LETTER | The recent controversy over the contributions of non-Malays in the war against the communists in this country has once again raised questions over Malaysians’ general knowledge of our own history.
One disturbing aspect arose from the controversy is how history, or the lack thereof, has been distorted to instil racial antagonism among ethnic groups.
Such a malicious tactic is still being used because history is more than a record of the past, it shapes how we see ourselves and others in the present.
Learning about our colonial past in the 1900s is a case in point. My generation was taught that the British were the exploiters of our land and the destroyers of our local traditions.
Such indoctrination has led many to believe that the West is the immoral agent of decadence. The West is thus conveniently scapegoated so that the ruling regime can get us to see ourselves as victims, to see the West as a threat, and to see the present rulers as our needed defenders.
That is the recipe for a siege mentality, a proven method to win votes.
I am not here defending colonialism or the West, but to point out one piece of our history that has been forgotten, not even footnoted in history textbooks. That is the fact that it was the British who liberated the bumiputeras (Malays and Orang Asli) from slavery, a cruel age-old trade practised by locals for hundreds of years.
An old tradition
There was a saying in the sixteenth century Melaka, “[It] is better to have slaves than to have land, because slaves are a protection to their masters.”
Slavery was a valued regional trade, woven into the economy and social fabric of the local society. It was, contrary to today’s society, a widespread and perfectly acceptable practice in Malaya, before the arrival of the British.
“In the early period,” remarked historian Nordin Hussin, “slaves were an integral part of Melaka, the descendants of those who had lived within the socio-cultural context of the old Malay world.” The Italian trader John of Empoli, after he visited Melaka, wrote in 1514 of a certain “Utama Diraja” who owned 8,000 slaves.
In the mid-seventeenth century, slaves comprised more than 30 percent of Melaka town’s population. According to anthropologists Robert Knox Dentan, Kirk Endicott, Alberto G Gomes, and MB Hooker, the practice of slavery was common among the ancient kingdoms in Southeast Asia. When the Portuguese and Dutch colonised Melaka, they “took advantage of this old practice and kept the slave trade alive as a cheap means of obtaining labour.”
Two types of slavery
Slavery in Malaya has its own characteristics. As historians Barbara and Leonard Andaya describe in their important chronicle:
“Europeans tended to define such slavery in Western terms and to see slaves as an undifferentiated group of people condemned to lives of unrelenting misery. But among Malays, slaves were generally divided into two classes: slaves in the Western sense, and debt bondsmen. The latter type of slavery served a particular function in Malay society. Debt slavery usually occurred when an individual voluntarily ‘mortgaged’ himself in return for some financial assistance from his creditor, frequently his ruler or chief.”
Other scholars likewise note that, “There were even two ranks of slaves, “debt slaves” (orang berhutang), who lost their freedom by being unable to repay a debt, being above “bought slaves” (abdi). In theory, debt slaves - usually Malays in the Malay kingdoms - were freemen with some rights, while bought slaves had none.”
However, theory and practice are different. As pointed out by anthropologist Kirk Endicott: “In theory, debt-slaves could redeem themselves by repayment of the debt but in practice, this was virtually impossible because work performed by the debt-slave did not count toward reduction of the original debt.”
The arrival of the British
When they came to power in Malaya, the British began to register slaves, partly because they wanted to abolish the practice. “[The] English administration,” wrote Hussin, “made a compulsory order for all slave masters to register their slaves with the police. Regulation was passed and those who refused to register would see the slaves liberated.”
From their record, we know that there were male and female slaves, and child slavery was also a norm: “In 1824 the number in the town of Melaka was 666 males and 590 females, with 86 under-aged males and 75 under-aged females, making a total of 1,417 slaves, including 161 children born into slavery.”
“In Perak the issue of slavery,” according to the Andayas, “was more apparent than in Selangor because the Perak ruling class was considerably larger. In Perak, slaves and debt bondsmen numbered an estimated 3,000 in a total Malay population of perhaps 50,000 (approximately six percent).”
Apparently, one record shows that the price for a slave in Kinta, Perak was “Two rolls of coarse cloth, a hatchet, a chopper and an iron cooking-pot.”
The cruelty of slavery
Slavery, as practised in Malaya as well as in other parts of the world, involved rampant cruelty and injustice. Slaves were generally despised. They were kidnapped, sold, abused, raped, and killed.
Some slaves were born into slavery, inheriting their parent’s enslavement. Slaves were deemed sub-human. Thus, common folks would not even want to carry out tasks that were affiliated to slaves.
As a mid-sixteenth century record states, “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.”
Slaves owners on the hand are dignified and reputable. Malay chiefs would raid villages and rural settlement to hunt for their human commodity.
Due to Islamic teaching that forbids enslaving fellow Muslims, the indigenous people, or Orang Asli, who weres labelled as ‘Sakai’ (slave) or ‘kafir’ (infidel) became the usual target. The Orang Asli were the “greatest local source of slaves”.
