Chilling evidence of slave trade

IFP is digitising a set of palm leaf manuscripts that lay bare the sordid practice in 15th century

Kaadi and his younger brother Tavasi from Mathur village in Madurai are taking their seven children to be sold. In dire need of money, they yell “kollvar ullaro” as they walk along the streets looking for a prospective buyer. They stop at Velliyankunram village when Kanaka Ramaiah Gounder responds “kollvar ullen” (a buyer here).

It is August (Tamil month of Avani) 17, 1448. At the corner where four streets meet in Velliyankunram village, a scribe etches on a palm leaf the servitude agreement that records that the brothers, belonging to an untouchable community (teentantori toti) from Mathur, are selling their seven children to Kanaka Ramaiah Gounder of Velliyankunram for 37 coins.

He buys each child for five coins and pays one coin to the scribe and one to the middleman (naduvar) who decides the price of the slave.

This sordid instance is not a piece of fiction, but a realistic account of the exploitative and inhuman slave trade practices that once prevailed in parts of Tamil Nadu.

The palm leaf bond of servitude came to light when epigrapher Muthukumar was (between 2011 and 2013) cataloguing the palm leaf manuscripts that had been collected from Madurai district in order to digitise them at the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP).

The palm leaf contained a small note that ‘since the 1448 palm leaf is pest infested it is being rewritten’.

Muthukumar was able to categorise 37 palm leaf manuscripts on slave trade transactions that had occurred from the year 1448 to as late as 1910. “Of the 37 palm leaf manuscripts, 30 are servitude agreements (called adimai utanbatikai/muri/sasanam) and the remaining seven documented are on the (mortgage) pledging of slaves (called adimai otti muri/utanbatikkai — slave mortgage agreement) for a period of 5 to 10 years,” he said.

Seldom do the images of slaves in India cross our mind when we think of slavery and certainly not as vividly as that of Spartacus in Rome or of shackled black people auctioned in the markets of the United States.

Dubious distinction

Though India has recorded the highest absolute number of slaves in the world with 1,83,54,700 slaves (Global Slavery Index, 2016), its import is hardly acknowledged or discussed in public fora.

The rhetoric about “rich tradition” has constantly overshadowed the memory of real life experiences of people in the past, researchers say.

The “slavery section” of the Digital Archive of Tamil Agrarian History (1650 – 1950) of the IFP, funded by Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) of the British Library, is not just a reminder of the past, but a vital historical document that corroborates the existence of slavery in south India.

Slavery in ancient texts

Muthukumar, who travelled with a team of researchers coordinated by Zoe E. Headley and S. Ponnarasu from the Department of Social Sciences in the IFP through different districts in Tamil Nadu, says: “The evidence of the existence of slavery in the Tamil region goes back to Bhakti literature. In Tevaram, Lord Siva in an avatar of a Brahmin claims ownership of ‘Sundarar’. To prove his claim he provides a palm-leaf manuscript to Nattar who declare Sundarar his slave.” He adds: “Evidence related to the presence of slaves and the slave trade has always existed in stone inscriptions, palm-leaf manuscripts, and government documents. Even in Nalatiyar, a sacred Tamil text, there are references to woman slaves.”

A. Sivasubramanian, author of Tamizhagathil Adimai Murai (Monograph on Slavery in Tamil Nadu), who has extensively documented the practice of slavery in Tamil Nadu, adds: “The slave trade was present during the Chola, Pallava, and Maratha period.”


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