Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ashley Dawson

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature | Latin American Languages and Societies | Latin American Literature | Latin American Studies


British Imperialism, Caribbean, Ethnicity, Gender, Indenture, Labor


This dissertation traces the ways that oppressive gender roles and racial tensions in the Caribbean today developed out of the British imperial system of indentured labor. Between 1837 and 1920, after slavery was abolished in the British colonies and before most colonies achieved independence, approximately 750,000 laborers, primarily from India and China, traveled to the Caribbean under indenture. This is a critical but under-explored aspect of colonial history, as this immigration dramatically altered the ethnic make up of the Caribbean, the cultural norms and traditions of those who migrated, and the structure of British imperialism. I focus on depictions of marriage, sexuality, and homosocial relationships in novels and autobiographies about this time as a key component to understanding the history and impact of indenture. I show that these depictions are used to support ideologies of race, empire, and nationhood, and that even those authors who critique empire reinforce patriarchy as they do so.

To further understand the rhetoric that helped shape these dynamics, I use a comparative approach, considering texts by authors from different time periods and different nations, including Trinidad, Guyana, Britain, and the United States. For example, I examine a common trope in indenture narratives, a relationship between a British man in power and a female Indian laborer, and the ways that this trope is used to justify empire in texts that were written at the time of indenture, such as Edward Jenkins' Lutchmee and Dilloo (1877), or to attack colonization and indenture in contemporary texts, like David Dabydeen's The Counting House (1996). Through a close reading of indenture narratives and the historical circumstances that produced them, I demonstrate that the British Empire rested on intersecting hierarchies of labor, race, gender, and class, and that these hierarchies linger in the Caribbean today.