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Phuket History: A picture of the slave trade before the chains were broken

Phuket History: A picture of the slave trade before the chains were broken

Since labour was such a scarce resource, slav­ery remained legal in Siam until 1905 and was integral to peninsular society. Hwang Chung, a visiting Chinese trader in the 16th century, reported that on the peninsular west coast the people said, “it is better to have slaves than to have land because [the labour of] slaves [is] a protection to their masters”.

By Colin Mackay

Sunday 21 July 2019, 03:00PM

Debt slaves in Bangkok, 1895.

Debt slaves in Bangkok, 1895.

In 1809 Antonio de Morga, a Spaniard, writing of the rampant slavery in the Malay world, noted that “slaves constitute the main capital and wealth of the natives … Thus they are sold, exchanged and traded just like any other article of merchandise”.

In 1855 the British ambassador visiting Bangkok, Sir John Bowring, noted, “there are distinctly much more than a third of all Siamese who are slaves”. As late as 1890 Mr Alabaster, a British adviser to the Si­amese king, went so far as to say, “nine tenths of the non-Chinese inhabitants of Bangkok were slaves”.

There are no such precise figures given for Phuket, but a sizable proportion of the island’s popu­lation, at times over 50%, would have been slaves. There were generally five ways whereby one became a slave in Siam:

1. Peasants selling themselves or their family into bondage in exchange for cash, food or upkeep; these would probably have been the most numerous in Phuket.

2. Failure to meet one’s debts; the debtor was often his own collateral.

3. Being sold off by an overlord as a punishment for not paying fines or for committing crimes. (The idea of prisons as developed in Europe would have seemed like a ridiculous waste of manpower and money.)

4. Being captured in war or in frequent slave raids; these captives were the lowest class of slave.

5. Being born a slave through inheriting the bond­age or debts of one’s parents. War slaves in Siam, es­pecially foreign war slaves, were by all accounts much more harshly treated than debt slaves.

Debt slavery, which was often voluntary, was usu­ally the most common form of slavery. In 1664 the scribe to a Persian ambassador to Siam wrote, “The pawning of men or women is one of the most common practices in Siam. For a certain sum the Siamese will pawn themselves or their sons and daughters. An attractive girl will go for ten to fifteen thousand dinars.

"Whoever is doing the pawning keeps the money … and when he has attained his end with the capital and regained his digni­ty, he pays back the loan in full … while they cannot pay back the loan they work for the pawnee as if they were his slave … they may remain in their mas­ter’s chains until the true proprietor, God, claims the cash of their existence and forecloses on the loan of their life”.

The Dutchman Dieter Wilkens says that gambling debts, especially on cock fighting, were a common cause of bond­age and men would go to cock fights with a special rope as a sign that their bodies were surety for their debts. The Portuguese Galvão (Galvano) in 1544 noted, “Whoever does not avow his debt is … punished by death”.


Slaves were used in all sorts of work: as domestic helpers, labourers, soldiers, agricultural workers, market trad­ers, fishermen, musicians, concubines, craftsmen and even surgeons. Debt slavery in the peninsula seems to have been more like serfdom, or like domestic servants in Europe. Slaves were often able to buy their own freedom by working outside and saving their pay.

Bowring in 1857 felt that, “Masters cannot ill treat their slaves for they have always the remedy of paying the money they represent and he must be a very worthless character who cannot get somebody to advance the sum … in fact whenever they are emancipated they always sell themselves again”.

Carl Bock, a 19th century traveller in Siam, agreed, noting that a debt slave “very rarely succeeded in working off [his] indebtedness … and lives in a permanent state of semi bondage with which his indolent nature fully harmo­nizes, I have seldom seen a slave debtor discontented with his lot”.

Debt slavery appears to have been relatively benign because it was rela­tively easy for a slave to run away. In 1798 the Dutchman Johan Stavorinus explained that exasperated slaves of­ten ran away from their masters, who thereby lost a valuable property. To counteract this, it was common law that another member of the slave’s family would be bound to return the runaway, or take his/her place. Such runaways might be killed if the master so wished, thus let’s not paint too rosy a picture; it was still slavery, which allows for mas­sive abuse and a slave owner could es­sentially do what he liked with his debt slaves. If, for example, he chose to kill them to discipline them, few people of importance would object as anyone else of position and power had slaves too.

The rajah of Thalang would have acquired most of his slaves by advanc­ing credit to people unable to pay it back, sometimes at interest rates of up to 30% a year. The 19th century French vicar apostolic Jean Baptiste Pallegoix tells us, “a family in need is obliged to [take a] loan at usurious rates and since it usually does not find anything to pay the interest and the debt doubles or triples in a short time, the creditor, by virtue of law, may take his wife and children as slaves”.

Marriage between slaves and freemen was common, as was own­ers using slaves for sex. One Siamese rajah’s slave woman on the peninsula explained her work thus: “Our chief works are cooking, nursing and carry­ing water, splitting firewood, pounding rice and at nights we are to prostitute ourselves, giving half of this earning to the rajah and half to supply ourselves with clothing and provisions for the sul­tan’s house and other slaves.

“If we fail to get money from prostitution we are punished with thick rattans. We are prevented from mar­rying anyone who wishes to [make an offer for] us in marriage”.

A raft of laws existed concerning the position of children of liaisons between freemen and slaves and between a slave owner and a slave woman: were they his slaves or his (free) children? These laws applied only to unmarried slaves; it was both illegal and immoral under Siamese law to interfere with a married slave. A female follower who became a concubine of her master and bore him a child could be entitled to her freedom.

Rajahs or powerful men often kept a retinue of female slaves, to satisfy their own sexual appetites and more impor­tantly those of their young retainers, both to attract more henchmen and to prevent them from making forays among the ruler’s peasant subjects to seduce or abduct the women for sex as common law allowed them to do in most places.

Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com

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