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A Long History of Slavery in Bombay – The Wire

In the extensive holdings of records relating to colonial India at the British Library in London are a series of volumes called the ‘Bombay Wills’, spanning the years from 1728 to 1937. This long series of 80 weighty tomes records, in rather dry prose especially as the years go on, the wills which were probated in the courts of Bombay. A perfunctory review of the wills of the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th century, made by Europeans who died in India, reveal that many of them had Indian concubines and natural children who were provided for.

However, there was another human element which figured in these wills: ‘slave boys’. These ‘slave boys’ were listed as part of their property. Occasionally set free after the death of their masters, they were often sold with the rest of the chattel.

The records of the Mayor’s Court, the highest court on the island of Bombay in the 18th century, also contain many such casual references to human commodities – slaves – who were just another item of trade in the city.

In January 1790, a case filed in February 1789 by Bhoychund Tricum against Rutton, a woman tailor, came up for final hearing and disposal in the Mayor’s Court. It concerned a transaction relating to a “slave girl named Mankoor of the Cast Razpoot”. As the case unravelled, it emerged that Mankoor had been bought and sold on the island of Bombay thrice in the year 1786, when she was about 13 years old. Her ownership could first be traced to one Allee Memon ben Abood who sold her on March 24 to Bomanjee Cawasjee Parsee and Sheik Noor Mahomed for Rs 190. A week later, they sold Mankoor to Sek Calloo Havaldar for Rs 255, evidently a handsome deal for them. In November, Havaldar sold her to Rutton Bai for Rs 291, making a modest profit after seven months.

Rutton Bai found it expedient to retain Mankoor for two years; how Mankoor served her mistress during this period is not recorded. In November 1788, when Mankoor was about 15 years old, Rutton sold her to Bhoychund Tricum for Rs 275. However, she seemed to have changed her mind after receiving the consideration and did not hand over the girl to him. The court found merit in Bhoychund’s case and ruled that Rutton Bai had to pay him back the money with interest and costs. It was just a routine commercial dispute as far as the mayor and his aldermen were concerned.

Men and women from all communities in Bombay were involved in this lucrative business. So was the Government of Bombay. Throughout the 18th century, the Bombay government procured slaves from Africa, mainly purchased at the slave market in Zanzibar, either for its own use or for onward transmission to the East Indies where the East India Company had its factories. Bombay was evidently the clearing house for slaves imported from Africa.

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It was only in 1813 that the import and export of slaves was forbidden in Bombay by law. However, the penalties were rather light if one was caught violating the law: six months imprisonment and a fine not exceeding Rs 200. The slaves were to be sent back to their place of origin or allowed to remain in Bombay at the discretion of the magistrate.

“In 1781, there were 431 private slaves in the island, 189 in the Bombay and 242 in the Mahim District and they were employed in various capacities,” notes J.R.B. Jeejeebhoy, a researcher and writer, in his article on slavery in Bombay which appeared in the 1931 issue of Sanj Vartaman Annual. At the dawn of the 19th century, many Bombay citizens, both Indians and European, owned slaves who were part of their household. When Dady Nusserwanjee (1734–1799), also known as Dadysett, made his will in 1794, he settled minor bequests on his six African (or Siddi, as they were known in Bombay) slaves. He also instructed his son Ardaseer Dady to arrange for the male slaves to be married.

It was only in 1837 that slavery was officially outlawed by the British parliament and its naval forces tried to suppress the slave trade across the world. It, however, did not have an immediate impact and slavery in various forms continued to persist in Bombay and elsewhere. In the 1870s, H.B.E. Frere, who had been governor of Bombay (1862–67), led an expedition to East Africa in an attempt to suppress the slave markets on that coast with some success. The Zanzibar slave market was closed in 1876.