Walter Skeat and Charles Blagden recorded certain Orang Asli’s account in the period between late nineteenth to early twentieth century:
“Hunted by the Malays, who stole their [Orang Asli] children, they were forced to leave their dwellings and fly hither and thither, passing the night in caves or in huts (“pondok”), which they burnt on their departure. ‘In those days,’ they say, ‘we never walked in the beaten tracks lest the print of our footsteps in the mud should betray us.’”
One of the survivors recalled, “Many of my brethren were killed and many others were taken away as slaves…”
A British Royal Navy officer Sherard Osborn wrote in 1857 on how Orang Asli “were tied up or caged just as we should treat chimpanzees.” Sir Frank A Swettenham, the Resident of Selangor from 1882 to 1884, reported a case to the British Parliament in July 1882: “[A] Chief from Slim had a fortnight before captured 14 Jacoons and one Malay in Ulu Selangor, had chained them and driven them off to Slim.”
Those slave raids, wrote activists for Orang Asli Jannie Lasimbang and Colin Nicholas, had “prompted many Orang Asli groups to retreat further inland and to avoid contact with outsiders. For the most part, from this time the Orang Asli lived in remote communities, each within a specific geographical space (such as a river valley) and isolated from the others.”
“Sometimes,” notes Endicott, “Malays tempted or coerced Orang Asli into kidnapping other Orang Asli for them in order to ‘preserve their own women-fold from captivity.’” But ultimately those who were captured will be traded and enslaved by the Malays.
The slave owners “reduce [the Orang Asli] to the condition of hunted outlaws, to be enslaved, plundered, and murdered by the Malay chiefs at their tyrannous will and pleasure.”
Like all forced servitude, the captured individuals suffer greatly at the hands of their master. “Owners could neglect, abuse, or even kill the [slave] at will.”
There are also instances where one Malay tribe subdues another Malay tribe to slavery. As recorded by Skeat and Blagden:
“The Mantra of Malacca have suffered like other aboriginal tribes from the raids and incursions of the neighbouring Malays, their most implacable foes being the members of a Malay tribe called Rawa. This people are natives of a country in Sumatra called Rawa, Rau, and Ara... They are now settled in considerable numbers in Rembau, Sungei Ujong, and the western part of Pahang... [Large] bands of them, under one Bata Bidohom, who was reputed invulnerable, attacked the Mantra in several places, killing many of the men and carrying away more than a hundred of their women and girls into Pahang, where they sold them as slaves. The Rawa declared that they would hunt down the Mantra everywhere and deal with them all in the same way.”
The theoretical distinction between debt-slave and actual slave was used by Malay-Muslim rulers and aristocrats to enslave fellow Muslims.
Although the practice of slavery differs in different parts of the world, in the case of Malaya, “Admittedly the lot of many, especially the women, was indeed deplorable. Slaves proper were often subject to rank exploitation because they were non-Moslem Orang Asli and were therefore considered outside the pale of the Melayu. Among the debt slaves [Malay-Muslim slaves owned by Malay-Muslims] there were also cases of cruelty and other abuses; a chief, for example, might not mistreat his debt slaves but simply refuse to accept payment when the debt fell due.”
Subjecting the entire family to slavery was common through the debt-slavery system. As Endicott remarked, “Usually spouse of debt-slaves were included in the debt and in the resulting state of servitude, and all children born of debt-slaves were debt-slaves as well.”
The prestige of slave-owning
Despite its systemic cruelty, slave ownership was a local prestige, a symbolic status for Malay chiefs and sultans. Slave ownership testifies to one’s power and stature in the society. Slaves were the “main labour force” for the Malay chiefs and sultans.
“The motive for keeping slaves,” according to anthropologist Robert Knox Dentan, “is prestige.” As the logic goes, “For male aristocrats in precolonial Malay society, as for such men in most patriarchal regimes, the prestige comes in part from their power to coerce sex from attractive women.”
Besides that, slaves are a visible indication of wealth since they are a commodity in the then economy. “Through debt bondage, chiefs and rulers gained followers to increase their status and an economic asset which could be transferred, if need be, to some other creditor.”
“Ownership of slaves,” as Hussin writes, “was a measure of one’s wealth and the more slaves one owned the greater one’s status and prestige.”
The more slaves a Malay chief or sultan owns, the wealthier he is perceived to be. Thus, the Utama Diraja mentioned earlier, who owned 8,000 slaves, was also reported as the wealthiest merchant among his contemporary.
Slavery was a key institution
“Malay custom and Islamic law,” wrote Cambridge University’s historian Iza Hussin, “allowed for slaveholding, and the power of a ruler was judged in part by the size of his retinue, making slavery a key institution of Malay society when the British arrived in Malay.”
