Testimonies of Enslavement: Enslavebility in Dutch-Ruled Cochin

What did it mean to be deemed ‘enslavable’ by the Dutch colonisers in south India? Geelen writes about neglected archives in Kerala that can help answer this question and provide valuable insight into the lived experiences of enslaved people in Dutch-ruled Cochin.

Alexander Geelen

Book cover of Geelen et al.'s book, Testimonies of Enslavement.On the 2nd of July 1742, Cali, a slave girl, decided to run away from home. The girl was  of the Bettua 1 caste, 14 years old, and a subject of the landlord of Chettua, but she was rented to Joan Dias, a VOC 2 soldier and she lived and worked in his house. In her own testimony, she confessed that she, ‘understanding that they wanted to sell her, absconded from aforementioned house and service without anyone’s foreknowledge and stayed quietly with her mother also living in Chettua for three days’. 3 She caused a lot of trouble for Joan Diashe was accused of having sold someone who was not his slave, and he was sent out to retrieve her, failing which he would face severe punishment. Cali, who caught wind of this, decided that it would only be a matter of time before she was found. She decided to flee to Pattenchery, where she got herself baptised by the bishop and was renamed to Francisca. Now a Christian, Francisca was no longer considered ‘enslavable’ by the VOC. She travelled to Cochin to inform the authorities of her new status. The VOC, self-proclaimed protector of the Christians of the Malabar Coast, realised that it could no longer consider Cali a slave. She was free to go home.

This brief episode described above is part of the court case against Joan Dias, and is one of ten court cases that appear in a new book, Testimonies of Enslavement: Sources on Slavery from the Indian Ocean World (Bloomsbury, 2020), co-authored by me and my colleagues Matthias van Rossum, Bram van den Hout, and Merve Tosun. The book contains English translations  of selected eighteenth-century Dutch court records that deal with issues regarding slavery, slave trade, and ‘enslavebility’. ‘Enslavebility, a literal translation of the Dutch word slaafbaarheid, is a term that was used by the Dutch to indicate who could be enslaved. The court records that deal with the question of enslavebility reveal who could be enslaved, how, by whom, and under what conditions. Furthermore, the court records reveal the practice and dynamics of slavery; how people survived and contested slavery. Uniquely, the court records contain the voices of the enslaved in the form of their court testimonies, and provide important glimpses of their lived experiences.

The court records are found in the Court of Justice archive of the VOC in Cochin, an archive that is underexplored by researchers. The cases of our book take place in and on the edge of the region under VOC control in what is present-day Kerala. In South Asia, the VOC combined its varied regional roles: as sovereign of coastal and partly inland regions of Sri Lanka; as suzerain in parts of south India, ruling through local kings and landowners; and more dependent roles as merchants trading from factories in other trading places. In these roles, the VOC oversaw slave trade and slavery of a highly varied and complex nature and vast scale. The VOC connected the pre-existing modes of slavery in south India, which were closely linked to caste, to a network of long-distance slave trade that connected the wider Indian Ocean World. Slaves from south India were transported to Sri Lanka, South Africa, Java and other regions. For example, in 1678, an overseer in the mines of Silida at Sumatra reported of the high death rate amongst the enslaved from the Malabar Coast. 4

As the VOC functioned not only as a trading organisation, but also as a sovereign and imperial power, it was strongly invested in regulating the institution of slavery and counteracting acts it perceived as transgressions. Violations of regulations and laws with regard to the slave trade and enslavement were primarily prosecuted through the Court of Justice (Raad van Justitie). These court records reveal that the Company authorities were highly concerned with the legitimacy of transactions of enslaved persons, and the practice enslavement itself. Legitimacy was determined by VOC regulations on what backgrounds or characteristics of the enslaved made them ‘enslavable’. Certain subjects of the Company, like the community of St. Thomas Christians, were protected from enslavement, whereas other locals could be declared to be enslaved lawfully, such as members of the Pulaya caste. Because social background was a determinant of enslavebility, categorisation and identification are frequent themes in many of the court cases. Processes of identification were based on subjecthood, social status, or community memberships. These communities could either be religious denominations, such as the St. Thomas Christians or the Catholics, or an occupational status such as ‘washer’, or caste-based. The category of caste played an important role, but not necessarily in a rigid manner, as indicated by the many references to switching between religious groups and confusion about identities in the court testimonies. Future research must reveal the exact determinants of what made a person enslavable, as neither caste nor ideas about enslavebility were anything but static. For now, however, it appears that notions of enslavebility were determined by traditions of ideas of both the VOC and the local elite.

The cases presented in our book are some of the most telling examples of local histories of enslavement and enslavebility, with global implications for the study of slavery. Our book shows the potential of these sources for not just the study of the of history of coercion and slavery, but also the everyday micro-histories of people whose voices are unheard in historical narratives.

About the Author: Alexander Geelen is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is part of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) project, ‘Resilient Diversity’. In his research project, called ‘Bordering up, regulating mobility through passes walls and guards’, he uses both legislation and court cases to reveal the praxis and theory behind mobility regulation and researches how social background determines one’s mobility.

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