William Adam.

The law and custom of slavery in British India, in a series of letters to Thomas Fowell Buxton, esq online

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Online LibraryWilliam AdamThe law and custom of slavery in British India, in a series of letters to Thomas Fowell Buxton, esq → online text (page 1 of 22)
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" A vis inertia, hostile to all change, seems inherent in the local governments of India." 14 Respon-
ctbility is avoided by following the beaten track, and silence is the safest reply to those who propose
a deviation from it, even for the sake of humanity. The outcry raised in India against the suttee was
long powerless, until it returned reverberated from the British shore ; and that against slavery will
continue disregarded, unless it receives support from all the energy of the home government. " A. D.
Campbell, Esq.) Late Member of the Board of Revenue at Madrqs,




Entered, according to act of Congress, in the year 1840,

in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of Massachusetts.




LETTER I. Page .

Introduction Hindu Law of Slavery Muhammadan Law of
Slavery British Law of Slavery 5


Examination of the Legality of Hindu and Muhammadan Slavery
under the British Government in India 29


Administration of Hindu and Muhammadan Slave-Law under
the British Government in India . . . . . .51


Ameliorations of the Law and Practice of Slavery under the Brit-
ish Government in India ....... 74

Number of Slaves in British India 103

The Origin and Sources of Slavery in British India . . .130


Occupations and Treatment of Agrestic Slaves Domestic Slaves
in British India 163


Unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the Law and Practice of
Slavery in British India Abolition of Slavery . . . 195


No. I. Mr. H. T. Colebrooke's Opinions on Slavery in India . 243

No. II. Dr. Francis Buchanan on Slavery in the South of India 254

No. III. Mr. D. Liston on Slavery in Gorakhpur . . . 268

No. IV. Case of the Ship Adramytte 272

No. V. Abolition of Slavery in Ceylon 276




Introduction Hindu Law of Slavery Muhammadan Law of Slavery
British Law of Slavery.

SIR, Having been requested by a benevolent institu-
tion in Boston to deliver a public lecture on some subject
connected with India, I thought of presenting a view of the
state of slavery in that country, a subject to which I had
paid some attention while resident there ; but on preparing
a memorandum of the materials I possessed for such a pur-
pose, I found that they far exceeded the limits of a single
discourse. I therefore selected another topic, and resolved,
as my leisure might permit, to bring under full review the
whole subject of slavery in British India, and to take some
other mode or occasion of drawing public attention to its
details. I now propose to submit to you the results of my
inquiries, observations, and reflections.

My primary design is to co-operate with a society which
has lately been established in England, called the British
India Society, the objects of which are to collect and com-
1 mumcate information respecting India, to excite an interest
in the welfare of its people, and to promote measures for
their protection and improvement. By the force of circum-
stances I have been separated both from India and England,
but my thoughts are constantly reverting to both countries,
and I shall be in some measure satisfying equally the affec-


tions of my heart arid my convictions of duty in contribut-
ing my aid to give a right direction to the efforts of that

There are various reasons which encourage me to prose-
cute the consideration of this subject. Slavery is indeed
only one of many evils under which India suffers, and I
will even admit that its operation is less extensive and its
effects less injurious than some other evils that I could
mention. But it is of such a nature that, while it exists
and wherever it exists, it checks the improvement of human
character and the development of human society; aids all
other bad influences and impedes all good influences; and
its removal, therefore, will not only remove a large amount
of positive injustice, degradation, and suffering, but is
essential to the free and salutary working of every other
measure that may or can be devised for the advancement
of mankind in the country where it prevails. This is the
inherent and radical attraction of the subject; but there are
also collateral and subordinate inducements to bring it
before the public.

