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Records left by early British observers describe several variants of a system of ‘slavery’that existed in the Malnad in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The followingis a composite view of these sources.

Slavery was common in the Malnad but unknown in the area imme­diately to the east. In the Malnad only Havik Brahmans are mentioned as having kept slaves. The Haviks, proprietors of arecanut estates on which they performed much of their own labor, were assisted by both slaves and by hired laborers. They also owned paddy lands which they cultivated with slave labor. Buchanan, who visited this region in 1799, writes that although Haviks “toil on their own ground at every kind of labour ... to hold their plough, Brdhmans must always have people of low castes. This is a kind of work that even a Haiga [Havik] Brah­man will not perform”.

Payments to a slave consisted of the necessities of life. Writing about the region around Sirsi, thirty miles north of the area from which I ob­tained my data, Buchanan reports: “A male slave gets daily two Seers of rough rice, with annually one blanket, one handkerchief, a piece of cotton cloth, and some oil, tamarinds, and capsicum.... The woman slave gets daily 19 Seers of rough rice, a blanket, and annually a piece of cotton cloth, and a jacket. Children and old people get some ready dressed victuals at the house of the master, and are also allowed some clothing”. Stokes adds that the daily ration of paddy “is doubled on the new and full moons and sometimes at the feasts”.[1]

Observers report that it was the master's duty to make it possible for his male slave to marry. Stokes reports that “on the occasion of mar­riages, the master of the man has to purchase a wife for him ... from her owner”. In the event that a slave's wife died or was barren it was the master's duty to finance another marriage for his slave. The children that resulted from the union “belong to the owner of the man”. Bucha­nan writes that a slave “gets no money, except at marriages; but these cost 16 Pagodas ... for the woman must be purchased. She, and all of her children, of course become the property of her husband's master”.

Although the sources are not clear on this point, none of them specifi­cally state if money is given to the bride's parents as a bride price, a custom that present day Holerus say is a traditional caste custom. However, Stokes states that a slave's master has to purchase a wife for him “unless, which is most commonly done, he can give the daughter of one of his slaves in return”. Stokes adds that the “expense of the marriages are borne by the master of the husband, and commonly amount to six Rupees and three khandaga, or 150 seers of rice” la It is possible that a bride price was paid out of this.[2]

Stokes states that there were two types of slaves, one of which could be transferred from the soil to which they were attached, the other which could not. This distinction is further amplified in the 1891 Census of India, which apparently quotes from an older source which I have not been able to locate: “In most of the purely malnad or hilly taluks, each vargdar [arecanut estate proprietor] owns a set of servants styled Huttalu ... and Mannalu. ... The former is the hereditary servitor of the family, born in servitude, and performing agricultural work for the land-holder from father to son. The latter is a serf attached to the soil, and changes hands with it. These are usually of the Holaya [Hole­ru] class. The treatment of slaves is described as being lenient. Stokes states: “These slaves though degraded, are much better off than those in Mala­bar; they are in general stout and healthy in appearance, and show no signs of being either over worked or under fed”.

Major Montgomery, writing about the southern extension of the Malnad, states that slavery was not “... invested with the more re­volting features so common to it in Africa and America. The sway of the master seems generally to have partaken more of a paternal char­acter than the terms, owner and slave, would indicate, and frequently as I have enquired of those who still consider themselves bondsmen whether they would not wish to change their lot, I never yet met one who acknowledged that he repined at it”.  The master had the right to sell or rent his properties and the right to punish them physically. Slaves were prohibited from traveling more than a certain distance from their villages. In the event that a slave should leave the service of his master, the governmental officials com­pelled his return.[3]

One of the defining characteristics of true slavery is that one indi­vidual not only has complete rights to the services and products of the other and may make business transactions with his property, but also that he may, with impunity, take his life. On this latter point the his­torical sources give us little information, but they do note that slaves were treated as a valued commodity. There is no indication that the master had to take the life of his slave (Brahman reli­gion makes this right unlikely), although de facto authority is probable. Also, some slaves could not be freely disposed of, i.e., could not be transferred from the land. Thus, the term ‘slavery’ is here used in a qualified sense. Many aspects of this quasi-slavery system, for which information is lacking, may be inferred on logical grounds from the subsequent sys­tem of indentureship.

