Purba Hossain

Purba Hossain


PhD Candidate in History

Royal Historical Society P.J. Marshall Fellow

Indian indentured Labour; 'post-slavery' labour; Calcutta; Coolies; Urban spaces; Colonial encounters

Academic Background:

Before beginning my research at Leeds, I studied at Presidency University (Kolkata, India), where I developed an academic interest and specialised training in South Asian History. I graduated with a first-class BA (Hons) in 2014 and MA in History in 2016. My MA dissertation (supervised by Dr. Soumen Mukherjee) focused on the resistance to indentured labour migrations in Calcutta, and the movement that grew in the city petitioning for its abolition. During the course of postgraduate studies, I worked as Research Assistant in two research projects on colonial cemeteries and colonial networks of cultural encounter: the Dutch Cemetery in Bengal and the UKIERI Narratives of Migration: Scots in Bengal. As part of a research team, I explored the lives of those buried in the Dutch cemetery of Chinsurah (West Bengal, India) and the Scottish Cemetery at Kolkata (India) respectively, and worked towards creating a digital database with biographical, architectural and historical metadata.

Doctoral Research: 

Supervised by Prof. Andrea Major and Prof. William Gould, and generously funded by the School of History and IMS PhD Scholarship and the RHS Marshall Fellowship, this research project explores the role of Calcutta in mid-nineteenth century global indentured labour networks, which extended from India to British plantation colonies. Indentured migration has been a subject of much scholarly interest, but most works tend to be rooted in the plantation colonies the migrants immigrated to, rather than the colonial capital they emigrated from. My research explores this gap to locate Calcutta within the global ‘web’ of indenture, from where labourers were exported to plantation colonies and where major decisions were taken regarding the regulation of the indentured trade. It emphasises in particular the role of an active and engaging discursive space in the city, which operated within physical and intellectual limits of the colonial framework (such as public associations, meetings, enquiry commissions, and the local print media). Sitting at the intersection of urban, imperial and intellectual history, it highlights how such discussions in Calcutta affected understandings of servitude and freedom in the Empire. Drawing on official and popular (often marginalised) resources from extensive archival research in India and the UK, it contributes to a multifaceted understanding of the British Empire and highlights how voices from Calcutta impacted it. Ultimately, this project highlights the lasting impact of the mid-nineteenth century debates on colonial emigration policies and explore the discursive frameworks they developed for public discussions on migrant and plantation labour.

Wider Research Interests:

My wider research interests include colonial cities and societies and their position within imperial networks, as well as print culture and public interaction in urban spaces. I am especially interested in the relation between colonial and metropolitan spheres of influence, and the networks of circulation and discussion that are developed in the process. The research projects mentioned here gave me further the opportunity to explore my interest in overseas networks and cultural encounter.

My future research project will investigate the role of translators and language intermediaries in bridging the linguistic and cultural gap in nineteenth century British India.

Research Projects and Internships:

West Yorkshire Archives Intern for the School of History, University of Leeds (November 2018-October 2019)

Research Assistant and Team Leader in a collaborative project between Presidency University, Kolkata and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, titled “The Narratives of Migration—Scotland and India”, part of the UK-India Research Initiative (UKIERI), funded by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the British Council (December 2014-October 2015)

Research Assistant in a project titled “The Dutch Cemetery in Bengal”, under the School of Digital Humanities, Presidency University, Kolkata, funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands in India (March-November 2014)


‘‘A Matter of Doubt and Uncertainty’: John Gladstone and Post-Slavery Labour in the British Empire’ (Under review)

Purba Hossain and Sudipto Mitra, ‘Protests in Print: Resistance against Indian Indentured Labour in Nineteenth Century Bengal’ in Aditi Chandra and Vinita Chandra edited The Nation and its Margins: Rethinking Community (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019)

‘Protests at the Colonial Capital: Calcutta and the Global Debates on Indenture, 1836–42’, South Asian Studies, 33:1 (2017), 37–51

“The Nation and its Limits: Women’s Question in 19th Century Bengal and the Nationalist ‘Resolution’”, Presidency Historical Review 1:1 (March 2015), 94-108

Selected Conference Papers:

‘The ‘Coolie’ Question: Indian Indenture and the Post-Slavery Debates in Colonial Calcutta’ at the IHR Fellow’s Seminar, Institute of Historical Research (London, January 14, 2020)

‘The Vocal City: Indian Indenture and Post-Slavery Debates in Colonial Calcutta’ at the Centre for Imperial and Postcolonial Studies (University of Southampton, October 23, 2019)

‘‘Docile, Quiet, Orderly’: Indian Indentured Trade and the Ideal Labourer’, at ‘Across Colonial Lines: Empires, Commodities and Movements’ Conference (University of Leeds, September 18, 2019)

‘The Vocal City: Calcutta City Spaces and “Post-Slavery” Debates’, at the Social History Society Annual Conference (University of Lincoln, June 2019)

‘Investigating Indenture: The Indenture Committees of 1839 and the Tradition of Colonial Investigation’, at the Third Annual South Asia Conference: Exclusion, Dialogue, Exchange (University of York, May 23, 2019)

‘The ‘Post-Slavery’ Discourse: Indian Indentured Migration and the Dichotomy of Servitude and Free Labour’, at the British Association for South Asian Studies Annual Conference (University of Durham, April 4, 2019)

‘All this for Sugar? : The ‘Post-Slavery’ Framework of Labour', Arts, Humanities & Cultures (AHC) Poster Conference, University of Leeds, November 13, 2018

‘John Gladstone and the Framework of Freedom: Indian Indentured Labour in Post-Abolition Empire’, Institute of Historical Research, London, October 22, 2018

‘‘More Allied to Monkeys than to Men’: Race, Ethnography, and the Indentured Labour Migrant’, at the White Rose South Asia Network Postgraduate Symposium ‘South Asian Studies: Voices through History (University of Sheffield, June 11-12, 2018)

‘Indentured Servitude and ‘Free Labour’ Debates in the Calcutta Public Sphere, 1836-42’, at the British Association for South Asian Studies Annual Conference (University of Exeter, April 18-20, 2018)

‘Resisting Indenture: Reactions to the Coolie Question in Mid-Nineteenth Century Calcutta’, at the Twelfth International Conference of History and Heritage, (Itihas Academy, Dhaka, February 18, 2016)

Teaching and Academic Mentorship:

In my capacity as Postgraduate Tutor in the School of History at Leeds, I have taught:

- Level-II Module ‘Colonial Encounters: Life and Death in British India, 1690-1871’ (Autumn 2018)

- Level-I European survey module ‘The Modern World’ (Spring 2019)

- Level-I ‘Primary Sources for the Historian: Labour, Migration and Empire: The Indian Indentured Trade, c.1834-1920’ (Spring 2018)

- Level-I Module on historiography of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (Autumn 2017)

I designed my own strand of the Primary Sources Module based on my doctoral research, and have delivered archival workshops to MA and Level-III students as part of the WYAS Internship

I am also a Level-3 undergraduate Dissertation Mentor in the School

Language Skills:

I am fluent in Bengali and English, proficient in Hindi and Spanish, and fairly proficient in German and French.

Research interests

IHR Profile: https://www.history.ac.uk/people/purba-hossain

ORCID Profile: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0165-755X 


  • BA (Hons) in 2014. Graduated top of class
  • MA (with Distinction) in 2016. Graduated top of class