Slavery in India has not received, and, as far as I am
aware, is not likely to receive, the attention of the bene-
volent society to which I have referred, unless by some
such means as that which I am employing. Even in
India it has excited so little active discussion, that I have
known its very existence denied by generally well-informed
persons, although in certain parts of the country it is
found in its most aggravated forms. In England, the sub-
ject is* not known or publicly recognised as one affecting
the welfare of India or the honor of Great Britain ; and if"
even seems to be generally assumed, since the abolition of
slavery in the British West Indies, that it has ceased to
exist throughout the British dominions, although it may be
shown that the number of slaves in the East Indies, under
the authority of the British government, is probably as

IN I N D I A. 7

great as the number of those who have been emancipated
in the West Indies. I say that the number is probably as
great, because, since there has been no complete census of
the population in India, much less a registry of slaves, it is
impossible to speak of their number with certainty or pre-
cision. But if there is even only half or quarter so many,
it is proper that the facts of the case should be known, that
all undue exultation and vaunting may be repressed, and
that the necessary, impulse may be given to the friends of
humanity in England to complete the work which they
have only begun. Slavery may not be the greatest I
will admit, if required, that it is the least of the evils
tolerated or inflicted by the British government of India ;
but if the pre-occupation of the public mind with this sub-
ject in relation to other countries has qualified the Chris-
tian world to judge of the facts belonging to it in relation
to India, it is justifiable, it is obligatory on the well-wishers
of that country to avail themselves of this advantage in the
existing state of the public sentiment, in order to fix atten-
tion on the condition, the wants, and the interests of a peo-
ple whose numbers alone constitute them an important
division of the population of the world ; and whose dis-
tance, whose isolation, whose ignorance, and superstition
and degradation, whose uncomplaining helplessness, shut
them out from the ordinary sympathies of mankind. There
will be this advantage also in taking what may be called
low ground, that if slavery in India, such as on indubitable
authority I shall depict it to you, is the least of the evils
under which that country groans, you will be the better
able by this standard to judge of the greater evils under
which it suffers.

There is another point of view in which the exposition
of this subject may be attended with advantage. Great
Britain, by an extraordinary combination of circumstances,
has established her dominion over a hundred millions of


people in India, and her influence over at least fifty millions
more, and the civilized world is entitled to know for what
purposes of good or of evil such an unexampled power is
exercised. The British Crown and Parliament, by an act
passed in 1833, have delegated the sovereignty of India, for
a period of twenty years, to a corporation of private citizens,
exercising their authority through a board of directors,
and the people of England are specially bound to inquire
and to judge how this grave trust is fulfilled. England, in
establishing the existing system of government for India,
may be discharging her duty to the world, or she may not;
and the East India Company, in the administration of that
system, may be discharging her duty to England, or she
may not. But neither the negative nor the affirmative can
be determined by indiscriminate censure or praise ; it can
be ascertained only by a dispassionate examination of details,
and by an impartial estimate of the spirit and character of
the British Indian government and administration, and every
honest and well-meant contribution to such an object may
aid in arriving at a right conclusion. The question of
slavery in India certainly covers only a very small portion
of the whole ground, but it does cover a portion in itself not
insignificant, and when the judgment of the world is pro-
nounced on England, or that of England on the East India
Company, it will not be difficult to show that it is no unim-
portant item in the account.

It may perhaps be deemed that here the agitation of the
subject of slavery in India is inappropriate, and that it will
do no good, and may do some harm. I certainly feel that
what I have to say will establish a charge of inconsistency
against England, tending to lessen the force of her example
in the West Indies, and to furnish a temporary triumph to
the friends of slavery in this country. This triumph, how-
ever, will only be temporary, for the agitation of the subject
cannot fail to lead to the removal of the evil ; and whatever

