SLAVERY OF WOMAN IN EASTERN INDIA IN THE 19TH CENTURY
[ This paper attempts to highlight the prevalence of slavery of woman in Bengal and in Orissa in the nineteenth century. They were victims of carnal lust of men of high castes and of affluent status; and the results were growth of two castes: Golam Kayasths in Bengal Shagirdpeshas in Orissa. This evil has remained shrouded in negligence of academic investigation. ]
Sale of black men and women through media advertisement was not at all an uncommon experience in the high temple of democracy of the United States of America (USA). And Indians may cite instances of slavery as the worst form of human deprivation known to history. The black woman, at the same time, was exposed to threats of sexual indignity and sub-humanization, in the nineteenth century. An advertisement that is likely to shock modern sensibilities of the civilized man is cited below:
A girl about 20 years of age (raised in Virginia) and her two female children, one about four and the other two years old-- is remarkbly strong and healthy -- never having had a day’s sickness, with the exception of the small pox, in life. The children are fine and healthy. She is prolific in her generating qualities, and affords a rare opportunity to any person who wishes to raise a family of strong and healthy servants for their own use. Any person wishing to pruchase will please their address at the Mercury office.
The advertisement, pointedly and proudly, focused on the black woman’s prolific reproductive ability for enticing customers by her insensitive owner highlighting the merit of commodity. He did not feel embarrassed for the vulgarity writ large on it. This portrays her tragedy quite vividly and the case may not be an isolated aberration; rather it points finger to the prevalent rampant practice of the day. Perhaps nobody might have felt alarmed or ashmed about it. Truly speaking there might have been innumerable cases of this kind in the highland that propagated the gospel of liberty, equality and fraternity. But let it be underlined in the same breath that the slave black woman had her unhappy counterparts in hundreds and thousands in the land of ancient civilizaton and glory India takes pride in. In fact the status of the Indian slave woman were no less demeaning and reprehensible. In large parts of the lower provinces of Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries, acute slavery existed. And they were as much a part of market economy as the slave in USA or Africa. Pure market forces influenced sale and purchase of slaves as any commodity. Scholars may raise a storm in the teacups if an advertisement was more vulgar or offensive to sensibilities than a market for their disposal. The issue is one and the same: dignity of the woman in America and India in the nineteenth century. She was, at any rate, a commodity to the privileged.
In the early 19th century, the curse of slavery was widely prevalent in Bihar’s districts like Purnea, Bhagalpur, Monghyr, Patna, Gaya, Saran, Muzaffarpur, Shahabad, Hazaribagh, etc. An account of Purnea reveals, ‘‘A lad at sixteen years of age sells for from 12-20 rupees. A girl at eight or ten years, when she is usually married, sells for from 5-15 rupees.’’ It was in 1809-10. In most part then ‘‘men and wife, provided they belong to the same master, are not usually sold separate, nor is the custom to separate the children from their parents until they are marriageable. But in others, they are sold in whatever manner the master pleases, and there the price rises considerably higher.’’ To trace the ordeal of the woman, another account of a different place is cited here. Sonepur in Saran district at the confluence of the Ganges and Gandak rivers, north of Patna has earned reputation in our times as Asia's largest annual cattle fair. Boys and girls were sold there in early nineteenth century, as cattle are traded now during the months of November-December. William Ward, an esteemed missionary of Serampore, near Calcutta had recorded this in his very valuable book History, Mythology and Literature of the Hindoos (ed.1818). A boy sold for Rs 3 and a girl for Rs 2 only ! This, of course does not make sense until the comparative price of another item offered for sale in that mela, fair over there is juxtaposed. A milch buffalo fetched Rs 20. This was just 178 years ago. The price of a milch cow was Rs 5; a bullock Rs 4; a bull Rs 4. However, a one-year-old calf cost 8 annas. 4 Note the paradox. One could exchange ten girls for one milch buffalo. Or by a judicious mix, he could acquire six boys and one girl for that price.
A damning account of the marriage of the slaves and peculiar custom pertaining to sharing children by the masters of the slaves must be called to attention. An early nineteenth century authority testifies:
‘‘If a master has no slave girl of an age proper to give marriage to one of his own boys that has arrived the age of puberty, he endeavours to purchase one; but in many cases no master is willing to sell. Two masters sometimes agree, and having allowed the parties to marry, master of the boy is entitled to one-half of the male children, and the master of the girl to the other half, with all the females. In other cases, the master of the girl at the marriage takes Rs2 from the master of the boy. The male children are, as before, divided equally; but the master of the boy sets Rs 2 for every female child when she becomes marriageable. In both cases the female slave continues to live with her master, who, if he requires her work, feeds and clothes her and the children until they are marriageable and gives them a hut; but in general the male slave passes night with his wife, gives her part of the allowance which he received from his master, and she works for whatever else she may require.’’
