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SLAVERY IN THE GRAND ROYAL PALACE OF THE "INVINCIBLE AND BEAUTIFUL ARCHANGEL."1
ONE morning in the early part of May, 1863, I went at the usual hour to my temple school-room, and found that all my pupils had gone to the Maha P'hra Sâât to attend a religious ceremony, at which I also was requested to be present.
Following the directions of one of the flower-girls, I turned into a long, dark alley, through which I hurried, passing into another, and keeping, as I thought, in the right direction. These alleys brought me at last into one of those gloomy walled streets, into which no sunlight ever penetrated, and which are to be found only in Bangkok, the farther end of which seemed lost in mist and darkness.
Stone benches, black with moss and fungi, lined it at intervals, and a sort of pale night-grass covered the pathway. There was not a soul to be seen throughout its whole length, which appeared very natural, for it did not seem as if the street were made for any one to walk in, but as if it were intended to be kept secluded from public use. I walked on, however, looking for some opening out of it, and hoping every moment to find an exit. But I suddenly came to the end. It was a cul-de-sac, and a high brick wall barred my further progress.
In the middle of this wall was set a door of polished brass. The shadow of a tall and grotesque façade rested upon the wall and on the narrow deserted street, like an immense black pall. The solitude of the place was strangely calm. With that frightful din and roar of the palace life so near, the silence seemed almost supernatural It cast a shadow of distrust over me. I almost felt as if that wall, that roof with its towering front, were built of the deaf stones spoken of in Scripture. All at once the wind rattled the dry grass on the top of the wall, making a low, soft, mournful noise. I started from my revery, hardly able to account for the feeling of dread that crept over me. Half ashamed of my idle fears, I pushed at the door with all my might. Slowly, noiselessly, the huge door swung back, and I stepped into a paved court-yard, with a garden on one side and a building suggestive of nocturnal mystery and gloom on the other.
The façade of this building was still more gloomy than that on the outside of the wall. All the windows were closed. On the upper story the shutters were like those used in prisons. No other house could be seen. The high wall ran all round and enclosed the garden. The walks were bordered with diminutive Chinese trees, planted in straight rows; grass covered half of them, and moss the rest.
Nothing could be imagined more wild and more deserted than this house and this garden. But the object that attracted my immediate attention was a woman, the only animate being then visible to me in the apparent solitude. She was seated beside a small pond of water, and I soon discovered that she was not alone, but was nursing a naked child about four years old.
The moment the woman became conscious of my presence, she raised her head with a quick, impetuous movement, clasped her bare arms around the nude form at her breast, and stared at me with fixed and defiant eyes. Her aspect was almost terrifying; She seemed as if hewn out of stone and set there to intimidate intruders. She was large, well made, and swarthy; her features were gaunt and fierce, but looked as if her face might once have been attractive. I relaxed my hold of the door; it swung back with a dull, ominous thud, and I stood half trembling beside the dark, defiant woman, whose eyes only gave any indication of vitality, hoping to prevail upon her to show me my way out of that dismal solitude.
The moment I approached her, however, I was seized with inexpressible dismay; pity and astonishment, mingling with a sense of supreme indignation, held me speechless for a time. She was naked to the waist, and chained, — chained like a wild beast by one leg to a post driven into the ground, and without the least shelter under that burning sky.
The chain was of cast-iron, and heavy, consisting of seven long double-links, attached to a ring, and fitted close to the right leg just above the ankle; it was secured to the post by a rivet. Under her lay a tattered fragment of matting, farther on a block of wood for a pillow, and on the other side were several broken Chinese umbrellas.
Growing more and more bewildered, I sat down and looked at the woman in a sort of helpless despair. The whole scene was startlingly impressive; the apathy, the deadness, and the barbarous cruelty of the palace life, were never more strikingly brought before me face to face. Here there was no doubting, no denying, no questioning the fact that this unhappy creature was suffering under some cruel wrong, which no one cared to redress. Naked to the waist, her long filthy hair bound in dense masses around her brow, she sat calmly, uncomplainingly, under a burning tropical sun, such as we children of a more temperate clime can hardly imagine, fierce, lurid, and scorching, nursing at her breast a child full of health and begrimed with dirt, with a tenderness that would have graced the most high-born gentlewoman.