IN IN D I A. 9

the delay may be, the cause of truth, of justice, and of
humanity, cannot be promoted by the concealment of facts.
But it may be said the subject of domestic slavery presents
in itself questions sufficiently grave and difficult, and that
by introducing tbe question of slavery in India, I shall be
embroiling myself with the interests, and passions, and
prejudices that divide and afflict society here on this omi-
nous question. On this question I have not the informa-
tion that would enable me with intelligence and undoubting
conviction to advocate the views of any of the parties that
represent the subdivisions of public opinion ; but because I
feel that I am powerless at present to promote the good of
the slave in this country, I should be exceedingly sorry to
have it supposed that I am indifferent to his welfare, a neu-
tral or uninterested spectator of the exertions made for his
benefit, and without sympathy with those who devote their
days and their nights, their time and strength, the best
energies of their bodies and minds, to his cause. Although
not a citizen of the United States, yet as a citizen of the
world a far higher and nobler title I look upon every
slave, in every country, as an injured and oppressed fellow-
man ; and from the bottom of my soul I wish God speed to
every attempt based on Christian principles, and executed
in the spirit of Christian charity, to strike off the fetters of
the slave and to let the oppressed go free. It will thus be
perceived that I do not abstain from the question of slavery
in this country from indifference ; and that I limit myself
to the question of slavery in India, simply because I know
that I possess information on that subject, the publication of
which may tend to promote the cause of humanity. If it
should be further suggested that this cause would be best
promoted by the publication of that information in England,
the answer is, that for the present Providence has here cast
my lot, and that effectual means will be taken, through the
British India Society, of calling public attention in that


country also to this important subject. It will be no dis-
grace to America it will be one more honor to the city
of Boston, already distinguished for its enlightened and
philanthropic character that the first appeal to the public
opinion of the civilized world against slavery in India was
made in this country, and favorably received in this city.

Grievous and deplorable as is the inconsistency of Amer-
ica on the subject of slavery, yet a sound public opinion is
daily gaining ground, and with the growth and triumph of
that opinion the influence of America on all great social
questions will be increasingly felt abroad. It is, however,
to the people of England that I chiefly appeal, and I appeal
to them, Sir, through you, because your name has been
associated in my mind for many years with efforts for the
emancipation of the slave, because your recent publication,
exposing the increased extent and horrors of the slave-
trade, proves that your zeal is unabated, and because I hope
to convince you that, without abandoning the peculiar
province that you have nobly and humanely selected for
yourself, British India should be included within the range
of your philanthropic exertions. If the respect and confi-
dence with which your persevering and disinterested labors
have inspired the Christian philanthropists of Great Britain
and the members of Her Majesty's government, shall ena-
le you to speak with useful effect a word in favor of the
slave in India, I feel confident that word will not be with-

And is not the subject one that may well awaken the
attention both of the government and of the people of
England ? The people of England have just paid twenty
millions sterling to emancipate eight hundred thousand
slaves in the British West Indies; and while they are con-
gratulating themselves that now at length every British
subject is a freeman, and insultingly reproaching republi-
can America with her slavery, they are to be told that their

IN IN D I A. 11

congratulations are premature ; that their reproaches may
be retorted ; that their work is only half done ; that there
are prohably 800,000 slaves more, British subjects, in the
East Indies; that this slavery has been perpetuated and some-
times aggravated by the East India Company's government ;
and that there' is no prospect of its ceasing, unless their
powerful voice shall be put forth to demand its extinction.
The government of England have been engaged for years
in a hard-fought battle with slave-holders in the West In-
dies, and with the slave-holding interest in England, and
they have just succeeded, at the expense of the people of
England, in the great work of emancipation. They have
been for years engaged in a diplomatic war, too unsuc-
cessfully waged, with foreign powers against the slave-trade,
and with praiseworthy energy and perseverance they are
still adopting measures against this hydra-headed monster.
Her Majesty's ministers are now to be told (are they now
to be told, or have they long known and neglected their
duty in this matter ? ) that one of the heads of this mon-
ster is in British India ; that even the slave-trade has not
wholly ceased there ; that the laws enacted by the Parlia-
ment of Great Britain against the slave-trade are in part
either expressly set aside, or are acknowledged to be wholly
a dead letter; that slavery itself exists in British India;
that it exists probably as extensively, and to a great extent
in as aggravated a form, as it did lately in the West Indies;
that it has been and is legalized, and nourished, and sup-
ported by the East India Company, a creature of their own
forming; and that notwithstanding the express requisition
of Parliament to that effect, no movement has been made
by the East India Company's government towards its ex-
tinction. This is the bearing of the subject to which I am
desirous of soliciting your attention ; and will you, will the
government and people of England, listen to the proofs of
all this with patient acquiescence ? Must it not be perceived


