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Regulating Slavery: The Bawi Question in Colonial Lushai Hills

La réglementation de l’esclavage : la question des Bawis dans la société lushai à l’époque coloniale
La reglamentación de la esclavitud: la cuestión de los bawis en la sociedad lushai durante la época colonial
Regulamentando a escravidão: a questão Bawi na colónia das Lushai Hills
Yaruipam Muivah


Cet article met en lumière la procédure par laquelle le gouvernement colonial de la province d’Assam « résolut » le problème de l’esclavage dans ses régions frontalières au milieu du xxe siècle. J’y défends l’idée que le jeu sur la sémantique, en particulier les termes du langage juridique, fut déterminant dans la redéfinition du rapport maître-esclave en une relation contractuelle. De telles transformations permirent à la majeure partie des droits traditionnels que détenait le maître sur l’esclave d’être conservés en l’état, tout en permettant à la relation de survivre au régime colonial.

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  • 1 Assam State Archive (ASA hereafter), Political-A, No P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33. A small clari (...)

“I think, that the relations between a chief and his bawi as recognized by us is simply an ordinary contract, and can contain no taint of slavery.”1
J. Hezlett (1913)

  • 2 Most authors deal with the problem inherent in the discourse of abolition in the areas they study.
  • 3 The Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery in the Caribbean, Cape Colony and Mauritius, but exclu (...)

1Slavery has been studied, in most cases, along with the process of abolition and emancipation. This is because, as one scholar suggests, “they are the same process in different phases” (Patterson 1982: 296). While this process has been the dominant feature in much of the “Western” historiography on slavery, it cannot be said for the African and Asian cases where the history of abolition and emancipation has been neglected in favor of the study of the practice of enslavement, with a few exceptions over the years (Cooper 1980; Miers & Roberts 1988; Miers 2003; Major 2012).2 One reason for this is that from the early years of colonial rule, most European powers have either tried to suppress its discourse, or tried to negate the severity of slavery in their colonies for financial and political reasons which have also resulted in limiting our knowledge about various aspects of slavery in these regions (Chatterjee 2005; Major 2012; Stanziani 2017). The abolition movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century did not bring about sufficient changes in many of the colonies under the control of the British.3 Pressure from the British public and Government forced the Company to take action against slavery and resulted in the Indian Slavery Act of 1843, which forbade slave-dealing, while they declared slavery to have no legal status in British India. They believed that without legal sanctions or recruits into the system, slavery would simply die out (Miers & Roberts 1988: 12). Indrani Chatterjee (2005) has termed this as “abolition by denial,” while Howard Temperley (2000) has characterized the process as “delegalization” instead of abolition.

  • 4 Conceived in the immediate aftermath of the First Anglo-Burmese war (1824–26), this frontier surro (...)
  • 5 Many consider the introduction of colonial rule in the district as the end of slavery as they cons (...)
  • 6 Contemporary scholars often make the mistake of thinking that the system was abolished at some poi (...)

2The discourse on slavery in the North-East Frontier of India4 has likewise followed the same trajectory. The East India Company and subsequently the Government of India (GoI henceforth) tried to “limit” the presence of slavery in the region in their writings, or tried to paint or portray it as benign, mild or domestic, and referred to the “non-captive” people in servitude as “not-real-slaves.” Such narratives have led to many in the region today either assuming that slavery ended with the beginning of colonial rule in the region or after the campaign of some abolitionists in the region. It is for such reasons that one finds its study in Manipur limited to the pre-colonial period or the early colonial period (Singh 1984, 2010; Devi 2006). Among the scholars working on the Lushai Hills, the trend also holds (Zorema 2013; Hrangchal 2014).5 Some take the campaign by Dr. Peter Fraser as the end of slavery in the region (1910–1915), and others have a different opinion on when it got abolished (Lalrimawia 1982; Sangkima 1985; Sanate 2014).6 While all these writers have an opinion on when slavery in the district came to be abolished, many of them have not studied the discourse and the process of abolition.

3Indrani Chatterjee (2006), for example, has argued that the colonial government could resolve and put an end to the slavery debate in the Lushai Hills through the use of semantics. Chatterjee argues that the colonial government translated the proximity of the slaves with the master and his provision of food and clothing into the substantiation of a seamless intimacy and recast the conscription of able-bodied kinless people (orphans, widows, debtors, and destitute alike) as a customary form of benevolence.

