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The Curious Case of Sick Keesar: Tracing the Roots of South Asian Presence in the Early Republic

  • Author(s): Kaur, Rajender
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

This article is part of a larger monograph on India in the American imaginary that seeks to trace Indo-American interactions as mediated by the triangulated relationship between India, Britain, and the US. In this article I perform a symptomatic reading of a petition for redress by a Bengali lascar, Sick Keesar, to Benjamin Franklin in 1785. Whilst most scholarship on lascars and their integral role in the transoceanic trade in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has focused on Britain and Europe, Keesar’s petition illumines South Asian histories of mobility and labor formations forged against global networks of colonial capital and a maritime economy in the little-known context of the United States in the Early Republic. Read in conjunction with the many advertisements for runaway “East Indian” slaves found in newspapers of the times, Keesar’s petition presents an alternative genealogy of South Asian presence in America dating back to the colonial era. The petition sheds light on the unacknowledged and little-known presence and contributions of early South Asian settlers, as indentured servants, slaves, and lascars, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mapping this hitherto little-known history not only radically reshapes the history of South Asian presence in America, but also illumines a tumultuous period in the making of the American nation that, as yet, was just beginning to define itself and how it related to its racial others.

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