The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Appendix b

Slavery in the Malay States.

Langat, 30th June, 1875.

Sir — When on board the Colonial steamer Pluto last week, accompanying His Excellency the Governor in a tour to some of the native States, His Excellency made inquiry of me with regard to the present state of debt-slavery in the Peninsula.

This was a subject so large and important as hardly to admit of thorough explanation in a conversation; I therefore asked His Excellency’s leave to report upon it.

I now beg to give you a detailed account of the circumstances of debt-slavery as known to me personally.

In treating the question under its present condition — I mean under Malay rule — it is necessary to consider the all-but slavery of the debtors and the difficulty of making any arrangement between debtor and creditor which while it frees the one will satisfy the other, and still be in keeping with the “adat Malayu,” as interpreted in these States.

The relative positions of debtor and creditor in the Western States, more especially in Perak, involve evils which are, I believe, quite unknown to Europeans, even those living so near as Singapore.

The evils to which I refer have hitherto been regarded as unavoidable, and a part of the ordinary relations between Rajahs and subjects.

I may premise by saying that though the system of “debt-slavery,” as it has been called, exists to some extent in all the States, it is only seen in its worst light where a Rajah or chief is the creditor and a subject the debtor.

Few subjects in a Malay country are well off. The principal reason of this is, that as soon as a man or woman is known to be in possession of money, he or she would be robbed by the Rajah; or the money would be borrowed with no intention of future payment, whether the subject wished to lend or not.

Thus, when a Ryot (or subject) is in want of money, he goes to his Rajah or chief to lend it him, because he alone can do so. Either money or goods are then lent, and a certain time stipulated for payment. If at the expiration of that time the money is not paid, it is usual to await some time longer, say two or three, or even six months.

Should payment not then be made, the debtor, if a single man, is taken into the creditor’s house; he becomes one of his followers, and is bound to execute any order or do any work the Rajah as creditor may demand, until the debt is paid, however long a time that may be.

During this time the Rajah usually provides the debtor with food and clothing, but if the creditor gives him money, that money is added to the debt.

Often, however, the Rajah gives nothing, and the debtor has to find food and clothing as he can.

Should the debtor marry — and the Rajah will in all probability find him a wife — then the debtor’s wife, his children, his grandchildren, all become equally bound with himself to the payment of this debt.

Should the debtor be originally married, then not only he, but his wife and children, are taken into the Rajah’s house, and are his to order until the debt is paid.

Should the debtor be a woman, unmarried, or a widow, the same course is taken, and whoever marries her becomes jointly responsible for the debt; and this goes on through generations — the children and grandchildren of the debtor being held in the same bondage by the children and grandchildren of the creditor.

Should at any time the debtor succeed in raising the amount of the debt and proffer it to the creditor, then it would be customary to accept it. If, however, a large family were in bondage for the debt, one whose numbers seemed to the Rajah to add to his dignity, then he would probably refuse to accept payment, not absolutely, but would say “wait,” and the waiting might last for years.

Debtors once absorbed into the Rajah’s household are looked upon as his property, just as his bullocks or his goats, and those who alone would have the power to interfere look on and say nothing, because they do the same themselves.

In different States this debtor-bondage is carried to greater or less extremities, but in Perak the cruelties exercised toward debtors are even exclaimed against by Malays in other States.

Many chiefs in Perak have a following principally composed of young men and girls, for the most part debtors.

The men are treated as I have already described — either food and clothes are found for them or not; they are usually found — for the Rajah’s power and his pride consists in the number of arms-bearing followers he has at his beck and call; men, too, are useful to him in many other ways. Those who have grown old in their bondage, whether men or women, either for very shame the Rajah provides for, or he compels their children to support them.

The men either (1) follow because they like it (a very small percentage indeed); or (2) they are debtors, or the children of debtors; or (3) they are real slaves from Sumatra or Abyssinia, or the children of slaves.

The girls are treated differently; they are (1) either slaves or the daughters of slaves; or (2) debtors, the daughters or granddaughters of debtors; or (3) the Rajah has simply taken them from their houses into his own house because he wanted them; or (4) they follow him for pleasure.

In Perak some of the chiefs do not provide their girls with food or clothing, but they tell them to get these necessaries of life as best they can, i.e., by prostitution — for the labor of the debtor being the property of the creditor, prostitution is in this case a necessity and not a choice.

Each Rajah in his own district claims the privilege of fining, either for a capital offence or for a trifling misdeed. Should, then, a man be fined and not pay the fine, he and his family, if he has one, are at once taken into this debt-bondage, not to work out the fine, but to toil away their lives amid blows and upbraidings — the daughters driven to prostitution, the sons to thieving, and even greater crimes.