The Malay chiefs, elites, and sultans benefited from - and thus perpetuated -slavery. Therefore, slavery was not a fringe practice among some inhumane underground syndicate, but a traditional custom in the Malay worldview, a cornerstone of the community’s economy, social structure, and politics, uncontroversial and allowed by religion.
Referring to the slavery in Perak, Swettenham wrote that it was one of the “pillars of the State,” and “every one of any position had debt slaves of their own.”
Given such centrality, any hint of its disruption, in the like of policing and abolishment, will be seen as seditious to the Malays.
As the Andayas wrote: “[Because] slavery was so bound up with a chief’s prestige, British inquiries into alleged mistreatment aroused considerable resentment among Malay nobles. Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor was so incensed by the intrusive questions that he refused point-blank to permit his slaves to be counted.”
The British attempt to abolish local slavery
The Pangkor Treaty signed on Jan 20, 1874 legitimised British’s colonialism over the Malay states and designated Abdullah (leader of lower Perak), rather than his rival Ismail (upper Perak), as the twenty-sixth sultan of Perak.
The treaty also led to the appointment of JWW Birch to be the Resident in Perak, through whom the British exercised indirect rule over the state.
To the Malay chiefs, the treaty also meant that the “Resident could not interfere with Malay custom [“adat”] and they could continue to capture and enslave as many aborigines as they like.”
However, less than a year in office, Birch was murdered by the Malay chiefs. And one of the main reasons for his assassination was Birch’s opposition against the Malays’ highly-valued adat, a key institution of their society: slavery.
This bloody episode was so well-known that thirty years after Birch’s murder, Swettenham could still recount:
“In the courses of his wanderings Mr Birch met with numerous cases of great oppression; poor people fined and even murdered for supposed offences, traders squeezed and robbed, and men, women, and children subjected to the infamous practice of debt-slavery... The practice of debt-slavery was particularly rife in Perak, and as Mr Birch determinedly set his face against it and helped several of the most oppressed to get out of the country, his action did not increase his popularity with the chiefs. Sultan Abdullah and the Lower Perak chiefs were amongst the worst offenders in this respect... they began to consider how they could get rid of the British Adviser, who interfered with their most cherished privileges, the collection of taxes, the power to fine and kill, and the institution of debt-slavery.”
Birch’s abhorrence over slavery is recorded in his diary: “[Men] and women of the country of the Sakkais or wild people of the interior are captured after being hunted down, and are then sold, and made slaves. These poor people, from what I have seen, are worse treated than any other slaves.”
Birch’s attempt to abolish slavery was perceived by the locals as a threat to their symbolic social stature, intrusive to their way of life. In practical terms, the human commodity, with its accompanying prestige, labour force, and economic asset, belonged to the Malay chiefs but was stolen from them.
As the Andayas described: “[Birch’s] attitude to slavery and his willingness to provide a sanctuary for fugitive debt slaves, especially women, was regarded by Malays as simple theft.”
Nonetheless, abolishing slavery was a must for the Resident. The stake that Birch probably did not realise for wanting to eliminate slavery from the Malay world would be his life. His assassination resulted in the Perak War, the trial and execution of his murderer Maharaja Lela Pandak Lam, and the deposition of the sultan.
Nonetheless, many of us were taught that Maharaja Lela was a nationalistic martyr who fought against the oppressive British for intruding their way of life.
Our school's history classes do not tell us that Westerners like Birch had lost their lives partly due to their effort to help, shelter, and free Bumiputera slaves. Instead, they are demonised as threats from the West who came to destroy the locals' cherished tradition.
Despite the violent reaction against the Resident, the British were resolute to eliminate slavery in Malaya. Not even the Perak War could deter them.
Since the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty on 17 March 1824, which established British’s rule over Malaya, the colonial administrator took active measures to phase out slavery. In the seventeenth century, more than 30 percent of the Melaka town’s population were slaves. By 1827, the slave population was less than 11 percent.
When the British politician Edmund Wodehouse inquired about Malaya’s slavery in the parliament on 19 May 1884, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Evelyn Ashley replied, “All slave debtors became free in Perak on January 1st of this year, so that slavery of any description is now illegal there, as it already was in Selangor and Sungei Ujong.”
In 1901, the British appointed Giovanni Battista Cerruti, an Italian explorer known for his deep affection for the Orang Asli, to be Malaya’s Superintendent of the Sakai. All forms of slavery by 1915, a year after Cerruti’s passing, were officially abolished.
Commenting on the slavery custom that has lasted for centuries in Malaya, Cerruti wrote: “The British Protectorate came as a blessing to the Sakais because it officially abolished slavery and shortened their neighbours’ talons, that had grown a little too long.”
The same blessing had also come to many Malays who were trapped as debt-slaves, whose great-great-grandchildren are now being taught to hate the West, so that the present regime will continue to remain in power.
Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is municipal councillor with the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.