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Hidden history

The killing of George Floyd has sparked a furore worldwide about identifying the long and tangled history of slavery and the symbols it has left behind. India too has its scars, obscure though they may be

Hidden history
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With the protest 'Black Lives Matter', slave-trading is once again in focus, even while the world is ravaged by the pandemic. As an extension to this current movement, protesters in Bristol, UK, have toppled slave trader Edward Colston's statue and dumped it in the sea. There is also a call for Baron of Plassey, Robert Clive's statute to be removed for his atrocities in India by the English people.

Within this context, attention must be drawn to the fact that many people may not know of Kolkata being a sea-port was entangled in the slave trade. Like trading in Indigo and Opium, which we know of, the slave trading in Kolkata and India took place with the active involvement and blessings of the British East India company.

Interestingly, I discovered this fact while reading Kari Diye Kinlam, written by famous Bengali novelist Bimal Mitra. I was curious as to why he named this story as he did which translates to — 'What can you buy through Cowrie?'

I became interested in the word 'Kari' and its power as money. When I started researching it, I came across the slave trade in and through India, including Calcutta/Kolkata. Yes, slave trade in Kolkata and through Kolkata.

Cowrie was the subaltern currency; the currency of the poor and currency of the rural and agrarian economy of Bengal and for some parts of India till mid 19th century.

From 10th till the first half of 19th century, till about mid-1830s, Bengal-Maldives trade was conducted mainly to procure cowries. Why the Maldives? Because it had the world's largest cowrie deposit available as a marine product, which traders from India used to bring in against rice, spices and silk. From around 943 AD till 1833, for nearly nine hundred years, there was a flourishing trade between the Maldives and Bengal focused on cowries.

The merchants of European countries — mainly Portuguese, Dutch, French and English and to a small extent the Danes, needed cowries badly from the Maldives, and traders from Bengal and Malabar procured it for them. Europeans needed cowries not for use as currencies in their respective countries but for buying slaves from the African market, where the cowrie was the only medium of exchange at that time.

Chitpore Road in Kolkata and Budge Budge in 24 Parganas had 'Slave Markets' till the early 19th century. Slaves, brought by mainly Portuguese, Dutch, as well as by Burmese (Mog) pirates, with the consent and patronage of the British East India Company. Slaves were actively bought and sold throughout Chitpore (North-Central Kolkata), mostly on the riverfronts. Budge-Budge, just south of Kolkata, was where the Portuguese slave ships often moored, after which the slaves were brought to Kolkata by road, or on small riverboats. Thereafter, the slaves moved up-country to Delhi and beyond.

The slaves brought to Kolkata were generally acquired through piracy or from Africa. The Bay of Bengal was once a hotbed for pirates from a wide range of nationalities. The most notorious of them were groups led by the Mog (Burmese), the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, who plundered ships and sold the survivors into slavery. Apart from the pirate ships, Dutch, English, and French commercial vessels often went rogue and plundered the coastal countryside for slaves. These captive slaves, both men and women, were thereafter sold off in various ports, ending up as domestic servants, cooks, barbers, coach drivers and entertainers. There was an immense demand for African (known as Kafri) and especially Abyssinian (known as Habsi) slaves in the royal and aristocratic households throughout Asia, including India and the Middle-East, as soldiers in the army and as guards for harems. All these procurements mostly happened through the use of cowries.

Apart from these groups of slaves, in Kolkata, there were two other types of slaves available: impoverished members of the Anglo-Indian group and girls from rural Bengal. Remember, Siraj-ud-Daulah's favourite wife, Lutfunnisa Begum was a Hindu slave girl. Even a liberal-minded scholar and Indologist such as Sir William Jones supposedly owned a slave.

When the British administration declared slavery and trade in slavery unlawful and punishable in 1834, slavery in India in its original form was abolished. And metal coins replaced cowrie shells as currency by mid-1830 in Bengal. However, a new form of slavery started taking root around 1836 in the form of indentured labourers.

References of slave markets in Kolkata are abundantly available in the Persian and Arabian travelogues, East India Company records as well as in old slave trade-related English newspaper advertisements also record such a history. Given our colonial experiences, It is surprising that our mainstream historians hardly wrote on the subject earlier. Thankfully, a lot of research is currently taking place on this obscure subject.

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