Slavery in Asia

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An overview of Asian slavery which has existed in all regions of Asia throughout its history. Although slavery has been abolished in every Asian country, some forms of it still exist today.


  • The island of Bali in the East Indies (Indonesia) was a source of Hindu slaves for the Muslim world...
    India was also a source of slaves, for example with girls taken to Afghanistan and the Middle East and, from the mid-seventeenth century, forced labour moved to plantations in the Dutch-ruled coastlands of Sri Lanka.
    • Jeremy Black, A Brief History of Slavery: A New Global History 2011
  • One Chinese reported that the people of Melaka "say that it is better to have slaves than to have land, because slaves are a protection to their masters"
    • Reid A. (1988) Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450–1680, Yale University Press, New Haven, Vol. I., p. 129. (Hwang Chung 1 5 37: 128). also quoted in M.A. Khan, Islamic Jihad.
  • At Achim [Aceh] every one is for selling himself. Some of the chief lords have not less than a thousand slaves, all principal merchants, who have a great number of slaves themselves. . . . This is the true and rational origin of that mild law of slavery which obtains in some countries: and mild it ought to be, as founded on the free choice a man makes o f a master, for his own benefit; which forms a mutual convention between the two parties.
    • (Montesquieu 1748: 23 9). quoted in Reid A (1988) Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450–1680, Yale University Press, New Haven, Vol. I., p. 129
  • There was no free wage labour to be had, except occasionally among either Chinese or other foreigners temporarily in port. Indigenous labour could only be rented from the owners, who evidently charged heavily for it. "It is their custom to rent slaves. They pay the slave a sum of money, which he gives to his master, and then they use the slave that day for whatever work they wish". The Undang-undang Melaka contains many provisions for what happens when people "hire" (men- gupah) or "borrow" (ineminjam} slaves, but none for wage contracts. Even the offer of high wages did not attract "freemen" to do the job because manual labour was associated with servitude. "You will not find a native Malay, however poor he be, who will lift on his own back his own things or those of another, however much he be paid for it. All their work is done by slaves".
    • About South East Asia. Reid A (1988) Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450–1680, Yale University Press, New Haven, Vol. I., p. 131. Also quoted in M.A. Khan, Islamic Jihad.
  • Although indigenous conceptions of bondage did not include a sharp antithesis between the categories of slave and free, the conditions of the age of commerce may have encouraged movement in that direction.... The constant influx of new captives and imports created a market situation which needed to be regulated. Moreover, many members of the slave-owning merchant class had strong roots in the Islamic world, which had a clear body of law on slaves as property. The legal codes drawn up in Southeast Asian cities therefore paid considerable attention to slaves. Malay codes of law typically devoted about a quarter of their total attention to questions of slavery.
    • Reid A (1988) Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450–1680, Yale University Press, New Haven, Vol. I., p. 134 also quoted in M.A. Khan, Islamic Jihad.
  • Similarly, the Malay population of the coastal low- lands of Malaya, Sumatra, and Borneo gradually absorbed animist hill peoples during the five centuries before 1900, by a mixture of raiding, tribute, and purchase, especially of children... . Around I 500 Java was the largest single exporter of slaves, perhaps as a result of the divisive wars of Islamization. Through the still Hindu ports of Sunda Kelapa and Balambangan, Java supplied much of the urban working class of the Malay cities. Islamization created a major change in the nature of slave trading, since the shari'a law forbade the sale or enslavement of fellow Muslims. Once Islam completed its conquest of Java in the sixteenth century, that island ceased to export its people. The major Muslim cities were thenceforth supplied with slaves from beyond the frontier of Islam. Aceh obtained its servile labour from Nias, southern India, and Arakan; Banten and Makassar from the Moluccas and Lesser Sunda Islands; Patani from Cambodia, Champa, and Borneo. Certain small sultanates, notably Sulu, Buton, and Tidore, began to make a profitable business of raiding for slaves in eastern Indonesia or the Philippines and marketing the human victims to the wealthy cities-or to the expanding seventeenth-century pepper estates of southern Borneo.
