Slavery social and legal system permitting human beings to be bought and sold in the formal and informal market and made forced to work for the purchasers as their private property. Most ancient and medieval polities of the world had developed the institution of slavery under which human beings were traded like cattle. Bengal was no exception to this world trend. The institution of slavery was there in Bengal from very ancient times. It was recognized not only by law-books and the literature on polity, but also by all religions. Megasthenes mentions that the security of the king of pataliputra was entrusted to women slaves. Religious scriptures, however, recommend all to be kind to their slaves.
The extent records on slavery testify that it was directly associated with the aristocratic socio-political structure and rural production relations. As free labour was not available in the market, socially and economically weaker elements in the society were reduced to slaves by the mighty in order to sustain production and maintain their dominance. The ruling aristocracies needed a considerable work force to uphold their household and other socio-political establishments in a style commensurate with their rank and status. To continue and sustain public works like construction and maintenance of public buildings, dams, bridges, water works, roads and highways, the state needed a big labour force. The state also needed labour force for troop movements and supply.
People marginalized by famines, wars and the caste system were the main victims of slavery. Many of the destitute, orphans, paupers, and widows also ended up on the slave market. Thugs and other criminal elements kidnapped children for selling them in the slave market. Legally and customarily, slaves and their children were the properties of their masters. A slave was a transferable commodity. Many slave owners thus sold their surplus or unwanted slaves. The import and export of slaves was an important sector in Bengal's foreign trade in the medieval period. The sultans of Bengal are known to have imported slaves from Africa, Turkistan, Persia and China. A number of those slaves, after being manumitted, were upgraded to the posts of even ministers, administrators and even generals. The slaves of Abyssinian origins even once established their own rule in Bengal for a short time in the late fifteenth century. African slaves, known as Habshis and Kafris, were imported into Bengal even as late as the 1830s. The rich Muslim nobles and the European traders in Bengal generally employed the Habshi slaves, as they were renowned for being hardworking and loyal. In the absence of a regular work force, the European merchants engaged slaves to transport their cargoes and guard their factories.
Keeping slaves was so much a fashion among the Europeans that a humanist, jurist and scholar like Sir william jones also maintained four slaves. The Habshi slaves were the most expensive in the slave market. They served their masters as butler and cook, musician, barber, house guard, and so on. Their status among slaves was so high that they were even consulted by their masters in the affairs of business, politics and household management. The Habshi slaves were the commonest among the eunuchs in the harem of the aristocracy. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slaves were imported to Bengal market not only from Africa, but also from Arabia, Malaya, China, Arakan, Assam and Nepal. The Arab slaves were mostly eunuchs. Slaves were also exported from Bengal. The slaves of Bengal origins were in great demand as plantation labour in the European overseas colonies, because they were well specialized in the art and science of agriculture.
There were two dominant categories of slaves: domestic slave and agrestic slave. It was a social expectation that a respectable family would have a number of slaves. Slaves formed an adjunct of rank and status. It was not only true for the landed aristocracy, but for the middle classes and rich peasants as well. The Hindu slave owners maintained caste restrictions in keeping slaves. From the caste point of view, slaves of some castes like Kayasthas, Goalas, Chasas, Vaidyas, etc were considered as pure and slaves of other castes like Shudras, Tanti, Teli, Hari, Dome, Bangdi, Kaibarta, Jele, Chandal, etc impure. Reducing a Brahmin into a slave was religiously forbidden. The pure-caste slaves were engaged in indoor the impure slaves did work and the outdoors. The slaves of Muslim families were almost invariably converted to Islam, if they were not Muslims already. In Hindu society the slaves were called krtadas or just das. A female slave was called dasi. In Muslim society the male slaves were known as ghulam or nafar, the females as bandis or laundis. The laundis were good-looking girls bought from the market. They served more as concubines than as domestic labour. According to both Hindu and Muslim law female slaves could be used for sensual gratification. The children from such union were also slaves, though they had some nominal rights in the landed property of their masters, according to Hindu and Muslim law.
Most numerous were the agrestic class of slaves. In the absence of a free labour market, the aristocratic elements and rich peasantry had no other alternative but to resort to slave labour for agriculture. Agrestic slavery or bonded labour was a common feature in Bengal from ancient times to the end of the nineteenth century. A person who lost all capacity and resource to survive independently sold himself/herself to a willing propertied family. The landed families bought them for work in the field. They did all agricultural jobs including earthwork, irrigation, cattle grazing, fishing, construction and the like. In lieu of their labour, they received from their masters' food, lodging, clothing and often old age support. Many indebted people sold themselves to the mahajan in settlement of their debt. Such debt-slavery could be either for life or for a period. The districts particularly known for agrestic slavery were Sylhet, Mymensingh, Chittagong and Dhaka. In these districts every fifth person was a slave, according to the Report of the Law Commission (1839).
The agrestic slaves were traditionally obtained not from the formal slave market but from the immediate society itself. The victims of natural calamities like famines and scarcities, river erosion, and deaths of earning members resorted to voluntary slavery as a survival strategy. They were, in fact, destined to work as domestic labour from generation to generation. The prices of slaves varied according to their age, physique, sex, caste, race and most importantly, the prevailing economic conditions of the country. In the early nineteenth century the market price of children and the aged varied from five to ten rupees. The prices of young and healthy slaves varied from twenty to fifty rupees. During famines and scarcities slaves gutted the market and hence their market price depressed.
Slavery, as an institution, was abolished in Europe in the late eighteenth century. It was found to be inconsistent with industrialism and with the new human values associated with the Industrial Revolution. Free labour was definitely more productive than slave labour. The Bengal economy and social system were still wedded to slave labour and slave exploitation and hence slavery could not easily be replaced by free labour. The colonial regime recognized the institution of slavery on the added ground that it had religious sanctions both from Hinduism and Islam.
But the government, influenced by the humanist movement in Europe, had been discouraging slavery from the beginning of the nineteenth century and very seriously from the 1820s when the liberals were in power in Britain. The charter act of 1833 had directed the Calcutta government to take positive measures to abolish slavery of all forms as soon as possible. 'Act-V', 1843 was thus enacted to abolish slavery in phases. The Act did not make maintaining slaves a criminal act. It just abolished the legal distinction between free persons and slaves. The law provided that the courts should not take cognizance of anybody's claim to slaves. The Act did not declare all slaves to be free. Rather it provided that a slave was free to leave his/her master and live independently. The import and export of slaves was made illegal. But practically, slavery did not come to an end at once. It took many more decades to make slavery a socially unacceptable practice. The rise of free labour, gradual industrialization, and humanist movements from the second half of the nineteenth century made slavery gradually unpopular and socially unacceptable. Bengal became free from slavery from the early twentieth century. [Sirajul Islam]
Bibliography AK Chattopadhyay, Slavery in India, Calcutta, 1959; DR Chananah, Slavery in Ancient India, Delhi, 1960; AK Chattopadhyay, Slavery in the Bengal Presidency 1772-1843, London, 1977.