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This talk will examine a little known example of India-China links during the War — the presence of thousands of Chinese seamen in the Indian ports of Calcutta and Bombay, and the existence of a Chinese Seamen’s Wartime Service Corps in Calcutta from 1942 to 1945. In particular, it focuses on a “riot” by Chinese seamen in Calcutta in December 1942 to examine various questions. These include: how did India become a major locus of Chinese seamen at this time; what were the motives of the British Government, the Government of India and the Nationalist Government of China in collaborating to set up a labour corps comprised of these seamen; what was the response of the seamen to this initiative and why did they feel compelled to “riot”; what were the links of these seamen with the already established community of Chinese settled in Calcutta; and what activities did the Chinese Seamen engage in while they were in India? The answers to these questions will show that the story of the Chinese Seamen’s Wartime Service Corps in Calcutta reflected many developments and forces that were playing out simultaneously at that time in the region and around the globe, including the intertwining of the histories of India and China during the War, the tensions in the wartime alliance between Britain and China, ferment in the Chinese community in India that expanded rapidly during the War, and the dilemma of merchant seamen caught up in the turbulence of War and the conflicting pressures they faced.
Madhavi Thampi is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, and until February 2019, Editor of the journal China Report. She taught Chinese History for many years at the Department of East Asian Studies of the University of Delhi until 2014. Her major publications include Indians in China, 1800-1949 (2005), China and the Making of Bombay (2009, co-authored with Shalini Saksena) and Narratives of Asia from India, Japan and China (2005, with Brij Tankha). She also edited the volume India and China in the Colonial World (2005). She has over the past few years been engaged in projects to catalogue materials related to modern China in the National Archives of India.