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Kate Ekama, Lisa Hellman and Matthias van Rossum, Slavery and Bondage in Asia, 1550–1850. Towards a Global History of Coerced Labour

Yaruipam Muivah
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Kate Ekama, Lisa Hellman and Matthias van Rossum, Slavery and Bondage in Asia, 1550–1850. Towards a Global History of Coerced Labour, Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, 2022, 277 p., ISBN : 9783110776126, € 89,95

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1This book attempts to locate slavery, bondage and coercion in Asia in the global context by looking at the interconnections and entanglements that contributed to shaping the practice in the region between 1550 and 1850. This is also, in a way, what distinguishes the book (in its intent) from some of the previous works on slavery and bondage in Asia and Africa, which have mostly tried to understand the various practices by interpreting the system through the lens of the locals. But to a considerable degree this book is part of the wider work on the interconnected world of the Indian Ocean that has emerged as a new area of study over the last two decades. The introductory chapter does not specify the exact definition of ‘global’, but each contributor illustrates it through their respective chapters. One of the more prominent narratives about the global in many chapters appears to be the proposal to de-centre the Atlantic world and re-centre Asia in the making of slavery and bondage in Asia. Though this is not new in the historiography of slavery in Asia and Africa, it remains necessary even today as Eurocentrism is deeply ingrained in our understanding of the modern world. The book calls on us to question and challenge the existing dominant paradigm by making comparisons and connections in order to see historical processes in a potentially different light. The introductory chapter initiates this by outlining the problem of a narrow understanding of slavery as the antithesis to ‘freedom’ and how it obscures rather than illuminates past relations of power and oppression. Doing so allows its contributors to use various definitions of coercion, slavery and imprisonment, all of which depend on their temporal and spatial context. This enables them to engage with their subject without being tied to a master definition/narrative. This approach allows the best expression of experiences of slavery, coercion, and dependency in their own context, with their own (sometimes unique) meanings, while at the same time taking into account the various overlaps and intersections in the system.

2The book unfolds through four distinct sections, each dedicated to a central theme, with every chapter intricately weaving into the overarching narrative. These chapters not only share thematic connections but also exhibit a cohesive analysis and systemic coherence. Within each section, chapters delve into the nuanced exploration of three elements: coerced mobility, regimes of coercion, and transformation. Serving as a compass, the introduction and the initial two chapters collectively establish the tone and framework, illuminating the myriad issues and inquiries addressed by contributors in their respective essays. While challenging the dominant trend remains a theme that is central to many of the essays, Matthias van Rossum also pushes the reader to move beyond the conventional enquiries as to why slavery occurred to a more comparative and contextualized approach that questions why specific regimes of coercion occurred or did not occur, or why regimes occurred in specific combinations. Whereas Claude Chevalyre, in his chapter, argues that to obtain a truly global overview of the history of slavery and coerced labour in early-modern Asia, historians must also investigate these dynamics by broadening the perspective beyond the varieties of spatiality and temporality shaped by the European presence in Asia before, beyond, and alongside the European presence. Using these themes and the three elements mentioned above, the contributors to the book show how slavery in Asia was not simply a static, traditional, and unchanging phenomenon. Instead, the above-mentioned factors were at the root of a significant transformation throughout the Indian Ocean before, after and especially during European colonial expansion.

3What is visible in most of the following chapters is the dominance of the State or Empire based on maritime power and the exploitation of enslaved people involved in the maritime slave trade. This is understandable as the period under study is also the period which saw European trading companies establishing their presence and authority in many of the areas. The availability of written and other sources for the period may have inadvertently influenced this.

4Samantha Sint Nicolaas, Hans Hägerdal and Vinil Baby Paul’s chapter examines the emergence of the Europeans in the region, which resulted in constant negotiation between local and European understanding of slavery. This led to the evolution of the system and, in some instances, to the simultaneous existence of local and European understandings of slavery. What the reader will take away from these chapters is the argument that Europeans did not introduce the slave trade in the region, but rather built on local knowledge and expanded it

5An appealing aspect of the book is its inclusion of the Spanish dimension to the coercive regime in the Asian context, which is usually dominated by the English, Dutch, French and, to a lesser extent, the Portuguese. Interestingly, Mònica Ginés-Blasi shows in her work how the recruitment and transportation of labourers from the region (the Philippines) to Cuba not only involved the Spanish but also the Chinese and various officials of the European Powers who cooperated and benefited from the system. This chapter illustrates the need to move beyond the boundaries of nations and Empires in order to understand the history of coercive regimes in the region.