I remained long and indignantly silent, before I could find voice for the questions that rose to my lips. But at length I inquired her name. "Pye-sia" (begone), was her fierce reply.
"Why art thou thus chained? Wilt thou not tell me?" I pleaded.
"Pye" (go), said the woman, snatching her breast impatiently from the sucking child, and at the same time turning her back upon me.
The child set up a tremendous scream, which was reechoed through the strange place. The woman turned and took him into her arms; and as if there were an indwelling persuasiveness about them, he was quieted in an instant
Rocking him to and fro, with her face resting against his unwashed cheek, she was no longer repulsive, but glorious, clothed in the beauty and strength of a noble human love. I rose respectfully from the low wall of the pond, where I had seated myself, and took my place on the heated pavement beside the woman and her child; then as gently and as kindly as I could I asked his name and age.
"He is four years old," she replied, curtly.
"And his name?"
"His name is Thook" (Sorrow), said the woman, turning away her face.
"And why hast thou given him such a name?"
"What is that to thee, woman?" was the sharp rejoinder.
After this she relapsed into a grim silence, seeming to gaze intently into the empty air. But at length there came a sob, and she passed her bare arms slowly across her eyes. This served as a signal for the little fellow to begin to scream again, which he did most lustily; the woman, after quieting him, turned to me, and to my great surprise began to talk of her own accord, with but few questions on my part.
"Hast thou come here to seek me, lady? Has the Naikodah, my husband, sent thee? Tell me, is he well? Hast thou come to buy me? Ah! lady! will thou not buy me? Will thou not help me to get my pardon?"
"Tell me why thou art chained. What is thy crime?"
This seemed a terrible question for the poor woman. In vain she attempted to speak; her lips moved, but uttered no sound, her features quivered, and with one convulsive movement she threw up her arms and burst into an agony of tears. She sobbed passionately for some time, then, passing into a quieter mood, turned to me and said, bitterly: "Do you want to know of what crime I am accused? It is the crime of loving my husband and seeking to be with him."
"But what induced you to become a slave?"
"I was born a slave, lady. It was the will of Allah."
"You are a Mohammedan then?"
"My parents were Mohammedans, slaves to the father of my mistress, Chow Chom Manda Ung. When we were yet young, my brother and I were sent as slaves to her daughter, the Princess P'hra Ong Brittry."
"If you can prove that your parents were Mohammedans, I can help you, I think; because all the Mohammedans here are under British protection, and no subject of Britain can be a slave."
"But, lady, my parents sold themselves to my mistress's grandfather."
"That was your father's debt, which your mother and father have paid over and over again by a life of faithful servitude. You can insist upon your mistress accepting your purchase-money."
"Insist," said the woman, her large, dark eyes glowing with the tears still glistening in them. "You do not know what you say. You do not know that my mistress, Chow Chom Manila Ung, is mother-in-law to the king, and that her daughter, Princess P'hra Ong Brittry, is his favorite hall-sister and queen. My only hope lies in a special pardon from my mistress herself."
"And your friends," said I, "do they know nothing of your cruel captivity?"
"Nothing, indeed. I have no opportunity to speak even to the slave-woman whose duty it is to feed us daily. And her lot is too sad already for her to be willing to run any great risk for me. The secrecy and mystery of my sudden diSâppearance have been preserved so long because I am chained here. No one comes here but my mistress, and she only visits this place occasionally, with the most tried and trusted of her slave-women."
Eleven o'clock boomed like a death-knell through the solitude. The woman laid herself down beside her sleeping boy to rest, apparently worn out with a sense of her misery. I placed my small umbrella over them; and this simple act of kindness so touched the poor thing, that she started up suddenly, and, before I could prevent her, passionately kissed my soiled and dusty shoes.
