On our heritage walk through Chitpore Road, we talk about the largely unknown topic of the existence of active Slave Markets in Calcutta in the mid-18th century. Slaves, brought by Portuguese and Burmese traders and pirates, were actively bought and sold throughout Calcutta, mostly on the riverfronts as well as in some places in the outskirts of the city. Budge Budge, just south of Calcutta, for example, was where the Portuguese slave ships often moored, after which their shipments were brought to Calcutta by road, or on small river boats.

The slaves brought to Calcutta were generally acquired through piracy. The Bay of Bengal was once a hotbed for pirates from a wide range of nationalities. The most notorious of them were the groups led by the Mog (Burmese), the Portuguese, and occasionally the Dutch, who plundered ships in the commercial highway that the Bay of Bengal then was, and sold the survivors into slavery. Apart from this, pirate ships, and often Dutch, English, and French commercial vessels as well, would sometimes go rogue and plunder the coastal countryside, imprisoning men and women. These captive “slaves”, both men and women, were then sold off in various ports, ending up as domestic servants, cooks, barbers, coach drivers, entertainers. There was a large demand for African slaves (known as Coffree or Kafri) in some of these port towns. These Africans were generally brought by ships returning from Europe, picked up as they made their way to India or Southeast Asia around the Cape of Good Hope, hugging the infamous slavers’ coast of West Africa.

Apart from these groups of slaves, in Calcutta there were two other types of slaves available in the market: impoverished members of the fledgeling Eurasian community (Anglo-Indians, in the current sense of the term); and rarely, penniless Englishmen and other poor Europeans, who voluntarily entered the slave market and made their services available. These two groups wanted to escape their precarious social and economic positions, which were, at least for the Eurasian community, beyond their control, and slavery provided them with some sort of security and ensured that they would be fed and housed by their masters.

Today, when I was researching my upcoming new walk on Crime, Gambling, and Destitution in early Calcutta, I came across a few interesting slave trade-related advertisements that were printed and circulated throughout the city in the 1780s. I am re-publishing a few of them here (From Long, 1852):

Two Coffrees who can play very well on the French Horn and are otherwise Handy and Useful about a house relative to the business of a Consumer, or that of a Cook; they must not be fond of liquor.
Any person or persons having such a dispose of, will be treated with by applying to the Printer.

A Coffree Slave Boy; any person desire of disposing of such a boy and can warrant him a faithful and honest servant, will please to apply to the Printer.

Two French Horn Men, who dress hair and shave; and wait at the table.

A Fine Coffree Boy that understands the business of a butler, kitmugar and cooking. Price Four Hundred Sicca Rupees. Any gentleman wanting such a servant, may see him, and be informed of further particulars by applying to the Printer.

From the service of his Mistress, a Slave Boy aged twenty years, or thereabout, pretty white or colour of musty, tall and slender, broad between the cheek bones, and marked with the small pox. It is requested that no one after the publication of this will employ him, as a writer, or in any other capacity, and any person or persons who will apprehend him and give notice thereof to the Printer of this paper, shall be rewarded for their trouble.

From the house of Mr Robert Duncan in the China Bazar on Thursday last, a Coffree boy about twelve years old named Inday; who ever brings back the same shall receive the Reward of the Gold Mohur.

On one occasion in 1781, we also come across an advertisement published by the Portuguese Church of Calcutta (The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary) to dispose of two African slave boys owned by a deceased Portuguese priest.

Two Coffree Boys who play remarkably well on the French Horn, about eighteen years of age, belonging to a Portuguese Paddrie lately deceased. For particulars, enquire of the Vicar of the Portuguese Church.

The Slavery Abolition Act passed in the British Parliament in 1833 made the purchase and ownership of slaves illegal throughout the British Empire  –  except for the territories governed by the East India Company, including Ceylon and the South Atlantic island of St. Helena. The East India Company lobbied the British Parliament relentlessly during the proceedings leading up to the passage of this Act. The Company argued that what existed in its territories in South Asia was something called Free Labour (a vague concept in itself) and not slavery, as encountered in the sugar colonies of the Caribbean. Slavery, as understood in the West, would finally be outlawed in India by the East India Company in 1843, after a sustained debate leading to the passage of the Indian Slavery Act. However, this act failed to recognise the existence of perpetual debt-bondage, where bonded labour is ensured against the non-payment of a debt. This had co-existed with what was understood to be slavery in the West. Since this Act failed to abolish bonded servitude reinforced by debt, the abolition did not really bring emancipation to many.

This article first appeared on the writer’s Medium page.