There might have been no African slaves in Parsi households in the 1870s but their descendants still lived in Bombay, generally in precarious conditions. For example, in the aftermath of the Parsi-Muslim riots in early 1874, a group of 20 Siddis who were returning after a day’s work on board a ship were set upon by a gang of Parsis. The Times of India (February 23, 1874) noted that:

“The Parsees appear to have become terribly alarmed. Blows were struck. Both parties ran wildly in all directions. The Seedies hid themselves. The Parsees, however, have no excuse for maltreating the unfortunate twenty; but in the present excited state of things, Seedies should, as far as possible, be prevented from going through the Fort, as the very sight of them creates an excitement amongst the Parsees not easy to be allayed.”

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Evidently the Siddis were third-class citizens who had to remove themselves from public thoroughfares. Yet others were living out their days in the households of their former owners. Jeejeebhoy (1885–1960), born into one of the richest families in Bombay, might have had first-hand experience of this situation. Rustom Paymaster, writing Dadysett’s biography in 1931, mentions that the last of such servants, a Siddi ayah, Roza by name, had recently died after a lifetime of service in the Banaji household.

Death of Jimmy in the Bombay plague. His parents are on the left. Photo: Capt C. Moss, 1897. From the Welcome Collection.

The official suppression of slavery did not reduce the demand for cheap and tractable human labour across the globe. This led the British to formulate a system of indentured labour who were shipped from India to its colonies in West Indies, South Africa and elsewhere. Bombay was one of the embarkation points for this export trade. Even within India, large numbers of labourers were transported to tea estates and other industrial complexes under a similar arrangement. This system, which spawned a network of coolie-catchers, soon came to be recognised as slavery in all but name.

The ossified hierarchy of caste and community frequently forced many Indians to reconcile to slavery-like conditions for generations. Human trafficking in Bombay was always a profitable business and many of the residents of the red-light districts of the city which had grown in the latter half of the 19th century lived in a state of semi-slavery. This was an open secret but everyone – social reformers, the government and its police – preferred to turn a blind eye to it. Rarely did it make the headlines.

When the Bombay Chronicle for April 6,1917 published a lead article titled ‘The Slave Market of Bombay’, the issue could no longer be ignored. It related to the murder of a prostitute by a brothel-keeper, “a story of slow torture and ultimate doing to death of a forlorn woman, – who had probably never had any alternative to the forced life of intolerable shame and misery she was leading, – which was told in all its detail in the court, is one so full of repulsive and unprintable horrors.”

After describing the particulars of the case, which came to public attention only because of the accidental discovery of the murder, the Bombay Chronicle concludes, “Many are aware no doubt of the extent to which slave traffic in Bombay flourishes; few can have suspected the existence of such things as this case has revealed.” It called not only for legal reform but also for an awakening of the conscience of the citizens of Bombay.

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The article provoked a flurry of letters to the editor. One of them hoped that “the indignation and wrath evoked by your powerful plea on behalf of the oppressed and helpless slaves of the houses, conducted by heartless monsters in human shape, will not be allowed to die down.”

Another letter from M.M. Marzban in the Bombay Chronicle (April 10, 1917), alluded to “the miles of streets full of women who disgrace the urbs prima in Indis. Start as you may from Pydhonie right up to the end of what is notoriously known as Bhendi Bazar – a synonym for infamy and prostitution from Golpitha (near Grant Road) to the Tramway junction that bifurcates into Grant Road and Tardeo branches; from this point to Tardeo stables of the Tramway Co.; from these stables right up to the corner of Bellasis Road – and what repugnant sites does one see – or rather is obliged to see – while driving in a tram car, and other vehicles, all along these routes? Prostitutes and women – old and young – masquerading under the pseudonyms of ‘dancing and singing girls’ which is only another name for semi-prostitution.”

It is now over a hundred years since this incident. The tramways have been uprooted and the roads and streets of Bombay have acquired new names. But the neighbourhoods are still recognisable by their names and the commuter who is on a BEST bus would be able to experience much the same disgust and despair as the letter-writing Marzban did in 1917.

Murali Ranganathan is a writer and historian researching the 19th century with a special focus on print history and culture.