I was so sorry for the unhappy creature that tears filled my eyes. "My sister," said I, "tell me your whole story, and I will lay it before the king."
The woman started up and adjusted the umbrella over the sleeping child. Her eyes beamed with a fire as if from above, while with wonderful power, combined with sweetness and delicacy, she repeated her sad tale.
"There is sorrow in my heart, lady, where once there was nothing but passive endurance. In my soul I now hear whisperings of things that are between heaven and earth, yea, and beyond the heaven of heavens, where once there was nothing but blind obedience. Unconscious of the beauty of life, my heart was as if frozen and inert until I met the Naikodah, my husband. Lady, as I told you, I and my brother were born slaves; and so faithful were we, that my brother obtained, as proof of the trust my lady reposed in him, the charge of a rice plantation at Ayudia, while I was promoted to be the chief attendant of the Princess P'hra Ong Brittry.
"One day my mistress intrusted to my care a bag of money, to purchase some Bombay silk of the Naikodah Ibrahim. As it was the first time for many years that I had been permitted to quit the gates of the gloomy palace, I felt on that day as if I had come into the world anew, as if my previous life had been nothing but a dream; and my recollections of that day are always present to my mind, and saying to me, 'Remember how happy you were, once, be patient now.'
"Oh! On that day the Mèinam splashed and rippled more enchantingly, seemed broader and more beautiful, than ever! The green leaves and buds seemed to have burst forth all of a sudden. How beautifully green the grass was, and how clearly and joyously the birds on the bushes and in the trees poured forth their song, as if purposely for me, while from the distant plain across the river floated the aromatic breath of new-blown flowers, filling me with inexpressible delight! I was silent with a feeling of supreme happiness. On that day a new light had risen in the east, a light which was to enlighten and to darken all my coming life.
"We moored our boat by the bank of the river, and made our way to the shop of the Naikodah, which my companions entered, while I sat outside on the steps until the bargain should be completed. My companions and the merchant could come to no terms. I entered with the bag of money, hoping by the sight of the silver to induce him to sell the silk for the price offered; but on entering I seemed to be dazzled by something, I know not what. The merchant's eyes flashed upon me, as it were, with a look of recollection, and by their expression reminded me of some face I had seen in my infancy, or, perhaps, in my dreams. I drew my faded, tattered scarf more tightly around my chest, and sat down silent and wondering, not daring to ask myself where I had seen that face before, or why it produced such an effect upon me.
"After a great deal of talking and bargaining about the silk, we came away without it, but the next day went again to the merchant and purchased it at his own price. I was surprised, however, to find that, when I paid him the money, he left five ticals in my hands. 'That is our kumrie' (perquisite), said the women, snatching the ticals out of my hand and pocketing them. Time after time we repeated our visits to the merchant, who was constantly kind and respectful in his manner towards me. He always left five ticals for us. My companions took the money, but I persistently refused to share in this pitiful kind of profit.
A SIAMESE FLOWER-GIRL
"The merchant began to observe me more closely, and, as I thought, to take an interest in me, and one day, after we had purchased some boxes of fragrant candles and wax-tapers, and I had paid him the full price for his goods, he left twenty ticals on the floor beside me. My companions called my attention to the money; when the merchant, observing my unwillingness to receive it, took up fifteen ticals, leaving the usual kumrie of five upon the floor, which my companions picked up and appropriated.
"We returned, as was our custom, by the river, slowly paddling our little canoe down the broad and beautiful stream, and enjoying every moment of our permitted freedom. I was sorely unwilling to return to the palace; I was even tempted to plunge into the water and make good my escape; but the responsibility of the money intrusted to my care made me hesitate, and the tranquil surface of the Mèinam, broken only by its circling ripples, helped to dissipate my wicked thoughts. Still I indulged, though almost unconsciously, the hope of obtaining my freedom some day, without even forming a thought as to how it could ever be accomplished. How or why I began to think of getting free I know not. I seemed to inhale a longing for freedom with the fragrance of flowers wafted to me on the fresh, invigorating air; every tree in blossom, every wild flower clothed in its splendor of red and orange, made me dream as naturally of liberty as it did of love; and I prayed for freedom for the first time in my life, even as for the first time I felt the strength of a supreme emotion overpowering me."