  • 7 The issue was also debated twice in the British Parliament between 1913–1914.
  • 8 Mary as a 6-year-old was made captive during a raid by a Lushai chief in 1871, resulting in the na (...)

4This paternalistic argument, though the dominant narrative in the nineteenth century for slavery in its colonies, has had its day by the turn of the century. The bawi debate in the Lushai Hills in the early twentieth century was more complex than that. Faced with a strong campaign launched by Dr. Peter Fraser, who also roped in the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, the Chancellor, David Lloyd George, later the Prime Minister (1916–1922) during the second half of the World War I,7 and Mary Innes Howes (Mary Winchester),8 the British Government and the GoI could not give a paternalistic defense or argument. Back in India, some of the educated Lushais also met with the Chief Commissioner in Shillong with a petition for the abolition of the system. This, accompanied by the testimonies and statements by the bois and former bois, had built a strong case for the question to be taken seriously.

5Drawing on the various correspondence and documents in the archives relating to the debate on slavery that took place in the province, one can observe that the colonial government’s argument was less dominated by the paternalistic narrative (which became secondary), than it was primarily by the language of law, especially in recasting the new status of the slaves in the region. Semantics no doubt were central in the discourse of slavery, but unlike the paternalistic interpretations of the nineteenth century, what we see is the language of law becoming pivotal to this discourse on servitude that took place in the province. Clothed in legal semantics, the colonial government could transform the language of servitude as no longer characterized as “ransom” and “unfree” but rather in terms of having “compensation” and being “free” and “voluntary”. The language of the contract finally evolves to define much of the relationship of legal servitude in the region.

6Such transformations concerning servitude have been ongoing since the late eighteenth century, gaining momentum and traction in the nineteenth century as the anti-slavery and abolition movements reached parts of Europe and the Americas. How different societies met the challenge differs in the process from state to state and Empire to Empire. What united most of these experiences was the authorities’ need for the system and that exploitation continue with as little change as possible. Namely, this meant not taking the cheap and “unfree” labor away from the masters or incurring the scrutiny of the abolitionists in their respective regions. Some scholars, like Henrique Espada Lima (2013), have argued that the transformation of such relationships in Brazil was made possible by creating legal and socioeconomic conditions that allowed new forms of bondage to be re-invented. Allison Gorsuch (2012) has argued that such transformation within the Chicago territory was made possible by the state, which did not (necessarily) create the socioeconomic conditions, but simply made a legal distinction between the status of slaves and indentured servants. In this way, it was possible for the master to exercise ownership over servants within the indenture system while denying this be considered enslavement.

7The transformation of slavery into “free” and “voluntary” labor in the Lushai Hills (and the North-East Frontier in general) resembles more the experience of the latter than the former, as we shall see below. It did not compel the colonial state to create the socioeconomic conditions to reproduce bondage. However, such conditions were already part of the Lushai societies when they took over the district. This was one of the reasons the transformation encountered less interference from missionaries and other critics. This might also be one reason the contemporary historiography on the bawi system mostly ends up defending the system as one of mutual benefit, rather than describing the relationship of servitude it perpetuated. In the last few years with the prominence of the Zomia narrative by James C. Scott (2019) influencing views to a great extent, some scholars like Jangkhomang Guite (2019) have altogether denied the presence of slavery and domination in the region.

8The ease with which such transformation happened also shows how (not so long ago) “unfree” relationships were part and parcel of much of labor relations. Scholars like Robert Steinfeld (1991) assert that debt bondage in the eyes of many colonial governments was not unfree because of the legal construct that stipulated in the eighteenth century that individuals owned themselves and were free to dispose of their energies in the marketplace. According to such beliefs:

  • 9 Steinfeld 1991: 6.

the right to performance that masters had long enjoyed was reconceived as the product of a transaction in which one perfectly free individual sold the property he held in his energies to another individual for a term or a particular purpose. Thereafter, that property was the employer’s, not the worker’s for the term or purpose stipulated.9

9This paper will trace the history of the Government’s effort to tackle the question of slavery in the Lushai Hills in the early twentieth century. It will show how slavery, in the bawi form, came to be interpreted as an expression of “free will” and servile or forced labor, an expression of “free” and “voluntary” work as well as demonstrate how it got transformed into a contractual relationship.

Locating Bawi during the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

  • 10 While documentation of abuses and harsh treatment of both the sals and the bois is very limited in (...)
  • 11 Lewin 1874 : 80.
  • 12 Ibid.