This is no exaggerated statement, but the plain truth.

When the Rajah gives nothing, neither food nor clothes, or when he is a passionate man, and threatens to kill one or other of his followers for some trivial offence, or for no offence at all, it often happens that one will seek refuge in flight. If caught, though, it may be said to be the received custom to inflict only some slight punishment; yet that would not deter a Rajah from punishing such an offence even with death should it seem good to him.

Bond-debtors are handed about from one Rajah to another without a thought of consulting them. If one runs away and is caught, it is at great risk of being put to death, while probably no one would move a finger to save him, his master excusing himself on the plea that it is necessary to frighten others from running away also.

These Rajah-creditors would tell you smilingly that they knew by Mohammedan law the creditors can take and sell all their debtor’s property for an overdue debt, and that then the debtor is free; but they never act on that principle.

Many men and women, however, rarely incur debts, knowing well what lies before them in case of non-payment.

Malays, by their laws, are allowed to buy and sell slaves, and if, having for years lost sight of a slave, the owner finds him or her, he takes the slave with his wife and family, if he has one, as his lawful property.

There is one other phase of debtor-bondage, and that a common one, where the father or mother places one or more of their own children as security with the creditor for a debt; thus in reality selling their own flesh and blood into often a life-long bondage. If these children die on the creditor’s hands, the parents supply their places by others, or the Rajah, should he wish it, can at any time after the debt is due, take the whole family into his house.

Only the other day a man here, for a debt of $40, placed his daughter in a Rajah’s hands and ran away. Probably he will never return; meanwhile the girl must obey her master in all things like the veriest slave. Such a state of things as this is only brought about by the custom which allows it.

Another common practice in the States, more especially in Perak, is to capture, as you might wild beasts, the unoffending Jakun women, and make them and their children slaves through generations.

In April I was in Ulu Selangor, and the headmen there complained that a chief from Slim had a fortnight before caught 14 Jakuns and one Malay in Ulu Selangor, had chained them and driven off to Slim. Arrived there, the Malay was liberated and he returned.

Letters were written to Slim and Perak, but though we ascertained the party had reached Slim, they did not remain there, and they have not yet been discovered.

I have already stated that the Rajah looks to the number of his following as the gauge of his power, and other Rajahs will respect and fear him accordingly. Thus he tries to get men into his service in this way, and is rather inclined to refuse payment should the debtor be so fortunate as to raise the requisite amount of his debt.

Almost the only chance the debtor has of raising this amount is by successful gambling. Of course it hardly ever happens that he is successful; but, like all gamblers, he always thinks he will be, and thus gambling becomes a mania with him, which he will gratify at all costs, caring little by what means he gets money for play so long as he does obtain it.

These are the general facts relating to the position of the slave-debtor, and these things which I have described, seemingly so difficult of belief, are done almost daily; looked upon by those who do them as a right divine; by the victims as a fate from which there is no reprieve.

To compel his followers to obey him implicitly, the Rajah treats them with a severity which sometimes makes death the punishment of the slightest offence to him. These followers he thus holds to do whatever he bids them, even to the commission of the gravest crimes.

They again, having to provide themselves with food and clothes, and yet having to work for him, are led to prey on the defenceless population, from whom, in the name of their Rajah-master, they extort whatever there is to get, and on whom they sometimes visit those cruelties which they have themselves already experienced.

This system of debtor bondage influences, then, the whole population, not slightly but deeply, in ways it is hardly possible to credit except when seen in a constant intercourse with all classes of Malay society.

The question at issue seems to be; how to deprive the Rajah of this great power — an unscrupulous instrument in unscrupulous hands — how to free the debtors from their bondage, the women from lives of forced prostitution, the unoffending population from the robberies and murderous freaks of Rajahs and their bondsmen.*

[*Some of these remarks apply specially to Selangor, in which State slavery is now abolished. I. L. B.]

In Perak it is different; the debtor-bondage is one of the chief customs — one of the “pillars of the State” — an abuse jealously guarded by the Perak Rajahs and Chiefs, and especially by those who make the worst uses of it.

I have often discussed this question of debt-slavery with the Malays themselves, but they say they see no way under the rule of their Rajahs to put down this curse of their country, with all the evils that follow in its train. I have, etc.

(Signed) Frank A. Swettenham, (Now Asst. Colonial Secretary at Singapore.) The Honorable the Secretary for Native States, Singapore, Straits Settlements.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31