Putting an end to slavery in Malabar was a long drawn process
(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)
Our past is pricked by a history of slavery. Thirteen years after the Act V of 1843 by which The East India Company curtailed slave transactions in its regions, the British take stock. A document from 1856 shows the British assessing slavery in the Malabar. Though the sale of slaves was stopped, the practice continued in other forms. The British realise social change will take time.
In his letter, W. Robinson, the Acting Collector of Malabar, writes to T. Pycroft, the Chief Secretary, on the condition of the former slaves in his region. In the letter dispatched on December 27 from Calicut, he writes, “Of a slave population of 1,87,758 about 1,48,210 remain with their former proprietors; 39,548 or about 21 per cent have availed themselves of freedom.”
Despite being free most former slaves have chosen to stay back. The British try to understand why. Robinson realises that the former slaves were unwilling to move away from the lands “his ancestors have cultivated for generations, where stands his hut and garden and demon temples. Poverty, ignorance, reluctance to change, uncertainty of employment and above all the fact that they are generally deeply indebted to their late owners and are entirely dependent on them for retaining their present homes and gardens” were a vital reason for the decision to stay on.
But perched as he was in times of change, Robinson also knows that change is in the air. The former slaves, now aware of their liberty, are beginning to assert, he writes. “Public works and the coffee plantations in Wynaad are exercising an important influence on wages in Malabar” and this in turn has made better the condition of slaves.
Though the Act clears the part of Law, Robinson understands that it is the social stigma and caste prejudices that are harder to erase. “They have been turned off the public road wherever it is possible and caste coolies often object even on public works to labour in the same gang with Chermurs,” he writes. According to him, education is being attempted and he hopes, “That within our generation slavery will have ceased to exist practically.”
Robinson also appends with the letter copies of communication with European settlers regarding slavery in their area. The response from them is varied depending on the regions they come from. While those like James Oughterson from Cochin writes “since my arrival in India in 1844 I never heard that slavery existed.”
Others like P. O’Loughlin from Culputty Estate says a different tale. He writes, “The practice of mortgaging slaves i.e., Coorumburs, Moopers and Punniers, is still continued by the Natives to each other, they are not paid in money for their labour but receive I believe so many seers of paddy which is not equal in value to more than one anna four pie while if they worked regularly for one of the planters they would each receive one rupee per week. I have no doubt but that they perfectly well understand their position and as long as their masters have got a job for them to do they will not work for any other person until such time as that job is finished, no matter what amount of wages there might be offered to them.”
F.J. Ferguson from Culle Wynaad says, “The practice of mortgaging slaves still continues to a very great extent in this district, and the ordinary sum given for a man, his wife and family is from Rs. 30 to Rs. 40. I have been frequently within the past two years offered slaves at this rate.” A few of them say it is impossible for former slaves to find employment in the same region as free men. While some say the sale of slaves are not heard of anymore, mortgaging and leasing were still very much on. Most of them haven’t come across instances where former slaves actually owned land. While they were almost never paid in money and the amount of paddy was far less than what they would get as regular wagers, T.B. Bassano from Manantoddy writes, “They have no means of making their complaints known as they would not be allowed to do so by the officials, any complaints must come through the masters.”
John Wells from Calicut writes that even when the slave owner permits the slaves to work for an English planter “the slave is obliged to give a portion of his wages to his proprietor on return.” “I have paid slave owners in advance for the labour of the slaves,” he adds.
On getting such a feedback on the situation, the British make a resolution. They understand that the former slaves “are but still very imperfectly informed of their real rights and position.” Instructions go out to the Collector and his men to take tours of the Province and make people know their “true state under the law”.
(Source; Regional Archives Kozhikode)