A figure in part a foreman, in part a headman, and in part a recruiting contractor, formed an indispensable part of labour organization in mills, mines, ports and plantations in nineteenth-century India, and in the tropical colonies where Indian emigrants went for work. Historians have explained the presence of such a figure by the needs of capital for intermediaries, or needs of labour for familiar relationships in an unfamiliar environment. The significance of the labour agent for economic history, however, seems to go beyond these needs. The universal presence of a worker who embodied a variable blend of roles prompts several larger questions. Was the labour agent an institutional response to an economic problem? Were modern forms of agency rooted in older modes of labour organization? The scholarship discussed the gains for employers. Were there costs too? This paper is a preliminary attempt at framing these larger issues. I suggest here that the agent had roots in the traditional economy, and represented an incorporation of putting out and the authority of the headman inside modern work sites, and that this incorporation of traditional authority in a modern setting gave rise to contradictions.
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