Slavery in the Malay States.
Langat, 30th June, 1875.
Sir - When on board the Colonial steamer Pluto last week, accompanying His Excellency the Governor in a tour to some of the native States, His Excellency made inquiry of me with regard to the present state of debt-slavery in the Peninsula.
This was a subject so large and important as hardly to admit of thorough explanation in a conversation; I therefore asked His Excellency's leave to report upon it.
I now beg to give you a detailed account of the circumstances of debt-slavery as known to me personally.
In treating the question under its present condition - I mean under Malay rule - it is necessary to consider the all-but slavery of the debtors and the difficulty of making any arrangement between debtor and creditor which while it frees the one will satisfy the other, and still be in keeping with the "adat Malayu," as interpreted in these States.
The relative positions of debtor and creditor in the Western States, more especially in Perak, involve evils which are, I believe, quite unknown to Europeans, even those living so near as Singapore.
The evils to which I refer have hitherto been regarded as unavoidable, and a part of the ordinary relations between Rajahs and subjects.
I may premise by saying that though the system of "debt-slavery," as it has been called, exists to some extent in all the States, it is only seen in its worst light where a Rajah or chief is the creditor and a subject the debtor.
Few subjects in a Malay country are well off. The principal reason of this is, that as soon as a man or woman is known to be in possession of money, he or she would be robbed by the Rajah; or the money would be borrowed with no intention of future payment, whether the subject wished to lend or not.
Thus, when a Ryot (or subject) is in want of money, he goes to his Rajah or chief to lend it him, because he alone can do so. Either money or goods are then lent, and a certain time stipulated for payment. If at the expiration of that time the money is not paid, it is usual to await some time longer, say two or three, or even six months.
Should payment not then be made, the debtor, if a single man, is taken into the creditor's house; he becomes one of his followers, and is bound to execute any order or do any work the Rajah as creditor may demand, until the debt is paid, however long a time that may be.
During this time the Rajah usually provides the debtor with food and clothing, but if the creditor gives him money, that money is added to the debt.
Often, however, the Rajah gives nothing, and the debtor has to find food and clothing as he can.
Should the debtor marry - and the Rajah will in all probability find him a wife - then the debtor's wife, his children, his grandchildren, all become equally bound with himself to the payment of this debt.
Should the debtor be originally married, then not only he, but his wife and children, are taken into the Rajah's house, and are his to order until the debt is paid.
Should the debtor be a woman, unmarried, or a widow, the same course is taken, and whoever marries her becomes jointly responsible for the debt; and this goes on through generations - the children and grandchildren of the debtor being held in the same bondage by the children and grandchildren of the creditor.
Should at any time the debtor succeed in raising the amount of the debt and proffer it to the creditor, then it would be customary to accept it. If, however, a large family were in bondage for the debt, one whose numbers seemed to the Rajah to add to his dignity, then he would probably refuse to accept payment, not absolutely, but would say "wait," and the waiting might last for years.
Debtors once absorbed into the Rajah's household are looked upon as his property, just as his bullocks or his goats, and those who alone would have the power to interfere look on and say nothing, because they do the same themselves.
In different States this debtor-bondage is carried to greater or less extremities, but in Perak the cruelties exercised toward debtors are even exclaimed against by Malays in other States.
Many chiefs in Perak have a following principally composed of young men and girls, for the most part debtors.
The men are treated as I have already described - either food and clothes are found for them or not; they are usually found - for the Rajah's power and his pride consists in the number of arms-bearing followers he has at his beck and call; men, too, are useful to him in many other ways. Those who have grown old in their bondage, whether men or women, either for very shame the Rajah provides for, or he compels their children to support them.
The men either (1) follow because they like it (a very small percentage indeed); or (2) they are debtors, or the children of debtors; or (3) they are real slaves from Sumatra or Abyssinia, or the children of slaves.
The girls are treated differently; they are (1) either slaves or the daughters of slaves; or (2) debtors, the daughters or granddaughters of debtors; or (3) the Rajah has simply taken them from their houses into his own house because he wanted them; or (4) they follow him for pleasure.
In Perak some of the chiefs do not provide their girls with food or clothing, but they tell them to get these necessaries of life as best they can, i.e., by prostitution - for the labor of the debtor being the property of the creditor, prostitution is in this case a necessity and not a choice.