Phuket History: Slave raids were a brutal fact of life in the Phuket region

Prior to the 20th century, captives of pirate raids in the seas around Phuket had little hope of freedom or even survival. They were treated appallingly and often died of starvation, exhaustion or disease before they could even be sold at slave markets in the region.

Sunday 1 October 2017, 09:00AM

Professor James Warren, who specialises in Southeast Asian history, has conducted extensive historical research on the first-hand testimonies of captives and slaves taken by the Illanun and other Malay sea raiders and pirates who prowled the waters surrounding Phuket for hundreds of years.

One Siamese woman captured in the central peninsula in 1838 and taken back to Indonesia testified that “about half a month since, myself, eight other women and a man named Boy Kay How were collecting shellfish on the beach when a number of pirates landed from three sampans and seized the whole party. Boy Kay How was killed by the pirates and the females were put on board six large prahus.”

Women and children were more highly valued as slaves than men, as they were usually less troublesome. Women were useful for agriculture, conducting business and for sex and breeding more slaves. Children, whether captured or bred, could be also trained by their new owners.

One child captive in 1834 recalled, “Myself, my father and my younger brother went out to fish in a small boat and when a considerable distance from the land we were attacked and captured by four Illanun pirates. My father was shot through the head and killed.”

Another child captive said in testimony after escaping years later, “sometime ago myself and my father, named Labby, were fishing close to the beach when we were seized… my father resisted and attempted to escape and in the struggle he was killed by the pirates.”

Any sea traveller, trader, fishermen, or anyone cutting mangrove wood, making salt, collecting pearls or indeed, simply living too near a river mouth or the coast was constantly at risk. Dr Koening, the Austrian botanist who visited Phuket in 1792, tells us that the large island of Ko Yao Yai (Pulau Panjung in Malay) off the east of Phuket remaining deserted for years for just this reason.

“The tin in Pulau Panjung had formerly been collected… as they do here. There was enough tin there to furnish many people with an occupation, but Malay pirate ships had often killed and robbed the people so that in the end they had all fled.”

To attack villages and river mouth settlements, the pirates would bring their main prahus nearby but keep them well out of sight. They would then board their smaller raiding canoes that could fit 20 men, usually at night, and hide in the mangroves nearby.

At dawn or at night, they would approach a village, with most of the men lying on the floor of the canoe so that from a distance it appeared to carry only one or two fishermen, until it was too late to flee.

“When the pirates made a raid, those offering resistance would be killed. Women and children were taken in preference to men. They would be knocked down by a cudgel. If they resisted strenuously they were killed.”

Captives would be bound and taken back to the bigger prahus of the main fleet. Friends, acquaintances and relatives would be separated to lessen the chance of resistance. They would be stripped naked and bound with rattan, often by a ring tight round their neck, and secured to the ship.

One captive later explained, “On reaching the piratical prahu (prow) my hands were put into a ring or stocks and a rattan collar around my neck.” C Z Peters, a Dutchman taken by Illanun pirates in the 19th century, says he was knocked out while being captured.

“When I came to, I found that I was stripped naked and bound in a Prahu… tied up by the hands, feet and neck. The rope by which captives are tied by the neck is taken off in the daytime. At six o’clock in the evening, whether they are inclined to sleep or not, captives must lie down and are bound by the feet hands and neck to the deck of the prahu.”

Captives were sometimes tied up for weeks or months on longer journeys. In order to stop them trying to jump overboard and swim to shore, the more robust ones were deliberately caned with heavy bamboo on the elbows and knees and on the leg and arm muscles so they could hardly use them. Also, “to deter captives from leaping overboard the pirates had a supply of long barbed bamboo spears ready to throw on an instant’s notice… captives hit by one were easily recaptured.”

Ebenezer Edwards, a British sailor also taken by Illanun raiders, wrote: “Our food consisted of only a little rice and water and the rice was generally spoiled and the rations so small that we never had enough.”

Another captive said the worst thing was the thirst and pain caused by the salt water they were forced to drink.

“They never gave us fresh, but mixed three parts of fresh water with four of salt.”

Another freed captive reported: “Water and rice were given us very sparingly. Some died from hunger, some from being handcuffed, some from grief. They untied me after about a month. If prisoners were so sick they could not pull an oar they were thrown overboard.”

One daring British spy, Admiral Hunter, who accompanied the Illanun on a cruise disguised as a Malay, noted that on his 95-foot-long war prow, the double-tier banks of 90 oars “were rowed by captives who were treated with great cruelty. They were fed on rotten rice and bad water and when worn out were thrown overboard. They were forced to row for hours at a time and when they became exhausted the Illanuns kept them awake by rubbing cayenne pepper in their eyes.”

Warren tells us that “the victims were packed together for weeks and even months on end amongst the cramped provisions… or on deck rowing with no shelter from the tropical heat and the rain squalls… a number died on the voyages from malnutrition, hard labour rowing and faecal borne diseases.”

On reaching the slave markets, the prisoners would be sold. In many cases the people who had been captured were already slaves and were usually no less badly treated by their new owners. One Spanish captive lived 15 years with his master who “treated him very well.” His only reason for escaping was “an unconquerable yearning to behold my native country once again.”


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



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