10Early British accounts of slavery were more or less skewed because of their tendency to associate slaves only with captives. They considered any person as a slave if he/she was owned due to captivity. They had difficulty categorizing those who had a master but who were in this relationship for reasons other than captivity.10 This dichotomy between “captive” and “non-captive” remained, for a long time, their criteria for defining who was a slave and who was not. The result of such categorization meant that among the Lushai society, the sal or sul (translated as a captive) got classified as slaves, while the more numerous bois came to occupy a very ambiguous position. The problem with such a distinction is best epitomized by one comment made by the first British officials to record the terms and the practices: “such (sals) persons in everyday life are treated in no way different to the Boi.11 The offices performed by both were everywhere the same: they had to hew wood and draw water, cultivate the chief’s jhum and, in their leisure hours, weave cloth, cook the meals of the household, serve the chief’s wife, or take care of the children. Almost all British officials used the term boi and slave interchangeably, but always with a caveat. Take Captain Lewin’s position: “Now as to service or slavery among the Dzo, I have used the word ‘slavery’ for want of a better (term); ‘boi’ is the term in their dialect, which betokens a person who has lost the right of individual freedom of action, but in all other respects the word ‘slave’ would be inapplicable.”12

  • 13 The dichotomy between “captives” and “non captives” to distinguish slaves from non-slaves has been (...)

11According to Chatterjee (2005), such ambiguity in defining slavery exists because from the early years of the British presence, they associated the idea of extreme personal domination as the hallmark of slavery, and through this narrative, they followed the policy of distinguishing people in debt bondage from “real” slaves whose condition they solely attributed to violent capture.13

12We can write in length about the limitations in studying and understanding slavery following this dichotomy between “captive” and “non-captive” to draw the line on who was a slave and who was not, the constraints of time and space only allow us to state that this categorization is problematic. Soon afterwards, this narrative came under attack with the introduction of colonial rule in the district.

The Slavery Debate in the Lushai Hills

  • 14 Lorrain & Savidge (1898).

13The colonial narrative of slavery in the Lushai Hills remained unchallenged until the early twentieth century. During that period, J. Herbert Lorrain and Fred W. Savidge had even published the first Lushai-English Dictionary14 wherein the term “boih was translated as slaves, a fact which had even bypassed the scrutiny of the Government.

  • 15 They needed to rule alongside the chiefs who would act as allies and who would also check and cont (...)
  • 16 Earlier, although it is claimed that the payment of a gayal/mithun could free the boi from all his (...)

14The Government was familiar with the bawi practices and was complicit in its action, mainly because of its political and financial position in the district.15 The practices only became a matter of controversy with the arrival in the Lushai Hills in 1908 of Dr. Peter Fraser, a Welsh missionary physician. Prior to his arrival with the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Mission, the Assam Government had introduced some reforms to the practice which were new to the system. It had introduced the policy where payment of ₹40 could free the boi and his family from all obligations he and his family owed to the chief.16 This was a radical change as, for the first time, “freedom” for the bois was a real possibility.

  • 17 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33. Annexure B, Lieut. Col. Cole’s note on the B (...)
  • 18 Ibid.

15To understand the magnitude of this ruling, we just have to read a passage by one prominent colonial official in the province who wrote: “In the olden days, bawis could never become free. As regards their general well-being, much of course depended on the chief, but under no circumstances could freedom be gained, and all the bawis’ children themselves became bawis.”17 Introducing the redemption price was a significant step, as according to this official, the bois, from the condition of perpetual serfdom, “have been raised to all intents and purposes, to complete freedom, subject to civil liability of ₹40 for a whole family.”18

  • 19 Almost all the cases of the bois being manumitted that we have in records resulted from either Dr. (...)

16While the Government introduced some reforms to the system, in real life, freedom from the chief was still difficult to obtain as bois did not have the means to pay the sum needed.19 Dr. Fraser began his campaign for the complete freedom of the bois with no obligations, as he observed that many were still lingering under various coercive circumstances, despite the position of the local officials that all the traces of slavery had been erased. He gathered statements and testimonies from many bois and former bois, which became the basis for his pamphlet Slavery on British Territory (Fraser 1913). This pamphlet had wide circulation, and many in Britain came to know about the existence of slavery in the Assam Frontier. The Secretary-General of Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, even wrote to the Secretary of State for India to take action on the issue, who then wrote to the GoI enquiring about the system. It is from this point that the GoI and the Assam Government began their defence of the system.

  • 20 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33. Some scholars also use the spelling Inpuisun (...)

