this will be updated in the future when this develops. To be clear, since I started the award in October 2016 I have been developing relationships with key stakeholders, including the TUC, the ETUC, and OTJC. My intention is to develop these working relationships into tangible impacts over the course of the next five years, so that I have an impact case study ready for following REF (c.2027). As of February/March 2019, this remains my intention. I have spent the last twelve months finishing the capstone monograph for that is associated with this project. Once this monograph is complete, I will be able to return to my impact-related work.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Description University of Exeter HASS Development Award
Amount £5,200 (GBP)
Organisation University of Exeter 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 09/2014
Description TUC 
Organisation Trades Union Congress (TUC)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I have organised two workshops with the TUC's International Department. These workshops have brought together academics and trade union reps. for the purposes of discussing the achievements and challenges trade unions have dealt with across time and space. My role has been to link up the TUC with the relevant academic speakers.
Collaborator Contribution TUC has provided the environment and the contacts with practitioners to make these events possible.
Impact Workshop, 2014 Workshop, 2017 Publication (Special Issue, Labor History, 2016).
Start Year 2014
Description Op-Ed Piece on Singapore 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Op-Ed piece on the 'old Singaporean left', published in the South China Morning Post.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description TUC Conference in January 2016 on Trade Unions and Globalization 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In January 2017 academics and trade union activists came together to discuss the issues connected to globalization and trade unions. Excellent discussion, will result in follow up workshops and training events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Trade Unions in the Global South Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This conference will lead to a special issue in the journal Labor History. It is also expected that it will lead to bid for further ESRC funding on the subject of labour rights, working with partners such as the TUC.

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Workshop, Singapore 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Workshop in Singapore on migrant labour, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective. Engaged with civil society groups, rights campaigners, and members of the public. Q&A discussion, plus will result in online publication about migrant labour in Singapore.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016