Echoes of slavery in Sri Lanka amid moves to end protectionist exploitation

Emancipating slaves and ending protectionist exploitation in Sri Lanka

A story doing its rounds in Colombo these days is that when Sri Lanka’s captains of rent – sorry, industry – were asked about the possibility of freeing people from high import duty exploitation at a finance ministry meeting, they asked for 10 years of gradual reduction. The request is eerily reminiscent of the requests of native slave holders of Ceylon when the British administrators set about abolishing slavery here.

Unlike India, Sri Lanka was directly administered by London a few years after taking over the island from the Dutch, and many freedoms won by British liberals were implemented in Ceylon early, and in rare instances, even before the UK.

Because Sri Lankans did not have to struggle for many key freedoms and they were given on a platter due to the actions of activists in Britain (female vote, adult franchise, an independent civil service and judiciary, and free trade, to name a few), no one realizes its value. There were no native abolitionists to fight for the freedom of slaves, or activists to push for religious emancipation or free trade. Eventually, nationalists taught Sri Lankans how to hate minorities. British administrators began to dismantle many of the monopolies originally built by the Dutch East India Company and inherited by the British East India Company, and then the civil service. Colebrooke and Cameron, who led a Royal Commission in 1829, initiated some of the most far-reaching freedoms, including first steps to a legislative body, introducing Ceylonese to civil service and overall improvements to rule of law.

Colebrooke, a classical-liberal, helped end rent-seeking Mercantilism, giving economic freedom to many, while Cameron, a utilitarian, started many of the legal and administrative reforms. It was easier to dismantle Mercantilist oppression, as most of the privileges were held by the state.

Countries like Vietnam were able to move into free trade easily, as there were no private enterprises to oppose them. It was the state and the military that dominated the crumbling economy in 1984. Cameron also effectively created the unitary state, ending the previous federal-style structure.

Mercantilism did not re-emerge fully until after self-determination from the British, when state monopolies and then import duty-protected private firms began to systematically exploit the population by selling overpriced goods under the cover of import duties.

While the British dismantled Mercantilism fairly easily, ending both slavery and serfdom (wadawasam or service tenure) was more difficult as it involved natives. Although British activists, including the Africa Society and Abolition Movement, thoroughly researched and exposed the plight of slaves, no such research has taken place in the East. Available records all related to documents from European rule, and a few rock carvings and the likes.

Abolitionists in the UK ended slavery in the Empire gradually. Britain itself did not have slavery, and by going to court, activists obtained a determination that there was no ‘positive law’ giving effect to slavery and that any slave setting foot would be free.

First, they abolished trading, then they emancipated the children and women. Finally, after the passage of a number of years, slavery was abolished altogether. Sri Lanka had several types of slaves by the time the British arrived: some slaves in Colombo and other former Dutch territories who were imported; slaves in Jaffna made up of the Covia, Nallua and Palla castes; and slaves in the Kandyan provinces.

Slave raiders, as well as the Portuguese and the Dutch themselves, exported slaves from Bengal/Arakan regions, Indonesia, New Guinea and the Philippines, and Madagascar, as well as South West India proper. Ceylon was a major receiver of slaves, as well as Batavia, and they were used by the VOC to build fortifications; private citizens also owned slaves.

Because Sri Lankans did not have to struggle for many key freedoms and they were given on a platter due to the actions of activists in Britain, no one realizes its value

Internal wars in India among warring leaders (such as between the Mughals and Hindu areas) and famines led to ‘slave booms’. For example, in 1659 and 1661, due to conflicts between Bijapur and Tanjore, the VOC is said to have purchased over 8,000 slaves from Nagapatnam and Pulicat, most of whom were sent to Ceylon.

According to Hindu practice, a person could be enslaved in several ways. These include capture in war; in return for food (usually in times of famine); purchase; inheritance; children given away by parents; or in lieu of a fine, lost wage or non-payment of debt. In addition, the Muslim recognized those born into slavery, parents, purchased from traders, those taken in war or given as tributes from vassal states.

In Sri Lanka also, people could sell themselves into slavery voluntarily in times of famine or by force for not paying debt. According to available information, VOC had emancipated slaves several times in Ceylon or sold them out when work finished or revenues fell.

When the British came, Dutch Burghers, Sinhalese, Muslims an Tamils all owned slaves. In the so-called Maritime Provinces, Dutch Burghers took the lead in emancipating slaves, prompted by then British Chief Justice Sir Alexander Johnston during the tenure of Governor Robert Brownrigg.

A perusal of the correspondence between Colombo and Downing Street shows how the British abolished slavery in Ceylon and what a painstaking task it was.

Several hundred slave owners of all communities voluntarily agreed to emancipate all children of slaves born after 12 August 1816, the birthday of the then Prince of Wales.