that this is a state of things compromising the honor and
consistency of the government, and the humanity and justice
of the people of England, and invoking the prompt and in-
dignant interference of every honest statesman and every
good man?

The whole subject of slavery in India will be embraced
by considering, first, the law of slavery ; second, the custom
or practice of slavery ; and, third, the means that have been
or may be employed for the mitigation of the evil or for its
entire abolition.

Slavery exists legally under the British government in
India as an effect of the legal existence which it possessed
under the former Hindu and Muhammadan governments.
The British government affirms, administers, and enforces,
with exceptions to be hereafter mentioned, the Hindu and
Muhammadan laws of slavery ; and hence, in order to
acquire a just view of the subject, it is necessary to con-
sider, first, the Hindu law ; second, the Muhammadan law ;
and third, the British law of slavery in India. In explain-
ing the Hindu and Muhammadan laws of slavery, I shall
present only those general views that are necessary to un-
derstand the force and effect of the law of slavery as
administered by British authorities, without going into the
numerous and minute details which the two former systems
of law embrace.

The provisions of Hindu law limiting the liability to
slavery are first to be noticed. Hindu institutions recognise
four classes or orders of men subject to them, the sacerdo-
tal, military, commercial, and servile classes, and all who do
not belong to those four are outcastes, foreigners, barbarians,
and impure. With reference to this division of the Hindu
race, the law of slavery expressly provides that a member
of the first or sacerdotal class never can become legally a
slave, and this limitation is extended to females of that class,
whose enslavement is declared null and void and punishable

I N I N D I A . 13

by amercement, as is that of a man of the sacerdotal class
by the highest amercement which the law imposes. A
further limitation is, that members of the military, commer-
cial, or servile class can, under certain circumstances,
become slaves only in the direct, not in the inverse, order
of the classes, and that under certain other circumstances
they may be made slaves to persons of an equal class, and
even in the inverse order of the classes. Thus the customs
of Hindu society suppose that a man, from various consid-
erations for the payment of debt, for instance may vol-
untarily make himself the slave of another, but this can be
done only in the direct order of the classes ; that is, a mem-
ber of the second class can make himself a slave only to a
member of the first class ; a member of the third class only
to one of the first or second ; and a member of the fourth
only to one of the first, second, or third class. On some
accounts also the law permits the servitude of men of the
military, commercial, and servile classes to one of an equal
class. Once however that a man has ceased to be his own
master, he may be subjected to slavery in the inverse order
of the classes, that is, a man of inferior caste may hold in
slavery a man of superior caste. Thus a man of the mili-
cary class holding a slave of the commercial class may
deliver him to be the mancipated servant of a freeman of
the servile class. According to the spirit of Hindu insti-
tutions, and the spirit as well as the letter of Hindu law, a
state of servitude is natural to men of the servile class *
without exception or limitation ; but then no individual of
that class can be a slave to an individual of any of the oth-
er classes without special legal grounds, independent of the
general liability. The numerous aboriginal tribes of India
are regarded as members originally of the military class,
who, by their omission of holy rites and neglect of Hindu
institutions, have gradually sunk to the lowest of the four

* Institutes of Menu, Chap. vm. v. 414.


classes ; and they are practically held to be liable to slavery
to the Hindu race. There are, further, certain outcastes so
degraded that they are considered wholly unworthy to per-
form even the most menial offices of slavery, and they are
in consequence practically exempted from liability to that
state, just as much as a member of the sacerdotal class,
although from a directly opposite cause. ^

