The records of slave trade that flourished around the 15th century in the region show that the practice was carried out on the basis of proper “sale agreements” and that it was not uncommon for lower caste parents to pledge their children to be bonded labour several years.
Muthukumar, an epigrapher who painstakingly catalogued the palm leaf manuscripts that had been collected from Madurai district to digitise them at the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP), says the reasons for the sale of family members documented in the palm leaf show that slaves were sold for money, grain and to tide over an emergency.
Interpreting the information in the 37 palm leaf manuscripts that clearly distinguishes the caste of buyers and sellers, Mr. Muthukumar said while the buyers mainly hailed from zamindar or landlord castes, including Gounder, Agamudayar, and Kallar, the sellers were from the economically backward “untouchable” communities such as Pallar and Parayar, and even from Valayar and Konar castes who sold their children or close relatives for money or grain.
“Valayars and Konars more often pledged their children and relatives for money for a period of 5 to 10 years.
According to the deed, they could pay back the money at the end of the period and take back the people they had pledged,” he says.
The conditions of sale were recorded in the palm leaf manuscripts: the seller had to ensure that if the slave escaped, he would bring him back or work as a slave himself; if a person wanted to free his child or relative who had been pledged to a zamindar earlier than the stipulated time, he had to pay thrice the amount of money he had received.
Rules were clearly laid out as to when the slaves could be visited. Family members could visit them in the Tamil months of Karthigai, Adi and for festivals like “Deepavali' and ‘Makara Sankranti'. When visiting, the family members had to bring seven hens, seven pieces of firewood and various household items.
These “slave agreements” on palm leaf manuscripts were signed by the seller and buyer. Since most of these were uneducated, they would scratch the palm leaf with a name within the brackets.
There is even the signature of a witness. If anyone broke the deal, the slave owner could appeal to the village council (oor sabai). During the Chola period, the word “aal olai” was used by the Saiva poet Sekkizhar. The word is found in palm leaf manuscripts that record the sale of slaves. It is seen in stone inscriptions dating back to the 13th century. Stone inscriptions dating back to the 17th century found in Aachalpuram in Sirkazhi mention slaves being sold along with land. Information on selling the progeny of slaves is recorded in the palm leaf manuscripts, says Mr. Muthukumar.
A. Sivasubramanian, author of Tamizhagathil Adimai Murai (Monograph on Slavery in Tamil Nadu), has established that the word ‘adimai’ in Bhakti literature, Thevaram and Divya Prabhandam refers to “slave”. In the Chola period, there are references to dancing girls who were bought for temples and to people who sold themselves. There are palm leaves from the Vijayanagara period that document slaves sold in public spaces and, during the Maratha regime, small children were bought to work in palaces.
Mr. Sivasubramaniam says that diaries of Jesuit missionaries in Tamil Nadu note how the Portuguese and the Dutch captured and took away Indians as slaves to their countries and colonies. There were thousands of indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu who were sent to work in the rubber plantations in Malaysia during British raj.
Though slavery was abolished in India by the Indian Slavery Act of 1843, it was prevalent till 1910. “In south India, there are several references to the prevalence of slaves bought to work in the lands or temples. They were not allowed to be warriors like in Rome. The practice of slavery has not disappeared over the period of time. Instead, it has manifested itself in different forms,” said Mr. Sivasubramanian.
The present bonded labour system here is a classic example of modern slavery. The Global Survey Index (2016) report mentions: “The existing research suggests that all forms of modern slavery continue to exist in India, including intergenerational bonded labour, forced child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, forced recruitment into non-state armed groups and forced marriage.”
The question which the renowned Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro asks in her book ‘Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of Sex Trafficking’ as to “how, ethically, we as a society can allow sex slavery to exist and thrive” aptly applies even to other forms of modern slavery that society still perpetuates.
( Concluded )