Johnston noted, decades later, that the conduct of these Ceylonese was exemplary and deserved recognition, and their example could be used to persuade other countries to free slaves.

In order to systematically end slavery, the British first required all slaves to be registered. When slaves are registered, no new slaves could be created or imported secretly from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia or Africa for that matter. A salve registry was first ordered in 1806 by Maitland, but was not implemented for several years. London ordered to start the registry again. Local officials had delayed, as slavery was breaking down in the coastal cities and registration had led to speculation that compensation would be paid (the British Empire paid compensation for emancipation in several possessions including Ceylon), also fearing dissatisfaction among traditional slaveholders in Jaffna.

This is the same as the current administration fearing a blow-back from powerful businesses in shoes, building materials and farming interests, in taking down import duties to free the poor. The British later went forward to systematically abolish slavery by regulation. After registration, a deadline was given to combine ownership of slaves among a single person, when one slave was apportioned among several persons or families. Such slaves had to work in several households when called upon. It is not clear whether this was a practice peculiar to Sri Lanka.

Then, the British government ‘purchased’ the kids paying two to three Rix dollars to slave masters using tax revenues. These tax revenues were probably among the best used moneys by any administration in this country other than that used in the hospital system.

The kids continued to be under the care of the mothers.

One of the most interesting aspects of the abolition in Sri Lanka took place in the former Kandyan Kingdom, which was administered as a separate federal territory. The Board of Commissioners of Kandy, which included John Doyly, put the number of male slaves at 1,443 and females at 1,456. The British had freed all the slaves in the Kandyan Royal household as soon as it passed on to the ‘government’.

But, many Kandyans, especially the chiefs, owned slaves. Negotiations and persuasion was delicate and had been tried by several governors. In the wake of the suspected ‘conspiracy of 1834’ following the abolition of serfdom (service tenure), British officials expressed nervousness is pushing hard on slavery in the Kandyan area. (The British East India Company, which ran India, was also reluctant to push hard on slavery at first fearing retribution from the native slaveholders.

But, a group of Hindu citizens wrote to say that they had no objections since most poor Hindu girls were being enslaved by rich Muslim rulers. Unlike in Ceylon, slave trading was rife in India).

The officers noted that slavery in Kandy was ‘very mild’. While the owner could still sell the slaves at will (…can be disposed of in any way the proprietor may think proper…), they were allowed to own their own assets and could will their property to others. But, if a slave died, his property went to his owner.

Slaves in Kandy were either descendants of slaves, sold into slavery during bad times or enslaved for debts (pecuniary claims). However, the enslavement of new persons by these two methods had stopped after the 1818 insurrection.

Sri Lanka finally abolished slavery in 1844, much later than the rest of the British Empire, which was under civil service rule; however, it was before the US and many other countries that were not part of the British Empire

THEN 60, N OW 10
The Kandyan chief asked for 60 years to abolish slavery, like the rent-seeking, duty-protected captains of rent who are now asking for 10 years to free the poor from protection.

Meanwhile, the Kandyan chiefs also asked for the services of the emancipated female slaves (mostly in attending to funeral rights, which they claimed that not even low caste ‘gahalayas’ would carry out) to be available to them through some “suitable rule,” and they will remain submissive. The British did not agree to 60 years, but they did give more time.

Sri Lanka finally abolished slavery in 1844, much later than the rest of the British Empire, which was under civil service rule; however, it was before the US and many other countries that were not part of the British Empire.

Neither did the British give a tool for the slave owners to have a permanent hold on the slaves. After abolition, indentured labour started. It took decades for liberals to fight the practice.

However, the current administration is giving ‘safeguard laws’, which are temporary, and an anti-dumping law, which is permanent. The anti-dumping law will institutionalize protection and allow rent-seeking businesses to continue to exploit the poor and the general population though various pretexts. It must be noted that many countries had tried to abolish slavery in history, but it did not last. Emperor Ashoka abolished slavery. But, when the British came, slavery and slave trade was thriving.

Although the British cut import duties to low levels, they were ratcheted up again after self-determination.

With a midnight gazette, where import duties are hatched in secret (sometimes by the controversial cost-ofliving sub-committee), no trade freedom can last. It is also a tool for increasing corruption. To make low import duties last, the midnight gazette must be abolished.

The vague nature of anti-dumping laws and how they are easily manipulated is becoming increasingly clear now. If the anti-dumping law is to go ahead, there must be safeguards for the poor and ordinary citizens from rent-seekers.

It should be either a sunset law to expire in a short time or have a clear safeguard to the poor to say that no claim under anti-dumping will be entertained unless the product has import duties below 5 percent.

If something like that is not done, the poor will be caught in a pincer between high import duties and anti-dumping laws.

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