Baggage that weighs heavily on the mind

On the U.N. day for remembrance of the slave trade, it is worth highlighting the abominable 17th century Dutch practice of shipping “human cargo” around the Indian Ocean rim

August 23, 2013 12:17 am | Updated 08:45 am IST

The slave trade is said to be among the oldest trades in the world but that it was practised by the Dutch, during their sojourn at Pulicat in Tamil Nadu, from 1609 to 1690, may be news to many.

Textiles and slaves were the most profiteering “merchandise” exported by the Dutch at Pulicat to their Indian Ocean trade headquarters at Batavia (Jakarta), in exchange for rare spices like nutmeg and mace. Slaves were sought for spice and other cash crop plantations in Batavia and also to work as domestic helps for Dutch masters. Hence, only those in the age group of eight to 20 were preferred for “export” from Pulicat, the nodal port on the Coromandel Coast.

Procuring slaves

On the Coromandel Coast, the Dutch had two means of procuring slaves, either purchasing them from their parents during natural calamities like droughts, poor harvests and famines or capturing them during cultural calamities like invasions.

During calamities the price of a slave child was 3/4 pagoda (four guilders) whereas in times of good harvest, the price was14-16 pagodas (27-40 guilders), which the Dutch traders said was “uneconomic.”

The Indian agents of the Dutch often kidnapped passersby in the market place, so that local youth were mortally afraid of frequenting public places in Pulicat and even ran away to the nearby forests.

Between 1621 and 1665, 131 slave ships were deployed by the Dutch to export 38,441 slaves to Batavia from Pulicat. Apart from the annual quota of about 200-300 slaves, waves of mass exports took place during calamities. For instance, 1,900 slaves were sent from Pulicat and Devanampatnam (near Cuddalore) during the 1622-1623 famine, and 1,839 slaves were sent from Madura during the drought of 1673-1677 to Batavia. Small boys and girls from Thanjavur were sent to Ceylon, Batavia and Malacca. Finally, between 1694 and 1696, from Thanjavur, 3,859 slaves were sent to Ceylon. Invasion by the Bijapur sultan during l618-1620 saw 2,118 slaves from Thanjavur, Senji (Gingee), Madura, Tondi, Adirampatnam, Kayalpatnam (near Tuticorin), Nagapatnam and Pulicat exported to Ceylon, Batavia and Malacca.


Slaves were huddled together in poorly ventilated slave ships and were sanctioned a daily ration of uncooked rice to eat with sea water!

One-third or even half of such shipments of “pieces of human cargo”, as the Dutch called them, died in transit due to dehydration, gastro-intestinal problems and epidemics. Dutch physicians on board were not familiar with tropical diseases. Amputations, if needed during the voyage, were done by sawing off the limbs on a wooden peg on deck, and most such cases ended in death due to sepsis.

After reaching their destination, rebellions and mutinies by slaves did occur. Some slaves ran away into the forests or by local country craft to abandoned islands and died there due to starvation.

Portuguese predecessors

The Portuguese on the west coast of India were the European pioneers in slave trade during the late 15th century. They migrated to Pulicat on the east coast in 1502, a 100 years before the arrival of the Dutch.

At Pulicat, the Portuguese constructed two churches in Madha Kuppam which still exist. They converted local people to Catholicism and educated them through the Portuguese language. Indian slaves lodged in the eastern suburbs of Batavia, called Mardijkers, were said to be Portuguese speaking Catholics, betraying their Pulicat origins. The Portuguese, who converted and educated them, would not have exported them as slaves and it was the Dutch in later days that exported them.

However, Portuguese traders ( chatins ), in collaboration with the Magh pirates from Arakan (Burma), used armed vessels ( galias ) to capture Bengali slaves from the Chittagong (Bangladesh) estuaries and exported them to Batavia.

End of the trade

From the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, a great many stalwarts in England campaigned against slave trade. Chief among them were the poet William Cowper (1731-1800); ex-slave Olandah Equiano (1745-1797) from Nigeria; John Henry Newton (1725-1807), former slave trader turned Anglican clergy and author of the popular hymn “Amazing grace”; British MP William Wilburforce (1759-1833); and John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist Christian Mission.

William Cowper wrote in 1785: “We have no slaves at home — Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. They touch our country, and their shackles fall. That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud. And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then, And, let it circulate through every vein.”

In his stirring poem written in 1788, titled “The Negro’s Complaint”, he appeals:

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,

Is there One who reigns on high?

Has He bid you buy and sell us;

Speaking from his throne, the sky?

The trans-Atlantic slave trade by the Dutch from Africa to Europe and to the New World was much larger and much researched on, than their Indian Ocean slave trade from Pulicat to Batavia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Today, on the U.N.’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, we would do well to condemn this abominable episode in history and use the occasion to renounce bonded labour, and all kinds of inhuman subjugations practised even today.

(The writer is former head of the department of Zoology, Madras Christian College, and founder of the college’s Estuarine Laboratory at Pulicat Lake.)

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