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An African orient? West Africans in World War Two India, 1943-1947

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An African Orient? West Africans in World War Two India, 1943-1947

Despite a recent resurgence of interest in Africa/India relations (Hawley 2008; Burton 2015), we still know relatively little about the history of Africans on the subcontinent during the colonial period. This is particularly true of non-elite Africans, the subject of this paper which will examine the interactions between these men and local Indian civilians. Drawing on the growing historiography of wartime India (Khan 2015, Raghavan 2016), as well as research on African Americans on the subcontinent (Slate 2013), this paper will show how Africans enjoyed wide-ranging contact with Indians. Whether they were visiting the archaeological ruins of Rajput and Mughal India, exchanging tea or watches with market traders, or conversing with Indian nationalists, West Africans developed complex insights into South Asian culture and society. Although they were primarily based in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Bengal, African travellers ranged across the subcontinent, with numerous men committing their impressions to paper. The resulting sources provide evidence not only of interaction across cultures, but also of sophisticated discursive responses to South Asia. Encountering religious festivals, and new foods, these men also mastered basic Hindi and Bengali, as well as considering how the people they met and places they discovered might be presented to those who remained in Africa. Ultimately, the history of these soldiers reminds us of the historical depth of South-South encounters, as well as the itineraries of travellers moving between two of the British Empire’s largest and most populous territories

This talk is part of the Centre of South Asian Studies Seminars series.

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