Information concerning the system of lifelong indentureship can easily be elicited from living informants, and supplemented by a few literary sources. Indentureship was a method of binding an employer and an employee into a stable alliance which ideally persisted from generation to genera­tion. The servant was the lifelong employee of the master, and the ser­vant's sons and the master's sons should, if possible, continue the al­liance. Although this is the way informants say the system worked, it obviously could not always have done so, as this model involves the assumption that the master and servant have the same number of sons, and the even more dubious assumption that after the sons of the master divide their father's property among themselves, each needs the same number of servants as did their father. Although the ideal system was hereditary, sons of servants who either were not asked to be or who did not want to be indentured to their father's master's family could seek alternate masters.[4]

In the terminology which accompanied the system there were two terms which can be translated as ‘master’. Hegde is a general term indicating respect for a person with authority and high status and is sometimes used by a servant to address his master. A more specific and frequently used term for master is ‘odeyar’. There are many terms for servants. An alu is simply a “worker”; maneyalu, the most commonly used term, means “servant belonging to the house” and is often used in lieu of more specific terms; hul(aju is “a servant who has been acquired through inheritance”; komda)u is “a maneyalu who has been purchased from the master to whom he was previously indentured”; and lagnalu is a general term meaning” a servant to whom marriage money has been given”. This linguistic diversity points to the fact that much greater differentiation was made among the various types of servants than among their employers. Although some of the linguistic forms used to designate types of indentured servants are the same as those used previously for “slaves”, they have different meanings in the two systems. Also, “maneydtu” (mane, 'house') should not be con­fused with “Mannalu” (mannu, ‘earth’ or ‘soil’).

On the average, Haviks were well off, but there was considerable individual variation in the amount of land owned by a family. Due to the system of inheritance which divided land equally among all sons, the descendants of a wealthy but prolific family might be poor. Few Haviks had need for or were able to support more than one indentured servant family. Only a very few Havik houses had two or more servant families attached to them.[5]

The alliance between employer and employee was entered into only after the male Holeru had reached adult status, that is, just before his marriage. The contract was initiated by the potential servant when he approached a Havik, in either is, own or another village, to ask for money to perform his marriage. Marriage for all castes, including Holerus, was and is an elaborate and expensive undertaking. The high caste employer contributed food to be used in the numerous feasts accompanying the Holeru's marriage, jewelry for the bride, goods to be distributed as presents to the guests, and a substantial amount of cash to be used by the groom's family to pay the requisite bride price. This was accompanied by much bargaining: the potential master attempted to lend as little money as possible; the potential servant to borrow money for as grandiose a marriage as possible.[6]

The servant's contract was with a family rather than any specific individual and, consequently, the roles of master and servant were not strictly hereditary. Nevertheless, the employer's family was expected to be offered first option to indenture their servant's sons. Also, in common parlance, the servant's contract was spoken of as if it were inherited. In external affairs, Havik families were treated as corporate units, repre­sented by their eldest male member, called ejamanru, and such a head of the family was viewed as the servant's master. When such a family head died and was succeeded by the next eldest male, this gave the impression that a new master had inherited the servant's contract, even though, technically speaking, inheritance was not involved for the indentureship was to the family.

