Saturday, July 20, 2002
S L I C E  O F  H I S T O R Y

Slavery in medieval India
Pramod Sangar

THE HISTORY of slavery is as old as the history of man. Slavery had existed in India from the earliest times. During the Buddhist period, slaves, who were mainly kept as household servants, were not treated harshly. In the times of Periplus in about 90 AD, slave girls were imported from the Greeco-Bactrian region in the West. In one of the plays of Kalidas, these girls are shown wearing garlands of wild flowers and saluting the king on his arrival.

Though Islam recognises the institution of slavery, it prescribes better treatment of slaves in accordance with the injunctions of the Koran. Slave trade was actively pursued by Islamic countries and Ghazni and Baghdad were reputed centres of slave trade. Slave merchants had a very profitable business as they obtained young as well as grown men on meagre payment, imparted extensive education in martial arts and other household affairs and then sold them at exorbitant prices. The trade was so lucrative that the Mongols, too, were actively engaged in it and used to sell their captives, often in groups, to regular Muslim slave traders.


The slave market was a buyers’ and not a sellers’ market. The buyer chose those he found fit but all were not fortunate enough to be purchased by influential and affluent slave merchants since their latent qualities could not be discerned at first sight. Such was the case with Muhammad Baktiyar Khilji, who was dismissed because of his physical deformity. Minhas-us-Siraj calls him, "a very smart, enterprising, bold, courageous, wise and experienced man." It was he who, with a small contingent, had conquered Bihar and Bengal for his master Qutub-ud-din Aibak.

Under the early Muslim rule, slave trade was actively pursued and when warriors like Mohammad Ghaznavi and Timur plundered India, thousands of prisoners were sold in the bazaars of Samarkand and other Central Asian countries as slaves. But under the Islamic rule, they were treated with kindness and their lives were full of possibilities. A slave could end up becoming a vazir or a prime minister. An example of a slave making a mark in life was of Qutub-ud-din Aibak who founded a dynasty in the 13th century.

Mohammad Gori needed a large number of slaves for his campaigns in India and for administration in and outside India. During his time, Lahore and Delhi rose to be prime centres of slave trade and the Sultan used to purchase slaves in bulk. Mohammad Gori had no son but a daughter and when a courtier said, "Sons are necessary to succeed a sovereign like you," he replied, "Other kings have only a few sons but I have several thousand sons, namely my Turkish slaves, who will rule my kingdom after I am dead and gone."

Some slaves became important nobles and rulers. Another shining example of the phenomenal rise of a slave was that of Khan-i-Jahan Maqbul, who displayed utmost devotion and dedication to his ruler Firuz Tuglaq. A Telang Brahmin who had converted to Islam, he rose to be the finance minister and afterwards the prime minister of the empire even though he was illiterate. He was considered a wizard in financial matters and ‘ruled’ the kingdom in the absence of the Sultan. Under Firuz, a full-fledged department looked after the slaves who were employed for the various administrative and other works by the Sultan. He had about 1,80,000 slaves in his kingdom and they put a considerable burden on the exchequer. Some slaves became artisans and manned the imperial karkhans (workshops). Minhas-us-Siraj held the slaves responsible for the downfall of the Tuglaq dynasty to a considerable extent.

Under the Mughals, the status of the slaves underwent a great change. Akbar checked the trade in slaves. "It had been the custom", writes Abul Fazl, "for the royal troops, in their victorious campaign in India, to forcibly sell and keep in slavery the wives, children and the dependents of the natives. But His Majesty actuated by his religious, prudent and kindly feelings, now issued an order that no soldier of the royal army should act in this manner." Akbar had a contingent of slaves called chelas. None of the military commanders under the Mughals was a slave.

Slavery appears to have been an accepted institution in Portuguese India. "Most of the Portuguese", says Albert. D. Mandelslo, a German itinerant writer, "have many slaves of both sexes, whom they employ not only on and about their persons, but also upon the business they are capable of, for what they get comes with the master. Hence it comes that handsome wenches are sought for to be employed in the selling of fruits and such commodities as Portuguese send to the market, to the end their beauty might draw in customers. The children born between slaves belong to the master, unless the father will redeem them, within eight or ten days after they are born." According to the learned author, Goa had a flourishing slave trade which was carried on by the Portuguese.

Pyrad de Laval, a French traveller, has given a useful testimony of slave trade carried out by the Portuguese. He said slavery was the chief cause of the downfall of Portuguese empire. He speaks of American slaves, "exported to Portugal and to all places under the Portuguese dominion. The Portuguese carry off the children, seducing them by fair speeches... Yea, even though they be children of friendly races, they cease not to kidnap them secretly, and to sell them." He gave instances of slaves committing suicide on account of maltreatment.

The Dutch, too, largely dealt in slaves. They were mainly Abyssian, known in India as habschis or seedes. The curious mixed race in Canara on the West coast has traces of these slaves. Some of the Abyssian slaves were capable administrators and managed the affairs of the Deccan kingdoms wisely. One such slave was Malik Amber who rose to be prime minister of Ahmadnagar and showed his administrative acumen in various fields. European records are replete with instances of the British in India carrying on lucrative business in slaves captured from Africa. These slaves were subjected to inhuman treatment. The Europeans greatly exploited the slaves for their personal benefits.