Professor Andrea Major

Professor Andrea Major

Head of School of History;
Professor in Colonial History

+44 (0)113 34 31829

Summary: British Colonial and South Asian History; East India Company; sati (suttee); slavery and abolition; social and gender issues; colonial philanthropy, Indian indentured labour.


After graduating with an MA (Hons) in History from the University of Edinburgh in 1998, I went on to do an M.Sc. by Research and Ph.D. at the same institution. The subject of my postgraduate work reflected an interest in issues of gender and empire in India that I had developed during undergraduate courses on colonialism.  My Master's dissertation focused on the child marriage and age of consent debates in 1920s India, while my doctoral thesis looked at European reactions to sati (widow-burning) and how they changed as colonialism emerged and developed between 1500 and 1860.  After completing my Ph.D. I was fortunate enough to secure ESRC post-doctoral and Leverhulme Early Career fellowships, also at Edinburgh, before joining the School of History at the University of Leeds in September 2009.

Research interests

My research explores the colonial encounter between Britain and India, with a particular focus on social, cultural and gender issues, colonial philanthropy and the so-called 'civilising mission'. I am interested in the processes by which societies seek to understand and represent each other, and the flow of ideas and information around inter-connected sites of empire. I am also interested to redress the male dominated image of colonialism by stressing the importance of women and gender issues in inter-cultural relationships. While my research to date has spanned the colonial period, including the early twentieth century, the main focus of my work and interests is the century of East India Company rule c. 1757-1857. I am particularly interested in sati (widow-burning), slavery and anti-slavery, indentured labour, child marriage and age of consent, histories of colonial philanthropy and humanitarianism, missionary activity and missionary writing, travel writing, imperial ideologies such as 'civilising mission', the experience of British women in India, and the various ways in which empire in India was represented and discussed in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain.

Current Research Projects

Beggars in their Native Land': Abolitionist Attitudes to India, 1785-1857 (Leverhulme Research Fellowship, Sept 2014- Dec 2015)

Much has been written about British abolitionists’ opposition to slavery in the Caribbean, but less attention has been paid to their more ambivalent attitudes to colonial exploitation in other parts of the Empire. This Leverhulme-funded research project focuses on the relationship between the British anti-slavery movement and East India Company controlled India, exploring how the campaign against slavery in the west helped shape ideas about empire in the east. It explores abolitionists’ personal, financial and political connections to the subcontinent, as well as how their perceptions of Indian conditions were informed by, and functioned within, wider debates about slavery, poverty, and ‘free’ labour. In doing so, it seeks to move beyond dichotomous interpretations of the East and West Indies by placing debates about slavery and debates about India in the same analytical frame.
The project utilises a range of printed and manuscript sources from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, including the minutes, prospectuses and publications of various anti-slavery societies and organisations (the Anti-Slavery Society, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, British India Society (BIS), and the Aborigines Protection Society), as well as those of their opponents in West India Association. It also makes use of Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), the popular press (of all political persuasions), periodicals, pamphlets, petitions and personal papers, satirical cartoons, speeches, writings, memoirs and personal correspondence of key figures, such as Burke, Thompson, Lloyd-Garrison, Pease, Grant, Wilberforce, Fowell-Buxton, Cropper, and Macaulay. The result will be a monograph, provisionally entitled ‘Beggars in Their Native Land': India, Empire and the Anti-Slavery Movement, 1772-1857, which is expected to appear in 2016.

