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THE SIAMESE SYSTEM OF SLAVERY.1
UNDER the late king, his Majesty Somdetch P'hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, there existed in Siam a mixed system of slavery, in part resembling the old system of English feudal service, in part the former serfdom of Russia, and again in part the peonage of Mexico. Three fourths of the population of Siam are in this condition of modified slavery, branded with the mark of their owners, or held by their creditors in a form of qualified servitude to work out a debt. The royal family, princes, and chief rulers and magistrates of the country, are the only exceptions to this rule. But even they are obliged to serve the king in times of war, or to provide a fitting substitute.
"Slaves," in the minute subdivisions of the law, are classed under seven different heads: first, prisoners of war; second, slaves by purchase; third, slaves by birth; fourth, by gifts and legacies; fifth, those who become slaves from gratitude; sixth, voluntary slaves in times of famine: seventh, debtors and their children.
But these may all be embraced in three general classes, called Prie, Baw, and Bâtt, that of slaves by birth and attached to the land, of slaves by purchase, and of slaves captured in war.
The prisoners of war and their descendants are composed of the following nations and numbers: Malays, fifty thousand; Cochin-Chinese, seventy-five thousand; Peguans, one million; Laotians, twenty-five thousand; and Birmese, fifty thousand. All these, with few exceptions, belong to the kings of Siam. Some few are given to the principal nobles and chiefs who have distinguished themselves in the state; but even these, with their descendants, are held as Baw Chow Chewitt, the king's slaves. The Cochin-Chinese captured in war, and all their numerous descendants, belong exclusively to the second king, the first or supreme king having a positive antipathy to that people. They are formed into an army under the command of the second king, to guard his person, palaces, harem, etc.
The Malays and Peguans are employed as sailors and soldiers in company with the native Siamese. These are all branded on the left side a little below the armpit, and they are bound to serve three months in every year; the remaining time they may employ in their own private interests.
The slaves by purchase are divided into two classes, "redeemable" and "irredeemable." The first class must furnish security that they will fulfil the legal requirements of their masters. These can always free themselves by refunding the purchase-money, or can change their masters on procuring payment of the sum due to the old masters.
The second class are chiefly young girls sold by their parents, relatives, or owners; with these no security is either given or taken, because they generally become the wives or concubines of the buyer. As a natural consequence more than four fifths abscond whenever they get an opportunity, and the owner has no redress. Women-slaves are not branded or enrolled as the men-slaves are.
Husbands may sell their wives, parents their children, and masters their slaves and debtors; but no one can sell an adult man-slave after he is sixteen, or a woman-slave after she has attained puberty, without his or her consent
Prices of slaves vary according to the appearance, color, strength, physical proportions, and parentage of the person sold, from one hundred and twenty ticals for men, and sixty to a hundred ticals2 for women. But if the woman be fair and pleasing in form and feature, she will bring as much as a thousand ticals for the harem of a great noble.
The method of selling one's self is very simple. Every man, on becoming a slave, signs an agreement, of which I give a copy below. This paper his master retains, but is obliged to surrender whenever the slave produces the amount mentioned in it.
"Wednesday, the seventh day of the waning moon of the year 1227 of the little era Choola Sakarat,3 I, Khow, sell myself to Nai Dang for ticals one hundred and twenty, to be refunded by me, Khow, at the time and hour of being set free."
Such is the bill of sale. But as it generally happens that the parents have also sold themselves, some other security is required, which is given in another paper. The value of anything that the slave may break or destroy is added to the original account.
The masters are bound to furnish their slaves with rice and fish daily, but not with clothes.
The position of the slaves by birth differs in no respect from that of slaves by purchase, with the exception that while the prices of the latter vary, the price of the former is fixed by law for every age, size, and sex, and the owners cannot demand more for them than that which is determined by the law.
The severest punishment for slaves is being made to work in chains. If no improvement takes place from this punishment, the slave is handed over to the king's judges, and is, provided the crime or misdemeanor is proven, incarcerated in the Siamese convict prison, a punishment to which death itself is preferable.
The principal hardship that the slave suffers is being obliged to marry at the will of his or her owner, and this with a people who are highly susceptible of conjugal affection is often the cause of great suffering to the women.
Then comes the difficulty of lodging a complaint against their masters for an insufficiency of food, and sometimes for an absolute want of clothes, for which latter even the law does not hold the master responsible.
There are four conditions under which a slave is freed from the obligations of servitude, slaves voluntarily manumitted by their masters; slaves admitted to the priesthood; those who are given to serve the priests; and when the master himself takes the vows of a priest, he is obliged to free all his slaves, as the ecclesiastical court will not otherwise receive him into the priesthood, and he can at no time reclaim them for actual service, unless on quitting the priesthood he repurchases them.
