Oxford Journals, 15.12.2021
Past and Present, 255, 1
In the Indian historiography of law and labour, master–servant regulations are an under-explored subject. Based on English precedents, these regulations acquired a specifically colonial nature when applied to control labour in the growing city of Calcutta. Questioning the assumed associations of domestic servants with privacy and informality, this article shows that in fact they were unambiguously one of the earliest groups to be regulated. It approaches the law from both ends, from its formal promulgation to its actual implementation. It analyses various regulations from 1759 to the 1810s that were passed to control employment relations between masters and servants, while for the first time analysing three different sets of court records to reconstruct the history of justice and the enforcement of law. It argues that domestic servants engaged with the law strategically: they made complaints of the non-payment of wages against their Indian masters but never brought such charges against their European masters. This absence is better understood if we unpack the hidden histories behind the juristic terms of these complaints, such as neglect of duty, running away (with or without advance payment of wages), demand for exorbitant wages, and theft, and see them as interlinked modes of control exercised under the master–servant regulations.