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  • Elizabeth Alexander

Enslaved by Debt

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

The aunt of a Malay policeman in Larut (in the state of Perak), passing near a village, met an acquaintance, and taking a stone from the roadside sat down upon it while she stopped to talk, and on getting up forgot to remove it. An hour later a village child tripped over the stone and slightly cut its forehead. The placing the stone in the pathway was traced to the woman, who was arrested and sentenced to pay a fine of $25, and being unable to pay it she and her children became slave-debtors to the father of the child which had been hurt. In this case, though Captain Speedy lent the policeman money wherewith to pay his aunt’s fine, the creditor repeatedly refused to receive it, preferring to exercise his prerogative of holding the family as his rightful slaves.

~ From The Golden Chersonese (pp. 330-331): An Englishwoman’s travels in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula by Isabella Bird (1831-1904), first published in 1883. (Paid link)

If you’re anything like me, you might have been inclined to tell that child to learn to look where he is going, pick his feet up, and stop being a wimp. And refuse to pay any such ludicrous fine. But we’re talking about a different culture and a different time. One in which some would use any excuse—no matter how spurious—to raise their standing in the community by owning “debt slaves.” As British explorer Isabella Bird makes clear in the above passage, this meant a potential lifetime of servitude not only for the person causing the alleged harm, but members of their immediate family too.

The issue of debt slavery is raised in Chapter Twenty-Six of Lies That Blind (paid link) when Martinha educates Jim not only about the practice, but how Pieter has misdirected him about Light’s private affairs. As Martinha demonstrates, to fully understand the practice it is necessary to put it into historical and cultural context.

Think back to what you may have learned about feudalism in Medieval Europe, where this hierarchical ecosystem was set up as a means of protection for society as a whole. The monarch would give lands and titles to members of the “nobility,” essentially to buy their loyalty and to provide him with men during times of war, and in return these lords would lease out the land to peasant farmers, expecting not only rent and a percentage of their produce, but also that they would take up arms as and when required. This interrelationship between monarch, lords, and peasants was a lot more complex than the space I’m giving it here, but the key points to take away are that a) each layer of society depended heavily on the others and, because of this, b) there were severe penalties exacted for not living up to the obligations expected.

Feudalism began to die out in Western Europe around about the 16th century, although in some countries it hung on until much later. But something very similar was prevalent throughout the Malay Archipelago in Francis Light’s time, the late 18th century. Indeed, one might argue that this culture of dependency and obligation still occurs in the region today.

While researching our book Access to Asia, (paid link) cross-cultural business expert Sharon Schweitzer and I included the work of Dutch social psychologist, Gert Hofstede. One of Hofstede’s six dimensions model of national culture includes Power-Distance: “…the degree to which less powerful members of institutions and organisations accept that power is distributed unequally.” As one Harvard Business Review article explains it:

In very high power distance cultures, the lower level person will unfailingly defer to the higher level person, and feel relatively ok with that as it is the natural order. The higher level person accepts this truth as well — or metes out consequences for failure to comply.

At the time we wrote Access to Asia (2015), Malaysia had a power distance score of 104, the highest in the world (note: it's now 100), and an individualism score of 26. The chart below shows a comparison between PD scores and individualism across seven other countries, as well as the relationship between these two dimensions.

Okay, so back to the history. As Jim Lloyd learns from the conversations he has at different times with Light, Martinha, and Tuan Ismail, Malaya life at that time was all about adhering to hierarchical obligations:

  • The ruler (raja or sultan) controlled every aspect of the people’s lives. He was not only the monarch but “the principal trader, banker, and advancer of capital in his country.”

  • His chiefs were not above exploiting their position in the hierarchy and would routinely set up unofficial customs houses to extort duties and taxes over and above the ten percent that the ruler expected from every trade or activity that took place in his domain.

  • The rakyat (the Malay word for the citizenry) were obliged to cultivate the ruler or chief’s lands, and defend their country, without expectation of payment. There is also the point that Tuan Ismail makes to Jim about fearing having a daughter who is too pretty, and acquiring possessions that can be taken away on a whim.

The more bond slaves and domestic servants an individual had, the more his power, wealth, and social status was on display for others to see. In other words, conspicuous displays of power distance were an integral part of the fabric of society.

Using slaves to work plantations and pick the produce that would then be exported for financial gain has been true in other regions of the world. But this wasn’t true for the Malay Archipelago. As I discovered while conducting the research for my novel, the most common form of slavery was debt bondage, made all the easier because of the “cultural propensity for gambling and high interest rates” that were common. According to Dean Messenger in his article entitled Slavery, Dependency, and Obligation in the Early Modern Malay Archipelago, the one exception occurred on the Banda islands. This story, along with other atrocities perpetrated by the Dutch, was relayed to Jim by Martinha in Chapter Twenty-Six. As Messenger points out :

Most historians agree that the Banda Plantations represent the only example of a classic ‘slave mode of production’ in the Malay Archipelago, and it is viewed as an anomaly rather than the norm.

Jalan Baru paddy field, Balik Pulau. Photo: Courtesy of Beng Lim.

Bond slaves tended to become domestic servants responsible for cooking, cleaning, repairing, and anything else required for the smooth-running of a large household. The conditions under which they worked depending upon the empathy or cruelty of their “masters.” According to Messenger, however, Chinese men who were unable to procure wives for themselves from their home country, would take female debt slaves as wives. In doing so they produced free, legitimate offspring who became “the next generation of merchants and settlers.”

The topic of debt slaves is a fascinating one, and I wish I could say it is confined to the history books. But the theme I come back to time and again in these blog posts is that no matter how advanced we like to think we are, certain old, entrenched, and frankly shocking practices endure. To learn more about bonded labour today, take a look at the End Slavery Now website (see link below). And read the stories outlined by Rosanna Pathmanathan in her Honors Thesis, The Evolution of the Slave Trade in South-East Asia.

It might be 2021 (as I write this), but it seems the concept of debt-slavery, albeit given other names and redefined since the 17th and 18th centuries, sadly endures.


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