17Lt. Col. Shakespear, who had been the District’s Superintendent between 1897–1905, was one of the first to respond to the allegation. He listed the three classes of bois as In-pui-chhung or the destitute who have taken refuge with the chief, Chem-shen or criminals who have taken sanctuary with the chief, and Tuk-lut or descendants of the person who in time of war had deserted the losing side and joined the winning chief on condition of becoming his boi. It was essential to keep these distinctions in mind while dealing with the question, as he wrote: “I never listened to any claims based on either of the last two classes.” According to Shakespear, several of the petitions with which Dr. Fraser had bolstered up his case had come from the bois of the chem-shen class and stated: “…it seems that the majority are [from this class]”. He maintained he had the practice of releasing the chemshen and tuklut classes of bois whenever they applied to him. J. Hezlett, who was now the District’s Superintendent, confirmed with him that the government had not altered this policy.20

18This clarification was important for the colonial narrative, as, by maintaining the position that the Government did not recognize the ownership of those kinds of slaves which (according to Shakespear) Dr. Fraser had taken testimonies from, it implied that both parties were on the same side and that they should not recognize them. This narrative was given to discredit Dr. Fraser’s campaign.

  • 21 Ransoming prisoners for another prisoner, or with money for a prisoner (here captive or captive sl (...)
  • 22 Lorrain & Savidge (1898) did not include boihman (spelled as boih, therefore boihman) in their dic (...)
  • 23 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.
  • 24 Government Order in November 1909, in The Chanchin Bu (a monthly periodical published by the Gover (...)

19One of the major criticisms against the system was the transaction of the bawiman (price for bois). Some officials attacked the use of the term, which was translated to mean “ransom price” by Dr. Fraser.21 J. Hezlett called on the authority of Rev. Lorrain and Savidge, the authors of the first Lushai-English dictionary where the root word “man was translated as “price, reward, recompense, wages,”22 and said that, even then, its meaning was not fully explained. He reminded the readers that whenever a Lushai marries he pays certain sums to his wife’s aunt known as Niman, to her younger sister, known as Nauman, but that did not mean that the bridegroom had to buy the bride’s aunt and sister. From here, he deduced that the term “man was never used in the context of ransom but rather as a term for compensation or wages.23 It was during this period that the Assam Government ordered a ban on the use of the term bawiman and substituted the term chawmman, which they translated as “boarding or lodging fee.”24 One official defended this move by writing:

  • 25 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.

It is difficult to see how the system can be described as slavery. The ₹40, which has to be paid when the bawi leaves the chief’s service, is frequently called ransom money, but it is rather of the nature of compensation to the chief for ending the contract, and to recoup him for having befriended the family when it was in need.25

20Replacing the term bawiman with chawmman, was not only removing and disassociating the term “ransom” from the discourse of bawi, but it was also normalizing the bawi system into one of the ordinary economic transactions. To better understand its significance, it will be important to underscore the changes this move brought.

  • 26 ASA, Political 1915, No. P.M. 4P Aug 1915 n83–105.
  • 27 What is interesting about this play on words in translation is that N. E. Parry (1928: 60–64) when (...)
  • 28 ASA, Political 1915, No. P.M. 4P Aug 1915 no 83–105.
  • 29 ASA, Political 1926, XLVIII/31/26.

21In the Lushai society, only the chiefs could possess a boi, and it did not matter how many days or years the person lived in the chief’s house, once he had entered the chief’s house for help, he became a boi and had to pay the bawiman to become a “free” person again. This was why the bawiman was a prerogative of the chiefs. However, ordinary Lushais also charged fees for people taking lodging in their houses, although those who took the lodging did not become a boi. According to the Government, ordinary Lushais charged no interest for such transactions and they could pass on the money owed for generations (if the person who provided the lodging did not bother to collect it).26 This charge, collected by the ordinary Lushais for lodging, was called chawmman. By using the term chawmman instead of bawiman, the transaction became similar to that of the ordinary lodging transaction amongst the Lushais.27 Just like in an ordinary lodging, the paying guest taking shelter did not become bonded to the host for the rest of his life. When the Government began calling what was previously referred to as bawiman then chawmman, and by giving the right to the bois to move out of the chief’s house any time they wished, this removed the element of permanence, while maintaining an obligation to pay for the boarding, and thus turned the system into an ordinary economic transaction. This, they argued, was not only the Lushai custom on debt, but also a confirmation of the liability of debt borne by heirs, which was a legal principle accepted in all civilized countries.28 Following this argument, they issued an order that the boi henceforth be referred to as chhungte or “inmates” of the house.29

  • 30 There is no evidence to show that the bois themselves were notified about their right to leave the (...)
  • 31 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.

