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Arunima Datta

Assistant Professor – South and Southeast Asian History, World History, British and British Empire History

Office: LA 331



Ph.D., National University of Singapore


Datta’s first monograph, Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya, published by Cambridge University Press (which has been awarded the NWSA Whaley Book Award; the WAWH Chaudhuri Prize; the NACBS Stansky Award) disrupts the male-dominated narratives by focusing on gendered patterns of migration and showing how South Asian women labor migrants engaged with the process of migration, interacted with other migrants and negotiated colonial laws. This is the first study of Indian coolie women in British Malaya to date. In exploring the politicization of labor migration trends and gender relations in the colonial plantation society in British Malaya, the author foregrounds how the migrant Indian 'coolie' women manipulated colonial legal and administrative perceptions of Indian women; their gender-prescriptive roles, relations within patriarchal marriage institutions, and even the emerging Indian national independence movement in India and Malaya. All this, to ensure their survival, escape from unfavorable relations and situations, and improve their lives. The book also introduces the concept of situational or fleeting agency, which contributes to further a nuanced understanding of agency in the lives of Indian coolie women.

Datta has also published a number of articles and chapters, concerning South and Southeast Asian histories, labor migration and women’s histories. Her current research project is centered around the migration and mobility of South and Southeast Travelling Ayahs and Amahs (travelling nannies) across the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Datta also serves as an Associate Editor for the journals Gender & History and Britain and the World, and as an Associate Review Editor for the American Historical Review.



Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya, Cambridge University Press, 2021. 


the NWSA Whaley Book Award (2021);

the WAWH Chaudhuri Prize (2022);

the NACBS Stansky Award (2022)


Articles and Book Chapters

"Intimate Lives on Rubber Plantations: The textures of Indian coolie relations in British Malaya," in Crispin Bates (ed), Indenture and After: Gender, Agency and Resistance, Cambridge University Press (forthcoming 2022).

“Stranded: How Travelling Ayahs negotiated War and Abandonment in Europe,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 29:3 (forthcoming 2022).

"Becoming Visible: Travel Documents and Travelling Ayahs in the British Empire," South Asian Studies (2022).

Race, Anxiety and Shopping in the Australian Outback: Indian Hawkers and Victoria's 1884 Smallpox Outbreak,” in Ajaya Sahoo (ed), Routledge Handbook of Asian Transnationalism (Routledge, 2022) 281-293.

“Pony Up!: Managing Destitution among British Grooms from Australia in Nineteenth Century India,” Journal of Labour History, 122:1 (2022): 155–179

"Responses to traveling Indian ayahs in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain," Journal of Historical Geography, 71 (2021): 94-103.

Awarded the Carol Gold Award (2022).

“Knocker Ups: A Social History of Waking up in Victorian Britain’s Industrial Towns,” Journal of Victorian Culture, 25:3 (2020): 331–348.

Selected as JVC Editor’s Choice Article- Summer 2020.

“Negotiating Gendered Spaces in Colonial Press: Wives of European Planters in British Malaya,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 18:3 (2017).

“Immorality’, Nationalism and the Colonial State in British Malaya: Indian ‘coolie’ women’s intimate lives as an ideological battleground,” in Barbara Bush and June Purvis, eds., Connecting Women's Histories: The local and the global (Routledge, 2018), 91-108. (Was previously published as a journal article)

“Immorality’, Nationalism and the Colonial State in British Malaya: Indian ‘coolie’ women’s intimate lives as ideological battleground,” Journal of Women’s History Review, 25:4 (2016): 584-601.

“Social Memory and Indian Women from Malaya and Singapore in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment,” Journal of Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 88:2 (2015): 77-103.

“Tracing the Roots of Marginalization of Indians During the Colonial Period of Malaysia: Alienation of Bhumiputras from Bhumi by Chettiars”, Indian History Congress Proceedings, (2011): 900-910.

“Silent Marginalization of Indian Women Migrant Labour in Colonial Malaysia”, Indian History Congress Proceedings, (2010): 1245-1246.


Book Reviews 

Review of Schooling Diaspora: Women, Education, and the Overseas Chinese in British Malaya and Singapore, 1850s-1960s by Karen Teoh, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 22:2 (2021).

Review of Singapore, Chinese Migration and the Making of the British Empire, 1819-67 by Stan Neal, Britain and the World, 14:2 (2021): 191-193.

Datta on Singha, 'The Coolie's Great War: Indian Labor in a Global Conflict, 1914-1921, H-Asia, Commissioned by Prof. Sumit Guha, June 2021.

Review of Gender Relations in an Indonesian Society: Bugis Practices of Sexuality and Marriage by Nurul Ilmi Idrus, Asian Journal of Social Studies, 47:3 (2019): 409-411.

Review of Cultural Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Asia edited by Tiantian Zheng, Southeast Asian Studies, 7:3 (2018): 512-514.

Review of Tamils and the haunting of Justice: History and recognition in Malaysia’s plantations authored by Andrew C. Willford, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 49:1 (2018): 168-171.

Review of Indian and Chinese Immigrant Communities: Comparative Perspectives edited by Jayati Bhattacharya and Coonoor Kripalani,  Economic & Political Weekly, 52:34 (26 Aug, 2017).

Review of Tragic Orphans: Indians in Malaysia by Carl Vadivella Belle, Asian Journal of Social Science, 44:3 (2016): 419-422.

Review of Where Gendered Spaces Bend: The Rubber Phenomenon in Northern Laos by Anna-Klara Lindeborg, Dissertation Reviews, 3 October 2015.


Other Publications 

“Curry tales of the Empire,” Journal of Victorian Culture Online (The blog and online platform of the Journal of Victorian Culture), May 2021.

"Women in the business of waking up industrial Britain," Journal of Victorian Culture Online (the blog and online platform of the Journal of Victorian Culture), 12 June 2020.

"Shampoo Empire," History Today, Vol. 70, Issue 3, March 2020.

"Punkhawallahs: Keeping British India Cool," in History Today, Volume 69, Issue 9, September 2019.


Media Engagement

“South Asians in Britain: Sake Deen Mohamad and introduction of Shampoo in Britain,” BBC4 Radio, You're Dead to Me (aired 1 October 2021).

"Fleeting Agencies,” New Books Network Podcast in India Ocean World, 27 March 2021

“Gender, sexuality, Hinduism and migration,” Navigating Diversity, KISU-FM, 23 March 2021


Current Projects

Consumption Politics: Coolies and Empire in Malaya (manuscript in preparation)

Caring for the Empire: Travelling Ayahs and Amahs in the British Empire (manuscript in preparation).


Courses Taught

HIST 1105: Foundations of Europe
HIST 1120: Themes in Global History: Bandits, Pirates and Outlaws
HIST 1102: World History II
HIST 1100: History in Film HIST 4439/5539: Women in World History
HIST 4452: Gender and Sexuality: Comparative history in South and Southeast Asia
HIST 4452/5552: Asia and the World
HIST 4478/5578: History of British Empire
HIST 6600: Graduate Proseminar