Slave Trade, Indian Ocean

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Slave Trade, Indian Ocean

Whereas the Atlantic slave trade has been mapped out in detail in numerous studies, its Indian Ocean counterpart has remained largely uncharted territory. Two notable exceptions exist to the "history of silence" surrounding the Indian Ocean slave trade: the east coast of Africa (though mostly centered on the period after 1770) and the Dutch Cape Colony (1652–1796/1805). The "Afrocentric" focus of Indian Ocean historiography is a derivative of the Atlantic slave trade in general, and reflects the "take off" of plantation slavery on the Swahili coast and the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius and Réunion) in the late eighteenth century along with its obvious connections with the modern biracial system of Apartheid in South Africa (1948–1994) in particular.

Slavery was a defining component, slaves constituting 20 to 40 percent or more of the populations of European colonial settlements throughout the Indian Ocean. Slavery in this region was grafted onto a preexisting open system of slavery in the commercialized, cosmopolitan cities of Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region. In the open system, the boundary between slavery and other forms of bondage was porous and indistinct, and upward mobility was possible. In contrast, in the closed systems of South and East Asia, it was almost inconceivable for slaves to be accepted into the kinship systems of their owners as long as they remained slaves because of the stigma of slavery; instead they were maintained as separate ethnic groups.

The European Indian Ocean slave systems drew captive labor from three interlocking and overlapping circuits: (1) the westernmost, African circuit of East Africa, Madagascar, and the Mascarene Islands; (2) the middle, South Asian circuit of the Indian Subcontinent; and (3) the easternmost, Southeast Asian circuit of Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea (Irian Jaya), and the southern Philippines. The Indian Subcontinent remained the most important source of forced labor until the 1660s. The eastward expansion of the Mughal Empire (1526–1857), however, cut off supplies from Arakan and Bengal, though Coromandel remained the center of an intermittent slave trade that occurred in various short-lived booms accompanying natural and human-induced disasters.

After 1660 more slaves came from Southeast Asia, especially following the collapse of the powerful sultanate of Makassar in southwest Sulawesi (in present-day Indonesia) in 1667 to 1669. The slave-trade network in the archipelago revolved around the dual axis of Makassar and Bali. East Africa, Madagascar, and the Mascarenes provided a regular supply of slaves to the Portuguese, English, and French, and in the eighteenth century the Dutch. These European powers profited from African and Afro-Portuguese slaving expeditions on the mainland, as well as from frequent warfare among the major confederations and kingdoms of Madagascar, a situation compounded by the rise of militant Islamic sultanates, such as Maselagache, on the northwest coast of the island.

Europeans supplemented the slavery-related prescriptions of preexisting indigenous traditions and normative texts (Hindu law books, Islamic authoritative sources, and Southeast Asian legal codes) with an intellectual, theoretical mentality steeped in Christian humanism combined with a healthy dose of pragmatism. In Europe, pro-slavery apologists used the authority of the Old and New Testaments—most notably, the so-called Ham-ideology, based on Noah's cursing of Ham's son, Canaan, for pointing his two other brothers, Shem and Japheth, to the nudity of their drunken father (Genesis 9:25-27). David Goldenberg (2003) believes that the biblical name Ham bears no relationship at all to the notion of blackness, and is now of unknown etymology. Instead, the growing insistence on the chimerical curse coincided with increasing numbers of black Africans taken as slaves, first in the Islamic East in the seventh century and then in the Christian West in the fifteenth century. Biblical sources were supplemented by the writings of Greco-Roman authors, to condone slavery "within natural limits."

In Asia, slavery found virtually universal acceptance on a practical level among self-righteous religious, military, and civil officials. A variety of ad hoc arguments included Christian humanitarian compassion (saving the body and soul of the slave); the need to establish and populate settlement colonies; the right of war and conquest; the uncivilized nature of the "servile" indigenous peoples; natural law based on the inviolability of contractual agreements (pacta sunt servanda) and financial-budgetary considerations.