22It was further notified that any boi discontented with his lot could easily free himself as he was now given the right to appear before the courts and ask that the contract with the chief be cancelled.30 This freedom to leave the chief, whenever any boi wanted to do so, was crucial in the Government’s defense of the system, as they could now argue that any boi who was with the chief was there voluntarily and had an understanding with the chief. The liability of a boi to his chief could, at any time, be translated into a decree of the civil court, according to the Government, to show that the relationship between a chief and his bois was simply based on an ordinary contract and contained no taint of slavery.31

23Changes like these are what made it possible for the Government to claim credit for putting an end to any traces of slavery while keeping the various chiefs content, given their right to compensation for any freed bois was guaranteed. One official wrote:

  • 32 Ibid.

…the system will thus go on much the same as before, but it will be impossible for anyone to say that it is slavery. It will still pay a chief to take in a family in distress, as his rights so far as they were just have been maintained. What is objectionable in the system has been removed and what is good kept. The basis of the settlement is to treat the bawi contract as of pure civil nature and to decide any question arising from there according to well-established Lushai customs which are regarded as equitable.32

24Using semantics (here of law) had become a helpful tool for the Government in redefining the bawi relationship from one of enslavement to one of a mutually binding legal contract. This strengthened their case for the continuance of the system in the face of criticism and attacks from various sections. The tropes associated with slavery (“ransom,” “unfree,” “boi”) were replaced with other language (“compensation,” “lodging,” “free and voluntary,” “civil contracts,” chhungte) in the transformation of the bawi system.

Clearing the Final Hurdle – The Missionaries and the Missions

  • 33 ASA, Political 1915, No. P.M. 4P Aug 1915 no 83–105.

25Many of the missionaries in the district shared critical views on the bawi issue, but none of them made their position public as the Mission’s policy prohibited them from expressing individual opinions on the issue in the absence of any sanction from the Mission Conference. All proceedings with the missionaries were kept confidential. Privately, some expressed their concern that the Government continued to recognize the son of a boi as a boi unless they could pay off the chief. Another issue closely linked to this concern was the fact that this relationship ended up being in perpetuity, as the bois could never pay the price to free themselves.33

  • 34 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.

26The Government was quick to clarify that they would only recognize the youngest son of an inhrang (those who lived in a separate house from their chief) boi as a boi, in the sense that he was liable to fulfil the obligations entered into by his father with the chief. This, they argued, was so because this son inherited his father’s property and, it was therefore not an arbitrary rule. They maintained that they were not only following a well-established Lushai custom but, again, a general principle in the civil law of all countries, that a man’s heir was liable for his debts.34

27The Government made the inhrang bois their target here, but they remained completely silent about the inchhung bois (those who lived in the chief’s house). As for the rule on the heir taking the responsibility of the head of the family, it was not mentioned in their regard. This was because in the latter’s case, it was not only the youngest (or the oldest) that was considered a boi, but all the family members (regardless of their sex and their numbers): all became bois of the chiefs. They did not have any viable defense for this position, so they did not even mention the inchhung bois. Maintaining this position was necessary in this case, as one official in a letter to the Commissioner, Surma Valley wrote:

  • 35 Ibid.

It is a fact that some chiefs try to make bawis of all the children of an inhrang-bawi. Such a custom is indefensible and has not been recognized so far as I know by the courts, and I do not think it should be recognized, as it is against the principle on which we propose to dispose off the whole question, i.e., to treat the bawi contract as of pure civil nature.35

  • 36 Ibid.

28The same official in his communication with the Chief Secretary wrote: “By holding that only the heir of an inhrang bawi is a bawi, we can defend the system.”36

  • 37 Ibid.

29The second concern of the missionaries emanated from the fact that since a boi had no property of his own and the chief pocketed all he earned, they could never pay the money to emancipate themselves. The Government acknowledged that the inchhung-bois indeed did not have property or the means to earn money when they were living under the chief. There was no proper rebuttal for this criticism. The only way out was to avoid using such expressions which the public may infer that the Government consider the actual payment of the money to the chief necessary before the bawi can get his freedom (a topic which we will take up in the next section). This, according to one official, “will infer that a boi is a servant at will and not for life.”37

30What has transpired here is that, by placing the right to move in and out of the relationship in the hands of the bois, it became not only “voluntary,” but also that the question of permanence or temporality of the relation remained the decision of the bois themselves and not the chiefs. This transformation of the boi’s relationship to the chief, in theory, completely transformed the balance of power between the two. It was now the boi who had the power, who worked at his pleasure for the chief and had the right to leave the chief any time he wanted. This position was contrary to the former power relationship where a boi used to enter into a permanent relationship and serve at the pleasure of a chief who dictated his workload.