    • Reid A (1988) Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450–1680, Yale University Press, New Haven, Vol. I., p. 133ff also quoted in M.A. Khan, Islamic Jihad.
  • South Asian slaves were significant at an earlier date in Inner Asia and Persia. The conquest of Sind in 712-13 yielded 60,000, and the Ghaznavids of eleventh-century Afghanistan drove hundreds of thousands home. The servile population of West Turkistan included many South Asians from at least 1326, and Indian slaves were routinely exchanged for Inner Asian horses. In the late four- teenth-century, T i m u r the Lame killed a hundred thousand Indi- ans captured before reaching Delhi, but still brought thousands back to West Turkistan.' As many as 200,000 Indian rebels were supposedly taken in 1619-20, for sale in Iran. Indian slaves i n East Turkistan raised diplomatic problems i n the nineteenth-century. Slaves were copious in India itself, but distinguishing Muslim from non-Muslim owners is difficult. Sultan Alauddin Khalji (r. 1296- 1316) possessed 120,000 personal slaves i n North India, while his fourteenth-century successor, Sultan Firoz Tughluq, claimed to have 180,000. Muslims owned many of the estimated 8,000,000 to . 9,000,000 bondsmen i n 1841, of whom about half were in the Bengal Presidency. However, most of these helots were probably Dalit castes in Hindu hands.
    • W. G. Clarence-Smith - Islam and the Abolition of Slavery (2006, Oxford University Press) 14-16
  • The archbishop of Manila claimed i n 1637 that M o r o raiders from the south had seized an average of 10,000 Catholic Filipinos a year over the previous 30 years. Descriptive materials indicate fairly steady raiding, which might thus have yielded a total booty of some two million slaves i n the first two centuries of Spanish rule after 1565. A shipping capacity calculation suggests that between 200,000 and 300,000 captives entered the Sulu sultanate from 1770-1870, lower than contemporary European estimates. How- ever, Spanish and Dutch naval patrols became more effective from the 1840s, leading Moros to seize unquantified numbers of Animists in inland Mindanao.
    • W. G. Clarence-Smith - Islam and the Abolition of Slavery (2006, Oxford University Press) 14-16
  • Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Muslims enslaved Hindus and Animists, and even fellow Muslims, from the thirteenth-century. Bali exported around 100,000 H i n d u slaves from 1620 to 1830, and South Sulawesi exported another 100,000 between 1660 and 1810, mainly Muslims. Quite a few were acquired by Europeans and Chi- nese. Supplies of Animists from Nias Island to Aceh from 1790 to 1900 may have amounted to around 50,000, while some 12,000 Toraja Animists were obtained in South Sulawesi from 1880 to 1905. There are no figures for similar local trades from Animist uplands to Muslim lowlands, notably i n Sumatra, Malaya, and Bor- neo. The proportion of slaves i n nineteenth-century Muslim societ- ies varied widely. Rare in Java i n the 1810s, they accounted for 6 per cent in an 1879 census of the Malay sultanate of Perak, about a third in villages on the eastern edge of West Sumatra i n the 1860s, 30 per cent i n the Muslim zone of North Sulawesi, and two thirds or more i n part of North Borneo i n the 1880s.
    • W. G. Clarence-Smith - Islam and the Abolition of Slavery (2006, Oxford University Press) 14-16
  • There are no statistics on the overall number of slaves imported into Jolo in the period under consideration, except the estimates of European observers. These range from 750 to as high as 4,000 captives a year for the Philippines alone from 1775 to 1848. .... Slave imports to the Sulu Sultanate during the first sixty-five years probably averaged between 2,000 and 3,000 a year. The steepest rise in the number of slaves annually brought to Sulu, between 3,000 and 4,000, occurred in the period 1836-48, during which foreign trade was most intense at Sulu. The trade reached its apex in 1848 and slackened considerably in the next two decades, with imports ranging between 1,200 and 2,000 slaves a year until it collapsed in the 1870s.' The figures appear to show that between 200,000 and 300,000 slaves were moved in Iranun and Samal vessels to the Sulu Sultanate in the period 1770-1870.

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