Here the woman paused for a few moments, and I was surprised to find that she expressed herself so well, until I remembered that the princesses of Siam make it a special point to educate the slaves born in their household, so that in most Oriental accomplishments they generally surpass the common people who may have become slaves by purchase. There was something very simple and attractive in the way she spoke of herself, and throughout our whole interview she manifested such gentleness and resignation that she completely won my affection and pity.
After a while she smiled sadly, and said softly: "Ah, lady! we all love God, and we are all loved by him; yet he has seen fit to make some masters and others slaves. Strange as the delusion may appear to you, who are free and perfectly happy, while the slave is not happy, the more impossible seemed the realization of my hope of freedom, the more I thought of it and longed for it.
"One day a slave-woman came to my mistress with some new goods from the Naikodah, and on seeing me she begged for a drink of water and some cere (betel-leaf). As I handed her the water, she said to me in a low tone: 'Thou art a Moslem; free thyself from this bondage to an unbelieving race. Take from my master the price of thy freedom; come out of this Naiwang (palace) and be restored to the true people of God.'
"I listened in amazement, fearing to break the enchanting spell of her words, and hardly believing that I had heard aright. She quitted me suddenly, fearful of exciting suspicion, and left me in such a disturbed state of mind as I had never before experienced. My thoughts flew hither and thither like birds overtaken by a sudden storm, flapping their silent and despairing wings against the closed and barred gates of my prison. I found comfort only in trusting to the Great Heart above, and with the instinct of all sufferers I turned at once to him.
"When I saw the woman a second time I embraced the opportunity to say to her, 'Sister, tell me, how shall I obtain my purchase-money? Will not thy master hold me as his slave?'
" 'He will give thee the money, and will never repent having freed a Moslem and the daughter of a believer from slavery.'
" 'O thou angel of life!' said I, clasping her to my throbbing heart, 'I am already his slave.'
"She released my arms from around her neck, and, taking some silver from her scarf, tied it firmly into mine without another word; and I, fearing lest I should be discovered with so much money in my possession, came here by night and hid it under this very pavement on which we are seated.
"Some weeks after we were sent again to the Naikodah to buy some sandal-wood tapers and flowers for the cremation of the young Princess P'hra Ong O'Dong. I never was so conscious of the shabbiness of my dress as when I entered the presence of the good merchant. We made our purchase, paid the money, and as I rose to depart, my friend D'hamni, the slave-woman who had been employed by the Naikodah to speak to me, beckoned me to come into an inner chamber. I was followed by her master, who addressed himself to me, and said, — I remember the words so well, — ' L'ore! thou art of form so beauteous, and of spirit so guileless, thou hast awakened all my love and pity. See, here is the money thou hast just paid me; double the price of thy freedom, and forget not thy deliverer.'
" 'May Allah prosper thee!' said D'hamni.
"I was overwhelmed; my astonishment and my gratitude at his goodness knew no bounds. I tried to speak; my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth as if held back by an evil genius; I could not give utterance to a single word in expression of my feelings. My heart heaved, my eyes glowed, my cheeks burned, my blushes came and went, showing the depth of my emotion, and I burst into tears. I returned to the palace, hid the money, and waited my opportunity.
"Thus I lived in bondage within and bondage without. Freedom within my grasp and slavery in my heart. 'I am more a slave than ever,' said I to myself; 'alas! the servitude of the heart, the sweet, feverish servitude of love, who will ransom me from these? Who can buy me freedom from these? Henceforth and forever I am the good merchant's slave.'