Becoming ‘Coolies': Rethinking the Origins of the Indian Labour Diaspora, 1772-1920. (AHRC Research Project, March 2015 – August 2017. PI - Prof. Crispin Bates, University of Edinburgh; CoI - Dr. Andrea Major, University of Leeds)

Between the 1830s and 1920s over 1.3 million Indians migrated as indentured labourers to locations across the world. Criticised both at the time and since as a ‘new system of slavery’, this ‘first wave’ of Indian labour migration has been negatively portrayed as the cynical exploitation of a passive Indian labour force. Those who migrated have been presented as conforming to negative colonial stereotype of the ‘coolie’ – victims and dupes, who had little or no control over either the decision to migrate, or the individual or collective outcomes of migration. ‘Becoming Coolies’ is a major collaborative research project, involving scholars in Leeds, Edinburgh, London and Delhi, which sets out to dispute such assumptions. It explores how diverse and varied experiences of migration came to be subsumed under the colonial label ‘coolie’, as well as how migrants were able to manipulate, renegotiate and transcend its negative connotations, at the time and since. By seeking to understand nineteenth century indentured labour migration around the Indian Ocean in the context of a longer and more diverse history of Indian labour mobility, it will situate indentured labour alongside the contemporaneous migrations of soldiers, slaves and service providers from the Indian subcontinent and explore the extent to which existing networks, connections and communities helped to shape the processes and indenture and the experiences and identities of migrants.
Drawing upon previously misinterpreted or under-utilised resources in India, Britain, France, Mauritius, Réunion, Sri Lanka and South Africa – including the personal correspondence of migrants themselves – the project will assess the degree to which indentured labourers were able to make conscious and informed decisions about if, when and where to migrate. It will also explore the ways in which migrant labourers in the Indian Ocean were able to improve their status and renegotiate real or imposed identities by moving between different categories of labour, and how far they could utilise kinship and other networks to take control of the sources of labour supply. Convict indents, emigration certificates, ship registers and migrants’ letters will be used to suggest a broader and more varied movement of Indians overseas than has hitherto been realised.

‘Peaceful, Bloodless and Anti-Slavery Commerce’? The British India Society and the Ethics of East India Trade, 1833-1857 (British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, Sept 2012- Aug 14). 

This project explored the relationship between Britain and India in the early nineteenth century, by focusing on the British India Society, which was formed in 1839 by British and American abolitionists, East India Company (EIC) men, private traders and members of the Bengali elite. This relatively short-lived organisation argued that, if properly managed, India’s ‘fertile soil and willing sons’ could provide an ethical source of sugar, cotton and other tropical goods that would undercut slavery in the American South. This anti-slavery agenda was combined with an attack on EIC misrule and the promotion of private enterprise in India. This project, which has been funded by the British Academy, will explore this little-studied society, tracing the interests and affiliations of its members to reveal the overlapping and intricate networks of colonial philanthropy and commercial enterprise that linked the BIS to transatlantic abolitionists, 'free traders', Indian reformers and private commerce. In so doing it will enhance our understanding of the complex and sometimes problematic interactions between humanitarianism and capitalism, as India's role in a post-emancipation empire was re-imagined in narratives on 'free' production, ethical consumption and globalisation. This project is being continued under the auspices of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. Two journal articles based on its findings will be in print later in 2015.