After the marriage the newlyweds visited relatives for several months before they settled down in their employer's village — residence was virilocal and often patrilocal. At this time the couple underwent a milk-drinking ceremony at the house of the master in which both the bride and groom formally acknowledged their contract to remain permanent­ly indentured. The drinking of this sacred liquid symbolized their vow of eternal faithfulness to their employer. This tie was ritually re-ex­pressed once each year at the annual festival of Divali. In order to insure that the servant couple would fulfill their obligations, the milk-drinking ceremony was witnessed by at least one representative from each Holeru family in the village. Thus the whole local Holeru caste community was made corporately responsible for the servant couple's vows.[7]

After the milk-drinking ceremony, the religious validation of the con­tract, the servant couple worked as general arecanut estate laborers. The male servant worked in the arecanut garden, weeding, planting, irrigating, manuring, or he might pick pepper, tend the vegetable gar­den, herd cattle, build or repair fences, cut grass for the domestic animals, run errands and deliver messages, or engage in any other of the numerous tasks required to run these small estates.15 The skilled and well paid job of climbing arecanut trees was not done by Holerus and only rarely did a servant plow his master's fields. The woman servant cleaned rice or other raw or dried foodstuffs, occasionally tended children belonging to the employer's family, and in other ways helped the women of the employer's house. On occasions she was also required to work in the gardens and the fields. In addition to this, the servant couple cleaned their employer's cattle shed, a ritually defiling occupation (since they had to remove buffalo as well as cow dung) that other castes refused to perform as an inter-caste service. Labor required from servants was usually of a routine nature and required little specialized training.

Holerus as a caste were prohibited from cultivating land and from engaging in jobs considered a traditional occupation of another caste, for example, making pots or cutting hair. Under no circumstances could they own land. In addition, because of their low ritual status and their concomitant ability to defile ritually, they could not, for instance, per­form any jobs for their master which required their presence in the inner rooms of his house, nor could they do work that required their draw­ing water from his well. Unlike the period of slavery, the bondsmen generally did not farm the paddy lands for their employers. As best I can reconstruct the historical changes, it appears that middle Sudra castes, after the famine of 1878, became tenants and sometimes owners of these agricultural lands heretofore tilled by slaves. Upon becoming indentured the servants received three kinds of bene its similar ±n those formerly a yen to slaves.[8]

First they received a prescribed quantity and type of goods. A stated amount of paddy was paid as a daily wage of some seers for the male , one for fits wife On new and full moon days, and at four or five annual festivals, a specified quantity of extra paddy plus on stated occasions the servants got a vacation, the number of days varying ac­cording to the festival. The employer was also responsible for supplying a house site to his servant. This was generally done by all Brahmans in one village designating a particular part of the village land for all Holerus. Also, the servants were given one blanket annually, and both the husband and wife received, at certain festivals, a prescribed quan­tity and quality of clothing. These conventions, which prescribed the obligations of the master toward his servants, acted to protect the ser­vants. By having them explicitly spelled out, the servants were insured that their master would meet at least minimal obligations in the event that they lacked their master's good will.

Second, the giving of certain fringe benefits was incumbent upon the master, although the agreement was not explicit as to the amount. These included maintaining the servant couple during times of illness and after they had become incapacitated from old age. The master was also obligated to help his servants obtain medical services rendered by reli­gious or herbal specialists.

Third, there were optional fringe benefits, such as gifts of vegetables, fruits, building materials, kerosene and oil, arecanuts, and tobacco. The master's family's castoff clothing and left over food were given to the servants. In the slavery system, according to literary sources, cash was never given to a slave. Although Haviks often stated that the same restriction was true or desirable for the indentureship system, it was in fact customary for masters to give small amounts of cash to their servants for “salt and chilies”, the services of religio-medical practitioners, and for liquor. A master was under no compulsion to give these fringe benefits; their amount and frequency were not prescribed, but depended upon the master's ability and predilection to give.[9]

The Havik Brahman community exerted strong pressure on its wealthier members not to be too liberal in giving secondary benefits, so as not to give cause for discontent to the servants of others. It was felt desirable for the relationship to possess an emotional component — a positive bond between master and servant. It was the servant's duty to show uncompromising loyalty toward his master; the master's obligation to adhere to a noblesse oblige code of conduct.