Debtors may be made slaves when they do not pay the interest for money borrowed, and will not work to make good the failure of payment; and in case of death the nearest relative becomes a slave till the original amount, with the interest added, is refunded. The rate of interest in Siam is about thirty per cent, and the poor are unable, unless by labor, to pay such an exorbitant rate.
If the bought or rather the redeemable slave should die in his master's service, even after a lifetime of labor, the security must refund the original sum or become a slave in his stead. If a slave be sick, and is attended to during his illness in his master's house, the security is liable for the interest of the slave's purchase-money during the period of illness. When children are sold under the full value, they must not be beaten till they bleed.
When a slave volunteers out of affection for his or mistress to take his or her place in prison or in torture, one half of his or her purchase-money must be refunded to the security. But if the slave is irredeemable, no part is to be refunded.
If a man sell a slave, and after receiving the money refuse to give him or her up to the purchaser, he shall pay double the sum, three fourths to the buyer and one fourth into the government or state treasury.
If a buyer disapprove of a slave before three months have elapsed, he may recover his money.
If a master strike his slave so that he die, no claim can be made upon the security, and the master shall be punished according to the law.
Anything that a slave may break can be added, at the will of the owner, to the purchase-money.
If in herding cattle he be negligent, and they be lost, he shall pay for them; if more be given into his charge than he can attend to, he shall pay only half; but if robbers bind him and steal the cattle, he cannot be held responsible.
Any claim against a slave must be made by the owner before he is sold to another party.
If a master or mistress force a female slave to marry one man when she has openly professed a preference for another, half her redemption-money must be remitted.
If a slave go to war instead of his master, and fight bravely, he must be set free at the termination of the battle. If he fight only ordinarily well, half his purchase-money shall be remitted.
If a master repurchase a slave, and he die in his service, he can demand only half the original amount from his security.
If a slave begin to plant rice, he cannot, even if able, purchase his freedom until the harvest is over.
If, when rice is dear, a man sell himself to slavery below the standard value, when rice gets cheap the price must be raised, and the balance paid over by the purchaser.
If a slave injure himself while at his master's work, compensation must be made according to the nature of the injury.
If a slave die in the stead or in the defence of his master, nothing can be demanded from the security.
In all cases of an epidemic, nothing can be claimed from the security.
If a man have several wives, and the lesser sell themselves to the higher wives, or the poorer to the richer, no interest can be claimed on the purchase-money, as they are considered sisters in the sight of the law.
If the slave demand a change of masters, and the master cannot dispose of him, he must take him to the judges to sell; and if they find no purchaser within three days, he must return to his master and be thenceforward Khai-Khat, irredeemable.
If a slave run away, the money expended in apprehending him or her must be added to his original account
Slaves having children, the children become slaves, and must be paid for according to age.
If a master compel a slave to bear a child against her will, both she and the child are free in the sight of the law, even if irredeemable at first.
If a slave complain against his master, the judges will not file the complaint unless he has first paid his purchase-money, except in cases of murder and treason.
If a slave accuse his master falsely of capital crimes, his tongue and lips shall be cut off. But if the charge be true, he shall receive his freedom, even if Khai-Khat irredeemables.
If a slave make money on his or her own private account, at his or her death it will become the property of the master. But if the money be left to him, it shall go to the nearest relative.
In all cases of doubt between the slave-woman and her master, the law shall protect the mother, and the children must be given to her if she bring the price, under penalty of forfeiting both mother and child.
Two slaves, husband and wife, brother and sister, having their names on the same bill of sale if one run away, the other shall be charged with the entire debt.
1 For the following statements I am indebted to the late king, who very kindly furnished me with a copy of the Siamese "Slave Laws," from which these pages are translated, as if the system still existed.
2 A tical may be valued at from fifty to sixty cents of the Spanish dollar.
3 The Siamese months are lunar months; each is divided into two parts, i.e. Khang Khun and Khang Ram, waxing and waning moon. Six of the months have thirty, and six twenty-nine days. To compensate for the deficiency of the eleven days which are required to make a full solar year, they have an intercalary month of thirty days once in three years, and there being still a loss of about three days in nineteen years, this is supplied by an arbitrary addition of a day to the seventh month of such years as may be selected by the Brahmin astrologers, whose business it is to observe the sun's path in the heavens, and to announce all variations in the calendar. At the very moment of the sun's crossing the equator, they make proclamation of the advent of each new year, accompanied by a burst of music and by the firing of great guns, both from the palace and the city walls.
The Siamese have two cycles, one within the other; the greater is twelve, and the leaser ten years in duration. Every year in each cycle has its own peculiar name. Their sacred era is reckoned from the time of the death of the Buddha (2415). It is denominated Buddha Sakarat. Their civil era is called Choola Sakarat, and is reckoned from the time of its establishment (1233) by P'hra Rooang, a Siamese king of great celebrity.