The Europeans acquired the majority of their slaves indirectly through purchase from indigenous suppliers. Throughout the Indian Ocean region, war captives came largely from animist, stateless upstream societies of slash-and-burn farmers or hunter-gatherers and from micro-states too weak to defend themselves against the stronger and wealthier downstream Muslim societies of the region's cities and rice-growing lowlands.

Inheritance and judicial punishment were the most common avenues to forced labor in closed systems where a money economy was little developed. Sale and indebtedness were more important routes to slavery in cities and other areas open to the money economy. Numerous "just wars" with indigenous societies also provided Europeans with a major source of captive labor, though the distinction between legal acquisition and illegal kidnapping and robbery was often nebulous. In addition, "rebellious" peoples, once subdued, were frequently forced at gunpoint to sign treaties with slaving clauses whereby they promised to deliver a fixed number of slaves and other commodities as fines or tribute. Enslavement of indigenous subjects via debt bondage also arose, despite recurrent prohibitions. People suffering judicial punishment as political exiles and convicts represented a small but distinct category of captive labor.

Numbers of Dutch East India Company slaves and total Dutch slaves along with estimates of the size of the accompanying annual slave trades, ca. 1688.
YearCompany slavesYearTotal Dutch slavesSize of annual Company slave tradeSize of annual
total Dutch slave trade
Ceylon1687–16881,5021688c. 4,00075-150200-400
Makassar1687–16881121687–1688c. 1,5006-1175-150
Malabar1687–1688321687c. 1,0002-450-100
Moluccas1687–168801686c. 400020-40
Total1687–16884,1271688c. 66,348c. 200-4003,730-6,430

Slaves were general laborers who worked in a wide variety of occupations in the European slave societies across the Indian Ocean basin. Specialization, however, occurred in accordance with the size of the household and the particular position the settlement occupied within the overall trade network. The majority of slaves acted as domestic servants. They also performed heavy coolie labor, and worked in agriculture, mining, fishing, manufacturing, trade, and the service sector.

The division of slave labor roughly followed ethnic, gender, and age lines based on colonial classification schemes and preexisting indigenous beliefs and practices that characterized local slave systems. Indian and Southeast Asian slaves in general were deemed to be cleaner, more intelligent, and less suited to hard physical labor than African slaves. Slave women did not regularly perform fieldwork, but were mostly involved in domestic labor. Slave children could be employed in seasonal work, or they could serve as companions to their master's children or guard younger white children and babies.

The number of slaves and the annual volume of the slave trade were subject to great volatility and varied significantly from year to year. Famine, wars, epidemics, and natural disasters could wreak havoc among local slave populations, which already had a tendency to melt away due to high mortality rates, low levels of reproduction or creolization, manumission, and widespread desertion. Whereas the slave population of the Iberian crown enterprises (Spain and Portugal) and northern European chartered companies and their officials was relatively stable, that of European and Asian subjects in areas under European jurisdiction displayed a distinct upward trend between the sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries.

According to a 1688 "tentative census" (Table 1), there were about 4,000 Dutch East India Company slaves and perhaps 66,000 total slaves in the various Dutch settlements scattered across the Indian Ocean basin. To replenish or increase these numbers, 200 to 400 Dutch East India Company slaves and 3,730 to 6,430 total Dutch slaves had to be imported each year. Assuming average mortality rates en route of around 20 percent on slaving voyages, 240 to 480 company slaves and 4,476 to 7,716 total Dutch slaves were exported annually from their respective area of capture.

To put these numbers in a comparative framework: the annual volume of the total Dutch Indian Ocean slave trade was 15 to 30 percent of the Atlantic slave trade (29,124 slaves per year), and 1.5 to 2.5 times the size of the Dutch West India Company slave trade (2,888 slaves per year) during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Further research will be necessary to fill in the details and shed more light on the "world's oldest trade" in the Indian Ocean basin, but the protracted history of silence has finally ended.

see also Indian Ocean Trade; Slavery and Abolition, Middle East.


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