"I waited my time like a lover lying in wait for his mistress, like a mother watching the return of an only child, and I waited long and anxiously, praying to God, calling him Allah! calling him Buddha! Father! Goodness! Compassion! praying for liberty only, praying only for freedom.
"One day my mistress, Chow Chom Manda Ung, was so kind and pleasant to me that I believed my opportunity had come. I seized it, threw myself at her feet, and said, 'Lady dear, be pitiful to thy child, hear but her prayer. It is the only desire of her heart, the dream of thy slave's life. As the thirsty traveller beholds afar off the everlasting springs of water, as the dying man has foretastes of immortality, even so thy slave L'ore has, through thy goodness, tasted of freedom, and would more fully drink of the cup, if thou in thy bountiful goodness would but let her go free. Here is the price of my freedom, dear lady; be pitiful, and set me free.'
" 'Thou wert born my slave,' said my lady, 'I will take no money for thee.'
" 'Take double, lady dear, but O, let me go!'
" 'If thou wishest to be married,' said my mistress, ' I will find thee a good and able husband, and thou shalt bear me children, even as thy mother did before thee; but I will not let thee go free.'
'In my despair I prayed, I entreated, with tears blinding my eyes. I promised that my children yet unborn should be her slaves, if she would only let me go.
"It was all in vain. I gathered up my silver and returned to my slave's life, hopelessly defeated. I soon recovered from my disappointment, however, because I was strengthened by the determination to escape at the first opportunity that offered itself to me. This enabled me to bear my captivity bravely. My mistress distrusted me for a long time; my companions, seeing that I had fallen into disgrace, pitied me, but I did my best to show myself willing, obedient, and cheerful, until, when nearly two whole years had passed away, my mistress gradually took me again into her confidence, and at last arranged a marriage for me with Nai Tim, one of her favorite men-slaves. To all her plans I offered not a word of objection. I pretended that I was really pleased at the prospect of being free to spend six months of every year with my husband.
"The day before my marriage I was sent to see Nai Tim's mother, with a small present from my mistress. Two strong women accompanied me. Hidden in my p'ha nung (under-skirt) was my purchase-money. As soon as we entered my future mother-in-law's house, I requested permission to speak with her alone. Supposing that I had some private communication to make to her from my mistress, she took me into the back part of the house, and I seated myself on the edge of the bamboo raft, which kept her little hut afloat on the Mèinam, rushing by so strong and swift. "Without giving her time to think, I told her my whole story from beginning to end, put the money into her hands, and before the startled woman could refuse or remonstrate I plunged with one sudden bound into the bosom of the broad river. I heard a shriek above me as I disappeared under the waters that received me into their cool, refreshing depths.
"How desperately I swam through the strong currents, coming up to the surface from time to time to draw a long breath, then diving back into its protecting shelter again! Finding my strength failing me, I made for the opposite bank, climbed its steep sides, and dried my clothes in the soft, delicious breezes that came upon me as if just let free from the highest heavens. Filled with the inspiration of freedom and of love, I had accomplished that which had been the beginning and the ending of all my thoughts for so long a time. For one moment it seemed to me an impossibility, but on the next m joy was so excessive that I stooped down and kissed the earth, and then laughed outright.
"From day to day my soul had been slowly withering away, now it blossomed forth afresh as if it had never known a moment of sorrow. My glad laughter came back to me, and in very truth, lady, I shall never again rejoice and sing in the desert places of my heart, or in the solitary places of my native land, as I did on that day. In my extreme emotion I forgot that night was a possibility. I could do nothing but rejoice. Suddenly the sun set. The night descended Darkness covered the earth as with a mantle; the wind began to blow in gusts; I heard strange sounds, — sounds which seemed to come, not from the earth, but from some frightful realm beyond. But I knew there were angels who heard the cries of human distress. I prayed to them to come and hover near me, and as I prayed a deep sleep came upon me.
