A New Account of the East Indies

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A New Account of the East Indies

SOURCE Hamilton, Alexander. A new account of the East Indies, being the observations and remarks of Capt. Alexander Hamilton, who spent his time there from the year 1688. to 1723. Trading and travelling, by sea and land, to most of the countries and islands of commerce and navigation, between the Cape of Good-hope, and the Island of Japon.... Vol. 2. Edinburgh, 1727. 2 vols. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale Group.

INTRODUCTION European traders in Southeast Asia between 1500 and 1800 often contracted "marriages" like those described here, in A New Account of the East Indies (1727), between European men and Burmese women in Pegu. The author, Alexander Hamilton, was a Scottish ship captain who spent most of the years from 1688 to 1725 in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, both for the English East India Company and as a private trader. The "wives" Hamilton describes were not just domestic or sexual partners to European merchants, but also essential business partners. Many came from Asian aristocratic families, which preferred to have women handle their commercial interests so that men could focus on matters of honor, violence, and holiness. These marriages brought together parties with complementary commercial and political strengths. One reason why these women were "never the worse, but rather the better lookt on" for having had several European husbands was that they and their kin accumulated far-flung contacts, both inland and overseas; sometimes such women also inherited money from multiple European men (who often died young in the tropics). Though these were not lifelong arrangements, both parties in a marriage were expected to respect the other's honor by remaining monogamous while it lasted. ∎

The Women are very courteous and kind to Strangers and are very fond of marrying with Europeans, and most Part of the Strangers trade thither, marry a Wife for the Term they stay. The Ceremony (after the Parties are agreed) for the Bride's Parents or nearest Friend or Relations, to make a Feast, and invite her Friends and the Bridegroom and at End of the Feast, the Parent or Bride-man, asketh them both before the Company, if they are content to cohabit together as Man and Wife, and both declaring their Consent, they are declared by the Parents or Friend to be lawfully married, and if the Bridegroom has an House, carries her thither, but if not, they have a Bed provided in the House where they are married, and are left to their own Discretion how to pass away the Night.

They prove obedient and obliging Wives, and take the Management of Affairs within Doors wholly in their own Hands. She goes to Market for Food, and acts the Cook in dressing his Victuals, takes Care of his Clothes, in washing and mending them; if their Husbands have any Goods to sell, they set up a Shop and sell them by Retail, to a much better Account than they could be sold for by Wholesale, and some of them carry a Cargo of Goods to the inland Towns, and barter for Goods proper for the foreign Markets that their Husbands are bound to, and generally bring fair Accounts of their Negotiations. If she proves false to her Husband's Bed, and on fair Proof convicted, her Husband may carry her to the Rounday, and have her Hair cut, and sold for a Slave, and he may have the Money; but if the Husband goes astray, she'll be apt to give him a gentle Dose, to send him into the other World a Sacrifice to her Resentment.

If she proves prolifick, the Children cannot be carried out of the Kingdom without the King's Permission, but that may be purchased for 40 or 50 L Sterl. and if an irreconcilable Quarrel happen where there are Children, the Father is obliged to take Care of the Boys, and the Mother of the Girls. If a Husband is content to continue the Marriage, whilst he goes to foreign Countries about his Affairs, he must leave some Fund to pay her about six Shillings eight Pence per Month, otherwise at the Year's End she may marry again, but if that Sum is paid her on his Account, she is obliged to stay the Term of three Years, and she is never the worse, but rather the better lookt on, that she has been married to several European Husbands.

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