Past Research

The above mentioned research projects have all emerged, to a greater or lesser extent, from research carried out for my most recent book, which explored Britain's ambivalent relationship with slavery in India during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It asked why, at the height of both the British abolitionist movement and missionary campaigns for the reform of social and religious practices in India, the existence of slavery there was so often either ignored, denied or excused. As well as examining the nature of slavery in India, the research unpicks the official, evangelical and popular discourses which surrounded it and the various political, economic and ideological agendas that resulted in Indian slavery being reconstructed as qualitatively different from it trans-Atlantic counterpart and even presented as a potentially benign social institution. In doing so, its objective was to uncover the tensions in the relationship between colonial policy and the so-called 'civilising mission' in India and to elucidate the intricate interactions between humanitarian movements, colonial ideologies and imperial imperatives that informed the emergence of the 'second British empire' in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The research drew on a range of sources from Britain and India to provide a trans-national perspective on this little known facet of the story of slavery and abolition in the British Empire. From East India Company officials to British abolitionists, Christian missionaries to West Indian planters and politicians, the research uncovers the complex ways in which different constituencies encountered, discussed, utilised and rationalised the existence of slavery in India and how this was reconciled with the economic, political and moral imperatives of an empire whose focus was increasingly shifting to the East. The project was supported by the Leverhulme Trust, via one of their Early Career Fellowships, and was published in 2012 as a monograph entitled Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843, with Liverpool University Press.
My doctoral and postdoctoral research also focused on European reactions to Indian practices and customs, in this case to sati - the immolation of a Hindu widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Sati has fascinated European observers for centuries and is one of the most widely known and contentious of Indian 'religious customs'. In recent years it has been put forward as an iconic image of Hindu women's subjugation by a western media that portrays it as a barbaric oriental practice diametrically opposed to civilised values and universal human rights. Many of the ideas and assumptions that inform this interpretation of sati have their roots in the colonial encounter with sati, especially the British debate about the rite that took place between 1805 and 1830. This period was characterised by unprecedented British obsession with sati and increasingly vocal public condemnation that finally culminated in the prohibition of the rite in 1829. My research places the well-known British debate on sati of the early nineteenth century in the context of a much longer and more varied history of western encounters with it, including pre-colonial encounters with the rite, and responses to it in the context of the princely states, which remained outside the ambit of direct colonial rule.  In doing so it demonstrates that the outraged reaction of the British in the early nineteenth century was not, as is usually assumed, the 'natural' response of a 'civilised' West on encountering a barbaric oriental practice, but the result of the convergence of specific ideological trends and social concerns at a particular historical moment.


• Andrea Major, Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012).
• Andrea Major, ‘Mediating Modernity:  Colonial State, Indian Nationalism and the Renegotiation of the 'Civilising Mission' in the Indian Child Marriage Debate of 1927-1932’ in M. Mann and C. Watt (eds), Civilising Missions in Colonial and Post-colonial South Asia: From Improvement to Development: Colonialism as Civilising Mission (London: Anthem Press, 2011).
• Andrea Major, ‘‘The Slavery of East and West’: Abolitionists and ‘Unfree’ Labour in India, 1820–1833’ in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 31:4, 2010.
• Andrea Major, Sovereignty and Social Reform in India: British Colonialism and the Campaign Against Sati (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010). 
• Andrea Major, ‘Enslaved Spaces: Domestic slavery and the spatial, ideological and practical limits of colonial control in the nineteenth century Rajput and Maratha States’ in Andrea Major and Aya Ikegame (eds), Princely Spaces and Domestic Voices: new perspectives on the Indian princely states, a special edition of Indian Economic and Social History Review, 46:3, Sept 2009.
• Andrea Major, ‘The Burning of Sampati Kuer: Sati and the Politics of Imperialism, Nationalism and Revivalism in 1920s India’ in Gender and History, 20:2, 2008.
• Andrea Major (ed), Sati: A Historical Anthology (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007).
• Andrea Major, Pious Flames: European Encounters with Sati 1500-1830 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006).
• Andrea Major, ‘Self-Determined Sacrifices?  Victimhood and Volition in British Constructions of Sati in the Rajput States 1830-60’ in History and Anthropology, 17:4, Nov 2006.
• Andrea Major, ‘A Question of Rites?  Perspectives on the Colonial Encounter with Sati’ in History Compass, Sept 2006.
• Andrea Major, ‘“Pious Flames”: European Encounters with Sati Before 1800’ in South Asia, Journal of South Asian Studies, Aug 2004.
• Andrea Major, ‘Eternal Flames: Suicide, Sinfulness and Insanity in European Constructions of Sati, 1500-1830.’ International Journal of Asian Studies, 1:2, Aug 2004.

Outreach / Wider Community

I have given a radio interview on the subject of sati, and carried out consultancy work for the National Library of Scotland on sources on early colonial India. I have also appeared on the BBC documentary, Birth of Empire on the East India Company, and the Channel News Asia documentary on Sir Stamford Raffles.  I welcome the opportunity to discuss my research interests and am happy to answer questions on any area of my research and teaching.