"When I woke the stars were in the sky, but the strange noises disturbed me so that I fell on my knees and cried, 'God! where art thou? O, bring the day! come with thy swift chariot and bring the light! come and help thy unworthy handmaiden!' 'To believe,' says the prophet, 'is to have the world renewed every day/ So in answer to my prayer came the angel Gibhrayeel and snatched away the dark mantle of P'hra Khām (the god of night), and swift came P'hra Athiet (the god of day), scattering the shadowy monsters of the world of night, and making his glory fill my heart with praise, even as it filled my glad eyes with light.
"I had been dazzled with the idea of liberty, I had thought only of getting free. But now came the questions, Where shall I go? Who will employ me? And the answer was clear to me. There was no one in all this vast city to whom I could turn but the merchant and his slave-woman D'hamni, and to them I went. It was evening when I entered the hut of the slave D'hamni, footsore, hungry, and weary. D'hamni was overjoyed to see me; she gave me food and shelter and her best robe.
"Some days after the good merchant came to visit me. I felt dimly that the hardness of my heart would be complete if I resisted his kindness. To his celestial tenderness I opposed no word of doubt, yet I could not believe that the rich merchant would marry an outcast slave like me.
"One morning I found robes of pure white in my humble shed, in which D'hamni proceeded to array me. After which she brought me into the presence of the Moolah (Mohammedan priest), the merchant, and a few trusty friends.
"The Moolah quietly put down his hookah (pipe), stood up, and, putting his hands before his face, uttered a short prayer. After this he took the end of my saree (scarf) and bound it securely to the end of the merchant's angrakah (coat), gave us water in which had been dipped the myrtle and jessamine flower, placed a ring of gold on my finger, blessed us, and departed. That was our marriage ceremony.
"During all the days that followed I moved about as one drunk with strong wine; I enjoyed every moment; I thanked God for the sun, the beautiful summer days, the radiant yellow sky, the fresh dawn, and the dewy eve. Light, pure light, shone upon me, and filled my soul with intense delight, and it blossomed out into the perfect flower of happiness.
"One day, about three or four months after my marriage, as I was seated on the steps of my home, I thought I heard a voice whisper in my ear. I had hardly time to turn when I was seized, gagged, bound hand and foot, and brought back to this place. As soon as I was taken into her presence, my mistress had me chained to this post, but caused me to be released when my time of delivery approached. A month after his birth," pointing to the sleeping boy, "I was chained here again, and my child was brought to me to nurse; this was done until he could come to me alone. But they are not unkind; when it is very wet the slave-woman takes him to sleep under the shelter of her little shed.
"I could free myself from these chains if I would promise never to quit the palace. That I will never do." She said this in a feeble and almost inarticulate voice. It was her last effort to speak. Her head drooped upon her breast as if an invisible power overwhelmed her at a blow; she fell exhausted upon the stones, her hands clasped, her face buried in the dust.
It was a strange sight, and possible only in Siam. Certainly great misfortunes as well as great affections develop the intelligence, else how had this slave-woman reached the elevation to which she had evidently attained?
But excess of sorrow had made her almost visionary. When I tried to comfort her, she turned her haggard face with its worn-out, weary look upon me, and asked if she had been dreaming. Her brain seemed to be in such an abnormal yet frightfully calm condition, that she half believed she was in a dream, and that her life was not a frightful reality. It was out of my power to comfort her, but I left her with a hope that grew brighter as I retraced my steps out of that weird place.
After some tiresome wanderings I found my way out of the place at last. When I reached the school-room it was twelve o'clock, and my pupils were waiting.
In the afternoon of the same day I went to the house of the Naikodah Ibrahim, and told him that I had seen his wife and child. He was much affected when he heard they were still alive, and was moved to tears when I told him of their sad condition
That night a deputation of Mohammedans, headed by the Moolah Hâdjee Bâbâ, waited upon me; we drew up a petition to the king, after which I retired, thankful that I was not a Siamese subject.
1 This is the official title of the royal palace at Bangkok.