Book Talk

Being a Slave: Histories and Legacies of European Slavery in the Indian Ocean (Critical, Connected Histories, edited by Alicia Schrikker and Nira Wickramasinghe. Leiden University Press. Paperback: 59.50 $. 298 pages. ISBN-10 : 908728344X

~ Anushka Kahandagamage, University of Otago  

The idea of slavery has a long history though it is not an issue that registers routinely in South Asian memory. This is mostly because narratives of the South Asian enslaved have become a blind spot in history. I was fascinated to read Nira Wickramasinghe’s recent book Slave in the Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka (2020), where she discusses the lives of enslaved people in the Indian Ocean region, focusing on colonial Ceylon. The book I discuss here today is an expansion of the same subject matter with many stories of enslaved from the broader Indian Ocean Region in different disciplinary perspectives.

The plethora of literature that deals with the stories of enslaved people from the Atlantic Ocean regions and dis-locating colonial slavery from European history have contributed to disregarding enslaved people’s histories in the Indian ocean loop. The book is a compilation of articles which articulates and retells the stories of enslaved individuals that were absent in the official historical narratives in the areas of linguistics, history, and post-colonial studies. By doing so, the volume reconstructs the untold narratives of the past and allows readers to better understand dark episodes in our past while basking in amnesia of the present when it comes to unpleasant truths from the colonial past.

In implementing enslavement operations, Europeans had made use of the social frames of already existing systems of bondages in colonized societies. For instance, in specific conditions, individuals might succumb to enslavement or sell their wives or daughters as a security deposit for a debt; parents would sell their children at times of famine, or they might have been captured during a war. However, emerging social crises of the times had increased the vulnerability of marginal communities to enslavement. Moreover, exacerbating these crises, European colonizers for the benefits of control they entailed – including slavery – was an ever-present possibility. The caught or purchased enslaved were transported to slave markets in different Indian Ocean port cities. They were subsequently shipped to culturally and geographically unknown places: The Middle East, the Americas, China, and Europe.

The volume consists of two connecting sections. While the first part of engages with mobility, emotions, and aspects of identities of the enslaved concerning their lives and that of their children, the second part titled, ‘Legacies, Memories and Absences’, engages with the transformation which came about with the abolition of slavery.

The story unfolds between 1728 and 1737, where the Ceylonese Chettiyar, Nicolaas Jurgen Ondaatje, was exiled from the island. He was deported to Cape Town due to being a bookkeeper to a Dutch minister, who was found guilty of a crime. But he was constantly corresponding with his family and friends through letters and parcels. Perhaps due to his training as a bookkeeper, he kept all the letters he received from Ceylon, primarily written in the Tamil language. As per the letters, he requested his brother and one of his friends to buy and send enslaved to Cape Town to be resold in Cape Town. This is the basic story of the fascinating chapter titled, ‘Small-Scale Slave Trade Between Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope, From 1728 to 1737’ by Herman Tieken.  

During the 18th century, the Dutch-Colombo port town was occupied by indigenous population groups, immigrant Asians, European Settlers and Company servants, and enslaved people. The city of Colombo was part of the local shipping route as well as intra-Asian trading networks. The composition of the port’s population was determined by the location of the port city and the shipping patterns. The chapter, Connected Lives Experiences of Slavery in VOC Colombo’ by Kate Ekama focuses on the social, sexual, criminal and commercial connections and relationships that were established by enslaved people, who came from different parts of the Indian Ocean region. These were linkages that were forged among themselves as well as with the free people in the city. In 1794, a criminal case came before the Council of Justice, accusing three men; an enslaved man called Amber, Troena de Wango, a Javanese, and the third person, a Sinhala man called Andries. The author brings out these people’s lives in a detailed account, positioning them in the context of the city, its streets, tavernas, and markets. The chapter unravels the stories about intimate relationships between enslaved men and free women. Children born out of these relationships were considered free. The general custom open to the enslaved was to choose a partner from the enslaved themselves. However, the  company-owned -(VOC-Dutch East India Compony)- skilled men broke this custom and started selecting ‘free’ partners. The company was concerned about this new practice, and forbade company-owned enslaved men from living as ‘man and woman’ with free women. Further, the company also forbade their enslaved men from entering into relationships with privately owned enslaved women, as the children of such unions would become the property of the private slave owner. The chapter discusses the sexual relationships between enslaved women and the men who owned them. While these relationships are being revealed in the wills and deeds of manumission, the power dynamics that led to duress and trauma are not recorded.

A man who was once enslaved named, Richard Heindrik Wange van Balie from the island Magarij in the Indonesian archipelago, wrote a memoir of his life as a slave in the Indian ocean loop. He was enslaved when he was four or five years, and worked as a domestic and field slave under different masters. After he was taken to the Netherlands by his last Dutch owner, he was freed. He got married and had seven children. The chapter, ‘Acts of Equality: Writing Autonomy, Empathy and Community in an Indonesian Slave Narrative’ by Paul Bijl, is based on the memoir of Balie, which makes him an equal to his Dutch readers. He considered himself an individual human being who is morally autonomous, and in a broader national sense, he writes that his origin community, although different, was yet equal to the Dutch. These ideas and acts of equality were an appropriation of particular enlightenment ideas that were emerging at that time in Europe.

The methodology used in many articles in the volume are fascinating:  personal letters, memoirs, wills, deeds of manumission, ledgers, etc. As enslaved are invisible as main actors in the ‘heroic’ colonial voyages, their presence is scattered in many colonial documents and archives and remains mostly invisible even today unless one opts to look for them. The book opens an important new window of exploration to the hitherto poorly explored subject of narratives of enslaved people in the Indian Ocean region with a beautiful personal touch.  It should ideally offer ideas and present a source of inspiration to Sri Lankan historians as well.

(This review was initially published in the Sunday Observer of 5th of June, 2021. It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the reviewer’s consent)



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