The modes in which those who are liable to slavery may
become actually and legally slaves, are various. With
reference to the legal modes of creating the actual state of
slavery, one Hindu legislator, followed by various other
authorities, has enumerated fifteen different sorts of slaves,
and another has reduced them to seven. Keeping in view
the former division, I shall, for the sake of brevity and
perspicuity, follow the latter. None of the different sorts of
slaves about to be enumerated are to be confounded with any
description of servants. Hindu legislators carefully distin-
guish on the one hand between the service which a pupil
of sacred knowledge owes to his spiritual teacher, which an
apprentice in any art or trade owes to his instructor, which
a hired servant owes to his master, and which a commis-
sioned servant owes to his employer, and on the other hand
the service which a slave must give to his owner. The
servant, of whatever description, can be legally required to
perform only work which is religiously and ceremonially
pure, involving no loss or degradation of caste : the slave
may be required to perform all work, whether pure or im-
pure* however offensive or degrading.

The first sort of slave is one who has been made captive
under a standard or in battle ; not every person conquered
in battle, whether he take quarter or not, but one who claims
quarter on the condition of becoming a slave. Under this

* Colebrooke's Digest of Hindu Law, Vol. II. p. 370375 j p. 349;
Institutes of Menu, x. 43, 44, 5056.

IN IN DI A. 15

head also is classed one who in gaming has staked his own
personal freedom, declaring that if vanquished in the con-
test he shall become the slave of his opponent ; or he may
s fo ke not his own freedom, but his property in a slave, and
the winner becomes the owner of the slave so staked. The
second sort of slave is one maintained in consideration of
service ; that is, one who has agreed to slavery in conside-
ration of maintenance, whether in a season of scarcity or
abundance; but in every such case consent is a requisite
condition, since dominion cannot be acquired by mainte-
nance alone. The third sort of slave is one born in the
house, that is, one born of a female slave in the house
of her master. By this rule the progeny of female
slaves take the condition of their mothers. The fourth
sort of slave is one bought for a price, sold by his
father and mother, or by either of them, or by himself.
Children thus sold, by either or both parents, may become
slaves, although they did not consent to it at the time ; and
a person self-sold may either offer his services as a slave
for a fixed term, or may leave the time indefinite and stip-
ulate for a fixed remuneration, or may sell himself abso-
lutely and without limitation or restriction. To this sort
also belongs the case of a slave pledged by his master to a
creditor for a loan received, to be his slave during the
period of the loan, which pledge is considered ultimately to
become of the nature of a sale. The principal sum being
considered as the price, there is in fact the complete act of
relinquishment at a subsequent time after a prior receipt of
the price. The fifth sort of slave is one given by his
father and mother, or by either of them, or by himself, and
acquired by the acceptance of such donation. He who
agrees to slavery in consideration of relief from distress, is
self-given ; for he gives himself on account of the favor
conferred in delivering him from distress. Under this
head also is included the case of a freeman, who, from at-


tachment to the female slave of another, acquiesces in
slavery for her sake ; that is, the marriage of a freeman
with a female slave imposes the condition of slavery on
the husband ; and in like manner a free woman, or one
who is not a slave of the same master, becoming the bride
or wife of a slave, also becomes a slave to- her husband's
owner. To the fourth and fifth classes belong also the case
of boys bought for a price or given in donation, for the pur-
pose of being adopted as the sons of him who has pur-
chased or received them, but who, in consequence of some
failure in the form of adoption prescribed by the law, can-
not carry his original intention into effect. They have
ceased to belong to those who sold or gave them away ;
in consequence of a failure in the form of adoption, they

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Online LibraryWilliam AdamThe law and custom of slavery in British India, in a series of letters to Thomas Fowell Buxton, esq → online text (page 1 of 22)