Slavery in Penang,1841


Before the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade passed by the British Parliament on March 25, 1807 came into effect the following year, as many as 2,532,300 Africans had reportedly been carried across the Atlantic to America to be sold as slaves. This amounted to 41% (!) of the total transport of individuals. The British Empire being the biggest slave trader in the world, the passing of the Act greatly damaged the global trade in humans.

Slavery in the British colonies was not abolished until the Slavery Abolition Act was passed on August 23, 1833, but this was repealed in 1838.

Civil activism against slavery continued to grow. The time of officially condoned slavery was clearly coming to a close, and in 1843, the Indian Slavery Act V was passed to abolish the practice throughout Hindu and Muslim India.

The Dutch acted likewise and ended slavery in all their colonies in 1843. However, in Malacca itself, the Dutch governor had on December 6, 1819, in celebration of the birthday of the Dutch King, already proposed to inhabitants holding slaves to declare that the offspring of slaves should from that day be born free. Seventy people responded and agreed to act to that effect. Nevertheless, when Malacca was transferred to the British on April 9, 1825, 1,339 slaves of various descriptions were to be found in the settlement.

The following text is taken from the publication Slavery and the Slave Trade in British India; With Notices on the Existence of These Evils in the Islands Ceylon, Malacca, and Penang, Drawn from Official Documents (pp. 67-70). Those interested in the subject will find this book most useful. It was published in 1841 and distributed by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which in a special meeting held on January 15 that year:

Resolved That, inasmuch as slavery is indubitably proved to exist in various cruel and degrading forms, and to a great extent in British India, as well as in several dependencies of the British crown, in the East, whereby large numbers of the Queen’s subjects are deprived of their personal liberty, and their civil rights, contrary to the principles of natural justice—the free institutions of this country, and the sacred claims of Christianity, this Committee would respectfully request the Right Hon. Dr. Lushington, to give notice of a motion, at the opening of the next session of Parliament, for its immediate and entire abolition; and to suggest to him that this may be most effectually accomplished by a declaratory statute which shall relieve from bondage (however modified or sanctioned) every class of men within the limits of this great empire; and which shall provide, that every person who shall hereafter touch any portion of the British territory, without exception or limitation, shall be ipso facto, free.

Slavery in Penang

In Penang, or Prince of Wales’s Island, there is said to be about 3,000 slaves; and it is evident from an inspection of official papers, that an active slave trade has been carried on for the purpose of recruiting their numbers. To the Rev. Mr. Boucho, Mis. Apos. we are indebted for denouncing this traffic to the government in 1828, when he drew the attention of the resident councillor, Mr. [Robert] Ibbetson, to the fact that a Chinese junk, from the west coast of Sumatra, had “imported into the island not less than eighty captives from Pulo Nias,” who had been “sold to different Chinese;” and that a few of the young girls had been seen in the houses, “entertained by some Chinese, for the purpose of prostitution”. This communication led to the discovery of three other junks, which had arrived between the 1st of May and the 19th of June, 1828, having on board nineteen slaves, sixteen of whom were recovered after they had been sold. Orders were given by the government for the prosecution of the offenders. It appears that the original cargoes of these junks consisted of “100 persons, most of whom were afterwards landed and disposed of at different Malayan ports”. The Chinese engaged in the odious traffic belonged to Penang, and were consequently British subjects.

On application, by the president and resident councillor at Penang, to the admiral on the station, to adopt measures “best calculated to put an end to these illegal traffickings,” he replied that he regretted to find that his power was “too circumscribed to be made available in any way that could tend to the attainment of so desirable an object”.

The result of the trial of the Chinese slave-traders is not given in the official papers.

In 1830, we learn by a minute recorded by the president (Mr Fullerton) “that the practice of importing slave debtors clandestinely still continues; that persons so imported are procured by Nakodhas of Prahus, and other native vessels from the adjacent islands, mostly from Bali; that they are procured exactly in the same manner as regular slaves, by purchase, money or goods in barter ; that they are frequently the captives taken by pirates;” and “ that they are imported, to all intents and purposes, as articles of trade”.