Slavery Regulated - Final Restructuring of the Bawi System

  • 38 Ibid.

31What is interesting about these developments is that much of how the bawi relation came to be defined by the colonial government had been in place since the early years when the debate began. In 1910, the Government passed the following orders to deal with the emerging problem of bawi: (i) The use of the word bawi/boi was abolished as far as possible; (ii) The claims for bawiman were generally to be treated as claims for chawmman that is, as boarders and lodgers, and the debt incurred would continue to be hereditary; (iii) Claims for bois other than those which fell under the category of chawmman would not be entertained, unless there had been a consideration, and would, if so, be limited to the amount of such consideration; (iv) The liabilities of the bois were not to be increased by the above rules, that is, the claim for chawmman for any one family was not to exceed ₹40; (v) A chief had no right to take back by force any boi who left his service, but could appeal to the courts and ask that his claims against the boi be settled. Thus, any boi discontent with his lot could simply either leave the chief's service and allow the latter to establish his claim in the courts or appeal directly to the courts to have his contract cancelled; (vi) Any other question arising in connection with the bawi contracts was to be decided according to recognized Lushai customs applicable not only to the chiefs but to all Lushais. These rules were the basis upon which the colonial government came to define “free” labor in the region. It ensured the absolute personal freedom of the boi whether he was an inchhung boi or inhrang boi. The Government argued the fact that a boi could thus substitute for his obligations to the chief, a decree of the civil court, most conclusively showing that there was no trace of slavery in the system.38

  • 39 Ibid.
  • 40 Ibid.

32This was not all, because, as one party to the contract, he had obligations to fulfill: “He will, of course, have to satisfy the decree, and in justice to the chief, we must use all lawful means to make him pay up the amount, but he is no longer a boi. He has a civil court decree to pay off and nothing more.”39 This order, or “Working Arrangement,” as it came to be referred to, became the governing principle for bawi relations under colonial rule. One way the Government proposed a means for the boi to clear his legal obligations was that he be given a year or more and pay off his debt in installments. If he failed to pay, then he was to be given work under the Public Works Department, and a deduction was to be made from his monthly earnings till the bawiman was paid off.40

  • 41 ASA, Political 1915, P.M. 4P August 1915, no 83–105.

33This modified system, according to the Government, was legal as it fell under the rights and obligations of contracts, where a breach of contract was criminalized and punishable by law. The Chief Secretary, in his letter, made a case for the contractual nature of the bawi “Working Arrangement” and defended the inclusion of the penalty by maintaining the position that “the mere fact that breaking the contract entails a penalty does not to my mind makes the system slavery.”41 We then come to the part of the letter which informs us of the Act which governed the newly regulated system:

  • 42 Ibid.

The breach of many, in fact of most contracts, involves a penalty. There is a penalty prescribed for breaking a contract under Act XIII, and the monthly paid servant is liable to a penalty for having his service without due notice. I cannot see how the bawi servant is now in a different position from any other. He may not get wages, but he and his family are supported and get all they want.42

34What is important here is that the bawi relationship under the “Working Arrangement,” is given a proper contractual status governed by the Workmen’s Breach of Contract or Act XIII of 1859, which enabled magistrates (here the local British Officers) to order the performance of contracted labor from workers who had received an advance (here in the form of lodging) and had reneged on their contract. The reference to Act XIII of 1859 is important as it gives us a greater picture of what is permitted under the relationship. Extensive studies of the master/servant relationship in the Assam tea plantations, which were largely governed by this Act, give us a picture of the possibilities under this Act. The reference to this Act is crucial for our understanding of labor law in the Empire. Scholars analyzing contract labor relations in India, such as Prabhu Mohapatra (2016), have stressed the fact that the scale of the implementation of this Act is hard to measure. It was not enforced on all labor relations and many a time, we only know about its enforcement when it was mentioned in cases found in the archives. What is interesting for us is that the principle behind the “Working Arrangement” was unifying the laws that existed in the rest of British India and the frontier areas were no exception to this colonial rule.


