Between local debts and global markets: Explaining slavery in South and Southeast Asia, 1600-1800

03 April 2019 - 12:15
  • Project lead: Matthias van Rossum
  • Duration: 01-01-2016 to 28-02-2019.
  • Grant: € 250.000 by NWO (VENI)

The project Between local debts and global markets. Explaining slavery in South and Southeast Asia 1600-1800 is funded through a Veni research grant awarded to Matthias van Rossum in 2015 as part of the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Most of today’s 35.8 million humans living in the condition of modern slavery are living in Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, China and Indonesia. This is not without a history. Recent scholarship has noted that the long-distance slave trade in the Indian Ocean and Indonesian archipelago in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was almost as extensive as its Atlantic counterpart. This challenges the dominant focus on Atlantic slavery. More importantly, it implies the need to reassess prevailing perspectives claiming that Asian slavery was dominated by local forms of debt-related slavery, and forms of ‘mild’ household slavery, with enslaved persons as status objects, and less for economic purposes.

This project sheds new light on the history of slavery in Asia by studying debt and market systems of slavery as interconnected systems of economic production. It aims to explain the development of forms of slavery in the period 1600-1800 by studying slave-based production, slave trade and labour relations in and around the VOC empire in South and Southeast Asia, focusing on three key settlements (Cochin, Galle and Batavia). The VOC provides a crucial case, controlling significant territories in South and Southeast Asia to which the older perspectives of (‘mild’) slavery are applied. The archive of the VOC provides detailed and uncovered sources for this history.

This research aims to: a) reconstruct and analyse the slave labour force needed to produce key products in South and Southeast Asia; b) reconstruct and analyse the slave trade to VOC territories and VOC-related production areas; c) and analyse and compare the functioning of slavery as an economic system in urban and rural working environments in three VOC settlements having key positions in South and Southeast Asia: Cochin (India), Galle (Ceylon) and Batavia (Java).

Subprojects and results

The main results of this research project will be:

  • English monograph and other academic publications
  • Academic workshops, such as on the history of slave trade in the Indian Ocean and Indonesian Archipelago Worlds (10 and 11 November 2016)
  • Dataset on Slave Trade in Cochin (1752-1799) based on the Acten van Transport containing approximately 8.000 transactions of enslaved persons in the settlement of Cochin. This sub-project is part of a IISH Dataproject targeting unique VOC-sources related to the Slave Trade, the Courts of Justice and Shipping and Globalization in early modern Asia. These sources are digitized by the Nationaal Archief. Team members: Bram van den Hout, Alexander Geelen and Merve Tosun)
  • Dutch school teaching material on the history of slavery and slave trade in early modern Asia. This sub-project is conducted in collaboration with Paula van Rooij (Van Rooij ONderWIJS).

More information on the research project can be found in the detailed project proposal (see attachment).

Dutch summary

Onvrij voor de wereldmarkt – slavernij in Zuid en Zuidoost Azië herbezien

Het Nederlandse slavernijverleden wordt vaak bekeken vanuit een Atlantisch perspectief. Het omvangrijke slavernijverleden in Azië is daardoor onderbelicht gebleven. Dit project toont dat het traditionele beeld van ‘milde’ en ‘niet-economische’ slavernij niet opgaat voor het uitgestrekte VOC-gebied en onderzoekt met VOC-archieven hoe slavenarbeid werd ingezet voor productie voor de wereldmarkt.

Zie voor meer informatie:

‘Private slave trade in the Dutch Indian Ocean world – a study into the networks and backgrounds of slavers and enslaved in South Asia and South-Africa’, Slavery and Abolition (2016) (Online preview version). [With Linda Mbeki]

In 2016 kwam er in het kader van dit onderzoeksproject via deze website onderwijsmateriaal beschikbaar over de geschiedenis van slavernij en slavenhandel in en rond VOC-gebieden ontwikkeld in samenwerking met Paula van Rooij  (Van Rooij ONderWIJS).

Albert Cuyp