In the district of Gaya, known for its holy shrine,
three human beings --- a 45 years old Kahar woman, her daughter, 16 years and son, 10 were leased for 99 years by two indigent Hindus, Anandi Singh and Shiv Charan Singh, both Rajputs to a Muslim. This is an extraordinary event at the current level of respect for human dignity. The lessee, like the lessors were inhabitants of the Gaya district in Bihar. The lessee was Sayyid Hashim Ali. The lease registered by the Kazi, Muslim law officer of Pargana Uncha and Manora on a 8-Anna (equivalent to half a rupee, i.e., 50 paise) stamp paper, was authenticated by the seal of approval of the East India Company. The lease deed was executed against payment of Rs 25 only. The social event of extraordinary character took place in 1857, which we hail as the years of first war of Indian independence.
The registered document in Persian language mortgaging the mother, daughter and son, belonging to Rawan-i-Kahar caste contains meticulous details of the parties involved in the transaction. It reads, ‘‘Mussammats (widow) Sulagini herself, and her daughter Jhulasiya, and her son Kunjiaya, caste Kahar-i-Rawani (palanquin bearer) have been and are in our full possession, without anyone else's share or objection, by way of inheritance of things purchased by our ancestors.’’ The two owners, it says,‘‘on account of the tightening of (the sources of) our livelihood, we are giving them, in lease, to Sayyid Hashim Ali, son of Sayyid Mir Ali, son of Sayyid Wajihullah, resident and shareholder of village Kara, Pargana Manora, in return for an amount of Company's twenty five rupees and eight anna.’’ The lessors Anandi Singh by caste Ujjainiya Rajput hailed from village Simri Sukul, Pargana Kutumba zila Behar.’’ The deed was registered on July 4, 1857 in Persian.
They solemnly went on to declare, ‘‘we have received from the hands of and out of the assets belonging to the aforesaid leaseholder the amount of money for the lease mentioned above, and put it in our possession, rightfully and lawfully and have handed over Mussammat Sulagini and Jhulasiya and Kunjiya, mentioned above to the possession of the aforesaid leaseholder in return for the money mentioned above. The aforesaid leaseholder should keep them under his control and possession and gets services rendered by them.’’ A further condition attached reads: ‘‘Neither we nor anyone else in our place have any calim or right or disputation regarding the above mentioned kanizgan and kahar (slave girls and the Kahar) till above period of lease, and we agree not to bring any charge of abduction (against the leaseholder).’’ The lease thus stood legally and fully indemnified.
Another important stipulation empowers the original master, i.e., the Rajput brothers to receive the slaves back from the new owner after payment of the consideration money paid at the time of execution of the lease to Sayyid Hashim Ali.They declared to the effect: ‘‘We declare, and give in writting, that on the 30th of the month of Jesth, 1363 Fasli year (i.e., 1956 AD) when the period of lease expires, on payment of aforesaid amount of 25 rupees, in one lump sum, to the leaseholder and after getting the lease cancelled and taking back the deed, we shall take back the abovementioned kanizgan (slaves) in our possession. If perchance the period of lease expires and we are unble to pay the aforesaid amount of money, in that case, until the repayment of the amount the persons given in lease shall remain in possession of the aforesaid leaseholder in all manner. To that, we do not have, or shall not have, any objection or excuse. And, if during the period of lease, a son or a daughter is born to the kanizgan(slaves)or kahar mentioned above, the children belong to, and shall continue to belong to, the aforesaid leaseholder. The male or female children if born, at all, to the slaves, were to be the property of Sayyid Hashim Ali or his descendents.
The worldly-wise parties to the transaction documented the physical descriptions of the three slaves. Citing one case will be enough to drive home the nature of details the deed enshrined. Jhulasiya, it says, had ‘‘complexion, wheat-coloured; eyebrows wide, eyes grey-coloured; nose high; in the lower portion of the lobe of the left ear, scar-mark of a wound; age, about 16.’’
Description of Anandi Singh presents him thus ; ‘‘Anandi Singh, the seller: complexion, dark-coloured; (shyam rang); forehead, broad; eyebrows wide; eyes grey-coloured; nose high; beared, mixed black and white; moustache black-coloured; in the lobes of the both ears, holes; age, 42 years.’’
The D-day was 4th July, 1857 when the lease for 99 years was executed at Gaya, then called Behar district . On 3rd July, 1857 rebellion broke out in Patna city. With large army garrisoned at gaya, this district witnessed considerable troubles. Mutiny is hailed as the first war of Indian independence. Add 99 years to 1857, and we are in 1956 when Indian freedom is a decade old. Were the descendants of Sulagini, Jhulasiya and Kunjiya still in bondage of either the descendants of their masters, be they the Rajputs or the Muslims? Did the freedom struggle or achievement of independence from the colonial masters make any difference to their lives anyway? Have the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity failed to inspire their masters' humanitarian spirit? In India, moreover, law abolished slavery in 1843. The Act V provided that ‘‘no public officer shall, in execution of any degree or order of court, or for the enforcement of any demand of rent or revenue, sell or cause to be sold any person,or the right to the compulsory labour or services of any person, on the ground that such person is in a state of slavery.’’ The Governor-General of India assented this Act on 7th April, 1843. Indians treat law of their land with scant respect.The more one is powerful, greater is the disrespect to it. The weaker he is more respectful he is to the law. This relation varies inversely with the power and influence.