Theses Doctoral

The Labor Question: Law, Institutions, and the Regulation of Chinese and West African International Labor Migration, 1600-1900

Fofana, Idriss

This dissertation examines the evolution of institutions and legal rules regulating and prohibiting the slave trade into a global regime for the regulation of international labor migration between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the nineteenth century, the spread of anti-slavery norms increased Western demand for African and Asian contractual workers; but it also upturned labor recruitment networks in the Senegal River valley and the Pearl River delta, which relied on coercive practices that Western governments now prohibited. As a result, imperial powers, indigenous authorities, and labor-source communities competed to set and enforce new rules for the lawful recruitment of West African and Chinese laborers for Western enterprises.

I argue that jurisdictional competition between these groups produced legal regimes that determined mobility and economic opportunity for Asian and African workers. As novel legal arrangements both facilitated and restrained African and Asian migration to worksites across the globe, labor-source societies in West Africa and China grew conscious of their shared existence within a Western-dominated world order and engaged in global debates over slavery, labor, and civilization.

I trace the origins of these debates to two phenomena: the early modern global trade expansion and the subsequent emergence of the anti-slavery movement. These developments transformed political ideologies not only in Western imperial metropoles, but also in Sahelian West Africa and across the South China Sea. I also uncover African and Asian critiques of domination, discrimination, and inequality in international and imperial legal orders. This project thus elucidates how labor mobilization produced new identities and solidarities across Africa and Asia. It further reveals how the regulation of migration produced global disparities of wealth and sovereignty.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Zelin, Madeleine
Diouf, Mamadou
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2024