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The Changing Nature of the 17th Century Slave Trade in Arakan and Eastern Bengal

The Changing Nature of the 17th Century Slave Trade in Arakan and Eastern Bengal

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Published by Haikal Mansor

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Published by: Haikal Mansor on May 27, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Stephan van Galen
When during the first half of the fifteenth century the Venetian merchant Nicolo di Contitravelled from Bengal to Burma he most probably passed through the Arakanese capitalMrauk-U. At that time Mrauk-U apparently did not stand out amongst the many citiesand countries he visited. Nicolo di Conti at least did not have much to report aboutArakan. The most that he found could be said of the Arakanese capital that it lay on thebank of a river and that it was surrounded by a tract of uninhabited mountains. For Nicolodi Conti the city of Arakan was just another harbour en route to his next destination, themagnificent city of Ava.
Four hundred years later, in 1824 when the British invaded Arakan, they on the otherhand were struck by the formidable remains of what appeared to have been a powerfulstate, but what was at that moment not much more than a more or less deserted borderarea between the Burmese and British empires.
 The centuries between British annexation of Arakan and the arrival of Nicolo di Contihad apparently witnessed a rapid expansion followed by a relatively quick decline of Arakanese economic and political influence in the Bay of Bengal. In the early modemperiod Arakan grew form a small agrarian state with its nucleus in the hart of the Kaladanriver system to a significant power that, at the height of its political might, receivedtribute from local rulers between Dakha and Pegu. The rapid rise and perhaps evenquicker decline of the Arakanese state from the early sixteenth tot the end of theseventeenth century is the subject of my doctoral dissertation which I hope to complete
this summer. Today I would like to discuss an important aspect of the Arakaneseeconomy during the seventeenth century: the development of the slave trade.
The development of the slave trade from the early seventeenth century
In Bengal the relatively stable political situation which had been created by the AfghanKings after the downfall of the Gaur Sultans began to breakdown following the death of Sultan Sulaiman Karrani (1565-1572). In 1574 the Mughal Emperor Akbar defeatedDaud Khan, the last Afghan Sultan in Bengal, in a battle near Patna. The next year hisgenerals took over Gaur, the ancient capital of Bengal from the Afghan Sultan. But as theMughals soon found out, capturing the capital was not to mean that they ruled the land.For almost a whole century Bengal was the scene of an intense struggle between Mughalforces and local lords
. In these battles the Arakanese would prove to be toughestadversary the Mughals would encounter. As a result of the ensuing Mughal-Arakanesewars in eastern Bengal a trade in Bengal slaves developed during the seventeenth century.Sanjay Subrahmanyam in his insightful article, 'Slaves and Tyrants in Mrauk-
U’ explored
some aspects of Dutch trade with Arakan during the seventeenth century.
 Subrahmanyam suggested that the slave trade in Arakan should be thought of as aseventeenth century phenomenon. In this paper I will further explore this idea. It is mycontention that the demand for slaves from the Dutch East India Company, or VOC,fundamentally changed the nature of this trade.In 1621 with a show of brutal force the Dutch governor-general Jan-Pietersz. Coenestablished VOC control over the Banda archipelago. Coen forcibly removed or killedmost of the indigenous population of the Banda islands, estimated at 15,000 people. Thishorrifying act left the VOC in the possession of the world's only source of nutmeg andmace, but without workers to tend the nutmeg gardens. Coen introduced on Banda aplantation system with so-called
, or keepers of the nutmeg gardens. The VOCprovided the
with slaves to do the work for them. The slaves needed for theSpice Islands such as Banda were until 1624 bought or captured in a fairly haphazardway. From 1623 onwards the VOC would find a structural supply of slaves on the
Arakanese market.
Demand for slaves increased when in 1634 180,000 new nutmegtrees were planted, and more and more trees were to planted during the following decades.On Banda natural disasters such as several severe earthquakes in the 1620's, a tsunami in1629, and virulent diseases in the 1630's meant that demand for slaves remained high forat least the whole seventeenth century come.
The incorporation of Ambon by the VOConly increased the company's demand for slaves. The high labour costs in the SoutheastAsian port cities were another factor in the European demand for Asian slaves.
This paper aims to show how the sustained demand from a single large buyer had aprofound effect on the slave trade in Arakan and Bengal. In the following paragraphs itwill be argued that the Arakan slave trade transformed from supply to demand driven.After the arrival of the VOC in Arakan in 1608 the Arakanese king Man Raja-krirepeatedly offered the harbour of Dianga near Chittagong to the VOC. Man Raja-krisuggest the company should make a fortress at Dianga for the protection of merchantsplying the Arakan-Bengal trade. In 1616 after the Arakanese king had removed SebastiaoGoncalves Tibao from the Sandwip he recounted how during the early years of theseventeenth century Manuel de Mattos had succeeded in generating tax revenue atDianga of 20,000 Tanka
. The Arakanese promises of a profitable trade in this part of the Bay of Bengal prompted several investigations by the Dutch company into the natureof trade in the Bay of Bengal. Two special reports concerning this trade were eventuallyproduced, one written in 1608, the other in 1614.
Both reports provide an overview of the trade in this part of the Indian Ocean during theearly seventeenth century. It is interesting to note what Cortenhoeff, the author of the1614 report had to say about trade in eastern Bengal:
The city of Chattigam [Chitragong] where this king [Man Raja-kri] has a fortress,lies at about 22 degrees north. [Chittagong] is situated next to Diango [Dianga] Bouduschreeve (not identified].The cities Saxsala [not identified], Romour [Ramu]and Sijckeraij [Cukkara on the Matamuhuri river]. All these places are situated east of the river Ganges along the coast in the direction of Arakan. Bolwa

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