The President finds a “few redeeming qualities,” besides the argument which may be drawn from the long-established custom and usage of these countries, in favour of slavery in Penang. He observes, “the slavery or service is entirely domestic, and not partaking of the severe labour exacted from the slaves of our West India colonies.” But he adds, “the proportion between the sexes in this settlement, according to the last census was, males – , females –, (numbers not given), and the small number of the latter has always been considered one great cause of crime. The emigration of females from China is not allowed; from India it is repugnant to Hindoo ideas; of indigenous Malays the proportion between the sexes is nearly equal. It is only, therefore, from females imported under the present system that the population can arise out of the progressive addition of new settlers; and it will be recollected, that the female slaves imported into Penang from Pulo Nias, before the operation of the slave laws, are the mothers of the whole indigenous population of Prince of Wales’s Island. I mention these circumstances,” said the President, “as forming part of the subject, but by no means to urge them as arguments in favour of the continuance of a practice in which evil so far predominates; for giving all weight to the above consideration, it must be admitted, also, that the practice of female slave dealing is liable to, and often attended with, circumstances of depravity that far outweigh the advantages on the other side. Setting aside all considerations of local policy, we are, no doubt, bound by every obligation, legal as well as moral, to put down a practice which, however conducted in form, is, in reality, slave-dealing forbidden by law, and the continuance of which must carry with it a continuation of all the horrors induced by it in other places, as exemplified in the case of African slave-dealing, the encouragement to wars for the purpose of making captives for sale, and, in these seas, even the piracies which it encourages, slaves being often the principal object in view. When the habit is inveterate, and in a place like Singapore affording the best market for slaves as well as every other saleable article, the suppression will not be an easy matter, and much evasion, particularly by Chinese, will probably take place, notwithstanding all our endeavours to suppress it.” The President then recommends that the practice of slave-trading be forbidden, that the Registrar of imports and exports should report suspicious cases ; but adds, “When so little actual control is exercised over the trade, there being no Custom House at these ports, I know of no other measures that can be taken to repress the practice”.

In reference to the unfortunate and wretched beings who had been illicitly imported into Penang, Mr. Fullerton observes: “There cannot be a doubt that all so situated are ipse facto free”...“but it must be here considered,” he remarks, “that, although many be detained against their consent, and even ill-treated, that many are also satisfied with their situation,” and therefore “any direct interposition by the government would be objectionable!” We quote no farther; but merely observe that this gentleman urges a variety of arguments in favour of letting matters alone, and concludes his long article with these remarkable words: “When called upon, we do all that can reasonably be done for the amelioration of the habits of our people, and their gradual advancement in the scale of civilization”!

Before we close this brief notice of slavery and the slave-trade in Penang and Singapore, we feel it to be our duty to advert to one fact which illustrates the spirit which too frequently pervades the government of the distant possessions of this country; and how little of warm and hearty co-operation may be expected from the resident functionaries, in correcting the grossest abuses which exist, and in putting down practices which are not less inhuman than they are illegal. It appears that in Malacca there had been established a paper, entitled the “Malacca Observer,” and in Singapore another called the “Singapore Chronicle”. Both of these publications issued from the mission press. The editor of the former felt it to be his duty to animadvert strongly on the existence of slavery in Malacca; this was construed into a great offence, by the local government, on the representation of the slave-holders, and he was obliged to discontinue it. The columns of the “Singapore Chronicle” were, however, open to him; and through that medium he continued his attack on the evil, but was not long permitted to do so, for, in a despatch of Mr. Secretary Patullo, Malacca, to the resident councillor at Singapore, the Hon. K. Murchiston, dated 20th of November, 1829, we find that he was “directed to desire that no observations bearing on the question of local slavery at Malacca, be for the present permitted to appear in the “Singapore Chronicle!” Besides which a communication was made on the same day by the same gentleman to the managing school committee at Malacca to the following effect: “The attention of the honourable the Governor in council has been called to a publication in the “Singapore Chronicle”, signed, “The late Editor of the Malacca Observer,” adverting, in a most improper and offensive style on the discussions on the slave question, which have lately created so much interest in this settlement. It is known that the person, signing himself as above, is employed as schoolmaster at Malacca, under your superintendence, and paid by means of the monthly allowance granted by government for schools. I am, therefore, directed to call your particular attention to this point, and to acquaint you, that should any future publication adverting to slavery, and emanating from the same person, appear hereafter, the allowance will be immediately withdrawn by government”. What grounds the Governor in council had for complaint against the editor of the “Malacca Observer,” in the absence of the articles which appear to have given them so much annoyance, we know not, but had that gentleman charged them with having thrown in the way of Mr. Garling, the resident councillor at Malacca, every obstacle to the accomplishment of his laudable purposes to suppress the slave trade, and to secure liberty to the slaves illegally held in bondage, he would have only stated the simple truth, and deserved the thanks of every philanthropist.

*“Pulo Nias” lies off the western coast of Aceh.

* “Nakodhas” may refer to people from the Makassar region.

* Robert Fullerton was governor of Prince of Wales Island in 1824-1826. He became the first governor of the Straits Settlements when this was formed in 1826 and stayed until 1829, after which the colony was run from Singapore. The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore carries his name.

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