Slavery in Southeast Asia, though harsh and brutal in its own right, wasn’t has etched in stone as slavery came to be in the US. While slavery in the US came to mean just one racial group of slaves, in Southeast Asia slavery was more like certain forms of servitude. People who owed debts to the wealthy and who couldn’t pay had to go into bondage and work of their debts. War captives were enslaved, and though they were under extremely harsh conditions for the first generation, after a generation or two the harshness lessened as they assimilated the language and culture of their captors. So called slaves at times even owned their own land, where they produced crops. Concubinage, in the Southeast Asian context, also could be used by slave and serf women as a form of social mobility. As practiced by Southeast Asians, slaves had a lot more mobility and were at sometimes indistinguishable from the lower orders of society.
Slave owners had certain obligations to their slaves in Southeast Asia. Apparently they were often given pocket money. Payment, by itself, is characteristic of servitude, not slavery. The slaves seemingly stayed with their masters because their masters would spend money on them for various ritualistic things, such as marriages (bride prices had to be paid) and funerals. Sometimes this bondage was to a future father-in-law, for allowing a marriage without a bride price, so in fact the service itself became the bride price. These and other obligations formed the nucleus of Southeast Asian societies. Poor people received pay (money, food), while the rich got workers who would be available to them for a long time. This is very different from a permanent class of slaves who are forbidden to intermarry with their owners (this too could happen in Southeast Asia. Obligations to masters also occurred because of punishments for various crimes. Those who committed crimes such as murders could be fine, and if they couldn’t pay the fine they would be sentenced to bondage.
War captives were another category of people to be enslaved. While in general all slaves started out as war captives of some sort, in the Southeast Asian systems, it was also more fluid. The pre existing slaves or servants was elevated by the new surplus of war captives that came in, to the point where the previous servants quite clearly cannot be called slave. The different costumes of these war captives typically kept them, at least for the first generation permanently at the slave level. However, by the second generation, they had completely adopted the language, religious, and lifestyle of their captors.
In agriculture, again, those who were called slaves would be by Western standards called peasants. As Anthony Reid states:
“In agriculture, which is by far the dominant activity in Southeast Asia as a whole, it is much more difficult to speak confidently of long-term slave system of production, even when our sources sources do so. In the nature of these things the farmer has his own house and considerable freedom in the management of his own time. Typically he was married at the time he was put on the land.”
These workers not only had their own homes, but they were given control of a section of land to farm. They had to remit a portion of their produce to the lord, however, this isn’t much different from renting or paying tax.
Female slaves were sold to wealthy men as sex slaves. Their owners could do a variety of things with them, including keep them as regular slaves, use them for sex, make them into official concubines, or even marry them. As a wife of the wealthy man, the former slave’s life was easier than that of a slave doing manual labor. Even the concubines were kept women, so they too led a relatively pampered life. Chinese and European settlers, particularly those who were going to live in the area long term, bought such women to serve them as domestic laborer and sex partner. Some of these men sold their wives as they returned to their homelands, others stayed in Southeast Asia permanently and kept their wives.
The Southeast systems of slavery varied quite a bit. While there could be slaves in the traditional American sense of the world (and there were) at the same time the world slave, as applied by Anthony Reid, seems to more accurately describe people who are peasants, serfs, or just lower class laborers. A number of these people had income, and often chose to go enter a relationship with a lord in order to gain money for expensive ceremonies or rituals. In exchange, they would work for the lord for awhile. While this gave the lord long term work, it gave them income and food over a long period of time. Certain female slaves became wives or concubines, and presumably guaranteed a better life for their children than they would have otherwise had. Of course, there were plenty who didn’t enter bondage voluntarily as well. Overall, the permanent status of slave didn’t exist in Southeast Asia, at least according to Reid.
Reid, Anthony Introduction: Slavery and Bondage in Southeast Asian History p. 8
Reid, Anthony Introduction: Slavery in Southeast Asia p. 8
Ibid., p. 10
Ibid., p. 13
Reid, Anthony Introduction: Slavery in Southeast Asia p. 23
6 Ibid., p 26