35The bawi system was about the control and exploitation by the chiefs over the slaves. This was reaffirmed by the nature of the dependency of the bois on their chiefs for food, security, and sustenance. It brought wealth, power, and prosperity to their chiefs. This was seen as one crucial criterion by the colonial government ruling the district with the chiefs’ co-operation. The attack on the bawi system represented a threat not only to this arrangement, but also a potential financial liability to the Government, which would not only have had to establish a fully functioning bureaucracy to manage otherwise but also would have ultimately become responsible for the poor and the destitute. Given the circumstances, the Government felt the need to regulate the system and give legal expression to the relationship and protect the prestige of the chiefs.

  • 43 ASA, Political – 1926, XLVIII/31/26.

36Slavery in the form of the bawi system was never abolished during the bawi debate of the early twentieth century. It even survived the League of Nations Slavery Convention in 1926, when the Assam Government, in reply to the Temporary Slavery Commission’s enquiry, simply dismissed the case by saying that slavery there had been replaced with civil liability and did not exist anymore.43 What is interesting about the Government’s reply to the Commission is that the bawi system, which had been regulated under the Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act of 1859, was in fact repealed by the GoI in 1925. Consequently, the bawi system should have come under review. However, as the issue had been “resolved” internally, the GoI had communicated to the Temporary Slavery Commission directly without any involvement of actors outside the government. It was never reconsidered again.

37The system would outlive colonial rule and only end much later in the post-colonial period. The Mizo Union had been campaigning for the abolition of the chieftainship system in the district for some time when through their persistent efforts, in 1954, chieftainship in the Lushai Hills came to be abolished. With The Assam Act XXI of 1954, also known as The Assam Lushai Hills District (Acquisition of Chief’s Right) Act of 1954 (Chatterjee 1995; Nag 2016), it was finally with the eradication of chieftainship that the enduring bawi system was formally abolished.

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1 Assam State Archive (ASA hereafter), Political-A, No P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33. A small clarification: nineteenth-century British and other officials recorded the system under various spellings but used similar variants. The system was probably called boi or boih, but after some point, the variant bawi also became prominent as early British officials, in an attempt to capture the phonetics of the word, began to spell it as b-aw-i (whereby the letter aw was used to capture the sound of “o”), which when pronounced together would have read as boi (b-aw-i). Today the term is usually read as bawi (ba-wi) without this phonetic consideration of the early British officials. For this essay, I have followed the schematic whereby the spelling bawi is used to describe the system or the relation between the chief (master) and the boi, and the spelling boi is used to describe the slave. This schematic is strictly followed unless it is used in quotations or references.

2 Most authors deal with the problem inherent in the discourse of abolition in the areas they study.

3 The Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery in the Caribbean, Cape Colony and Mauritius, but excluded territories governed by the East India Company, and as a result, India was excluded from its purview.

4 Conceived in the immediate aftermath of the First Anglo-Burmese war (1824–26), this frontier surrounded, as the name suggests, the North Eastern province of Bengal and the newly conquered Kingdom of Ahom, later known as Assam. The North-East Frontier of India comprised the districts of Khasi and Jaintia Hills, the princely state of Manipur, Naga Hills, Lushai Hills, Sadiya Hills, etc.

5 Many consider the introduction of colonial rule in the district as the end of slavery as they consider the sals (captives) to be the “real” slaves among the Lushais. The fact that the British government from the beginning had associated the captives with “real” slaves in India, meant that the banning of raids (where captives were taken) and the emancipation of the captives was followed (though some of the testimonies collected by Dr. Fraser (1913) indicated that many of the sals were incorporated into bois eventually).

6 Contemporary scholars often make the mistake of thinking that the system was abolished at some point during the colonial rule and as a result have different years for the abolition of the bawi system.

7 The issue was also debated twice in the British Parliament between 1913–1914.

8 Mary as a 6-year-old was made captive during a raid by a Lushai chief in 1871, resulting in the narrative of the “White Slave” in Britain during the period. This resulted in the Lushai Expedition of 1871–1872 to free her.

9 Steinfeld 1991: 6.

10 While documentation of abuses and harsh treatment of both the sals and the bois is very limited in the nineteenth century, an argument can be made that this was not so because there was no abuse and exploitation of slaves by their masters, but because British officials did not document it. Some testimonies and statements from the bois and former bois collected by Dr. Fraser (1913) in his pamphlet Slavery on British Territory recount and narrate many instances of abuses, violence, and exploitation—both economic and sexual—in particular, by the chiefs against their bois.