6Many contributors also address the question of abolition. Rather than considering any formal declaration of abolition as the end of a regime of coercion, they show how labour regimes and structures shift and transform, often preserving and remaking ethnic, racialised and gendered hierarchies of power, rather than abolishing them. The chapter by Kate Ekama, Sanjog Rupakheti, James Fujitani, and even to some extent that by Vinil Baby Paul, show that slavery was not a static institution but evolved with the changing socio-economic and political landscape. Regime change mostly saw this dynamic played out: even after assuming power, the ruling elites kept engaging with reforms (and changes) to the practice with each emerging need. The authors emphasise that reform does not necessarily bring an end to the old practices, but that it sometimes overlaps and coexists with them under the same regime.

7The book also calls attention to how some of the reforms which have elements of anti-slavery should not, and cannot, be read as signs of benevolence, but instead have to be seen as serving the socio-economic and political needs of the Company and State. For example, Kate Ekama points out that the VOC’s ban on self-sale into slavery, rather than arising from humanitarian impulses, was imposed purely out of economic and labour concerns, since such transactions were an escape from other labour obligations (primarily ones owed to or reserved for the use of the Company trade – like Cinnamon peelers). Similarly, Sanjog Rupakheti’s chapter on the famous 1854 slavery reform in Nepal (commonly known as Ain) shows that it was explicitly carried out by the Rana clan not only to consolidate the labour of the enslaved but also to consolidate their own political authority at the expense of their rivals’ political clans. A similar theme is also explored by Rômulo da Silva Ehalt, who shows that some of the anti-slavery reforms enacted in the Ming Empire and Tokugawa shogunate Japan were a response to the socio-economic and political developments that emerged at different stages of the European Imperial expansion. For the Ming, the policy banning the importation of enslaved Japanese to Macau was dictated by the fear of an uprising by the Portuguese aided by these enslaved Japanese. Similarly, the decision by the shogun regarding the movement of Japanese people in and out of the country was aimed to avoid the loss of labour from their State. Such decisions did impact the Portuguese ability to export slaves to other parts of their Empire and other Southeast Asian states. The two latter essays also challenge the European powers’ monopoly of the narrative of anti-slavery and abolitionist fervour by assigning it to local Asian powers. These two chapters also highlight the need for a better understanding of how local legal frameworks and economic dynamics shaped trading networks often seen as solely subject to the authority of European colonial enterprise.

8The chapters by Lisa Hellman and Amal Shahid, exploring prisoners of war and famine labour, stand out in the book since it is not directly concerned with slavery and bondage (in the sense that many understand it). They demonstrate the intersectionality of slavery, bondage, and coercion, how these categories overlap at various points, and why the dividing lines can be blurred. Lisa Hellman’s study of Swedish prisoners of war shows the contradictory nature of forced mobility, as for some it was a condemnation while for others it was an opportunity to start afresh. Nevertheless, she complicates this process by highlighting how the prisoners’ social mobility also depended on their class, gender, and where they had the fortune or misfortune to be moved to. Amal Shahid looks at the frequent cases of famine, and the breakdown of the patron-client relationship when the British came to power, to locate the emergence of a new coercive regime in colonial India. He argues that famine labour (food for work as part of the famine relief programme) emerged as a site for coercive labour regimes during the colonial period. This chapter shows how coercion regimes were not exclusively limited to slavery and bondage and the need to extend investigation of them beyond the domain of slavery and bondage.

9In many ways, the book diverges from the predominant trend in the study and understanding of slavery, bondage, and coercion in Asia. It does not try to explain how slavery and coercion worked in the region, but rather engages with socio-economic and political changes to show how the various practices adapted and evolved over the turbulent years under study. Yet the primacy of the oceanic or trans-oceanic context still dominates the book, resulting in the neglect of many of the inland societies and their involvement with slavery. The investigation is still dominated by State or empire-based entities and their dealings with slavery and bondage. The two chapters that focus on the landlocked areas – Eurasia and Nepal – are nevertheless woven into the book’s general theme, even though they see things from a State point of view. The book (with the exception of the chapter by Sanjog Rupakheti, and to a lesser extent that by Rômalo da Silva Ehalt, in their study of the practices of slavery and bondage in Asia) also identifies the arrival of the Europeans in the region as the origin of the shifting dynamics, thereby inadvertently locating the agency of change with these new powers in the region. Some chapters introduce us in a piecemeal way to the gender aspects of the coercive regimes, and one can only hope that this subject will be explored in later books in the series.

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Yaruipam Muivah, « Kate Ekama, Lisa Hellman and Matthias van Rossum, Slavery and Bondage in Asia, 1550–1850. Towards a Global History of Coerced Labour  »Esclavages & Post-esclavages [En ligne], 9 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2024, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/slaveries/10143 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/11oa5

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Yaruipam Muivah

PhD EHESS, Paris (France)

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