11 Lewin 1874 : 80.

12 Ibid.

13 The dichotomy between “captives” and “non captives” to distinguish slaves from non-slaves has been used to deny the enslaved of their voice in the history of slavery, be it for political or financial reasons. A similar argument given by Kopytoff & Miers (1977) for the enslavement of Africans where, given the nature of plantation slavery in the Americas, to many colonial officials this meant that slavery in Africa was treated as a deviation from the Western version, considered to be the true norm of slavery. While scholars like Stanziani (2017: 250) have argued that financial reasons were one of the main reasons for the characterization of slavery in this way, such dichotomies have often been constructed to exclude various actors in servitude in Asia and Africa, in particular, from the very discussion of slavery.

14 Lorrain & Savidge (1898).

15 They needed to rule alongside the chiefs who would act as allies and who would also check and control the people. This also made financial sense as it meant that the full-time paid jobs needed to run a proper administration were unnecessary. This saved the Assam Government considerable money that was mostly coming from the revenues collected from the plain districts in Assam and not from the hill districts. These problems were not new or peculiar to the frontiers and, as in many colonies, colonial officials had acknowledged these factors.

16 Earlier, although it is claimed that the payment of a gayal/mithun could free the boi from all his obligations to the chief, we do not come across any case of a boi becoming “free” through this method in the archive. We do not know when exactly this rule of paying ₹40 to free the bois from obligation was introduced, but by 1897 there emerged documented cases where payment of ₹40 could free the boi from his chiefs.

17 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33. Annexure B, Lieut. Col. Cole’s note on the Bawi system.

18 Ibid.

19 Almost all the cases of the bois being manumitted that we have in records resulted from either Dr. Fraser or the missionaries paying the bawiman for the bois. Before Dr. Fraser arrived in the Lushai Hills, he was the Medical Officer of Health for Carnarvonshire (Wales) with an annual salary of £800. The bawiman of ₹40 only amounted to £2 13s 4d, and therefore he could afford to pay the bawiman for many of those who came to him for help. See The Oamaru Mail (New Zealand), Wednesday, July 23, 1913, for an account of this.

20 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33. Some scholars also use the spelling Inpuisung, Chemsen and Tukluh for the three classes of bois.

21 Ransoming prisoners for another prisoner, or with money for a prisoner (here captive or captive slave) was widely practised not only in the Lushai Hills before the colonial rule was introduced in the region, but throughout the North-East Frontier areas. This might have influenced Dr. Fraser to associate ransom with the term bawiman as to him the bois were slaves and the family, or the person was only paying the ransom money for the boi. For slaves and ransom, see Sunseri 1993; Schwarz 2014.

22 Lorrain & Savidge (1898) did not include boihman (spelled as boih, therefore boihman) in their dictionary. We cannot even find the variants bawiman or boiman in the dictionary.

23 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.

24 Government Order in November 1909, in The Chanchin Bu (a monthly periodical published by the Government of the Lushai Hills).

25 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.

26 ASA, Political 1915, No. P.M. 4P Aug 1915 n83–105.

27 What is interesting about this play on words in translation is that N. E. Parry (1928: 60–64) when he wrote his book A Monograph on Lushai Custom and Ceremonies does not talk about bawiman but extensively deals with the various ways in which chawmman was owed and from whom it could be asked. Scholars in the post-colonial period have also fallen victim to this colonial government’s ploy to erase the servile nature of the practice by replacing it with something it was not. For example, Dev & Lahiri (1983: 79) in their work on the Lushai customs (more of an update on Parry’s work mentioned above) write that the bawiman was a due payable to a chief when one of his dependents or bois would leave his house. They maintain it was practically the same as chawmman as the same rules governed it.

28 ASA, Political 1915, No. P.M. 4P Aug 1915 no 83–105.

29 ASA, Political 1926, XLVIII/31/26.

30 There is no evidence to show that the bois themselves were notified about their right to leave their chiefs with no let or hindrance. We can find the precedence of this when the East India Company passed the Indian Slavery Act of 1843, which abolished the legal status of slavery in the Company’s territory, without informing the slaves about their right to leave their masters.

31 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.

32 Ibid.

33 ASA, Political 1915, No. P.M. 4P Aug 1915 no 83–105.

34 ASA, Political-A, No. P.M. 16P, April 1914, no 16–33.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 ASA, Political 1915, P.M. 4P August 1915, no 83–105.

42 Ibid.

43 ASA, Political – 1926, XLVIII/31/26.

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