A master had the right to administer corporal punishment to his way ward servant but not to take his life. Physical punishment was, however, rare; not so the use of profane and abusive language by Haviks toward Holerus which was not openly reciprocated. The contract of indentureship could be sold or purchased, but this was not done without regard for the servant's wishes. Indeed, instances have been recounted where master and servant quarreled to the extent that a servant sought out a new potential employer and initiated the sale of his own contract.[10]

In conceptualizing the emergence of one social system from another, the ethnologist, faced with the paucity of satisfactory frameworks for simultaneously handling both diachronic and synchronic information, must, for the sake of simplicity and convenience, contrast social systems which represent arbitrarily chosen time slices along a transitional continuum. Even in the Malnad, where a famine accelerated the process of change, it is difficult to make hard and fast distinctions between the later system of slavery and the earlier system of indentureship. Nevertheless, leaving aside the question of the master's right to take the life of his slave, the most salient contrasting features are: entrance into the ranks of a slave was compulsory for all Holerus; slaves could be bought and sold; their children became the property of their master; and slaves had an occupational monopoly to plow the fields of their masters. For servants, entrance into the rank of the indentured was not compulsory, but alternatives were extremely limited; the contract of indentureship, rather than the individual, could be bought and sold (a legalistic distinction), and only with the servant's permission; the children of a servant could seek their own master; and servants had almost no occupational monopoly — most of the jobs they performed could also be performed by the members of some other castes for the same em­ployer.16 To describe slavery as “involuntary servitude” is essentially correct, but in order to describe indentureship as “voluntary servitude” it needs to be added that the alternatives were limited — for a man, to remain a bachelor, and for a woman, to remain a spinster or to become a religious prostitute (no longer an alternative).

The transition from ‘slavery’ to ‘lifelong indentureship’ was facilitated by the famine of 1876-1878, a three-year period during which the monsoons almost completely failed to appear. In the resulting famine many starved, and even the wealthy were hard pressed. At this time the majority of slaves were freed by their masters, who were unable to maintain them. Some of the freed slaves temporarily or permanently emigrated from the area. The death toll was presumably greatest for those castes with the smallest reserve to tide themselves through the crisis.[11]

After the famine, the surviving ex-slaves still needed to make a living, and the only choice open to them was to work, as they previously had done, for arecanut garden owners, who still needed a labor supply. The end result was the system of lifelong indentureship.  Lifelong indentureship, a logical transition, was modeled after many of the features contained in the system of quasi-slavery. It also appears to have evolved by incorporating elements from a previously existing system of indentureship, for Montgomery contrasted ‘slave and free laborer’ and states that “in cases where the marriage expenses of the free laborer have been defrayed by the master, he cannot leave his ser­vice till the amount is refunded”. The context in which this quotation occurs makes it clear that these “free laborers” were not Holerus. Thus it appears that the system of lifelong indentureship for Holerus which came into being after the famine incorporated elements of two proto­types — slavery, which had previously involved only Holerus, and in­dentureship, which previously had involved only poorer members of intermediate ranking castes.

The arecanut gardens were damaged by the drought; arecapalms are relatively slow growing — about thirteen years from the time a seedling was planted. Another important change that occurred at this time was that at least one Sudra caste (Divarus, or Halepaikas), whose traditional occu­pations had been soldiering, toddy tapping, and agriculture, became more thoroughly entrenched in the latter occupation and tenanted much of the paddy-growing land previously worked by slaves. This decreased to some extent the pressure on the available Holeru labor supply by transferring one of their occupations to another caste.[12]

The transition from slavery to indentureship occurred rather rapidly. The slowness with which the subsequent indentureship system changed was largely due to the fact that neither plantations nor industries pene­trated to any significant degree into this part of the Malnad. In the neighboring state of Coorg, a similar system of slavery was broken up at an earlier date because of the alternative employment opportunities and high wages offered by English coffee plantation.  Exchange marriages, in which one family gives a bride to the family from which it takes a bride, connote lesser prestige but in recent years have increased in frequency. In these marriages the amount of bride price is of no consequence. This reduces expenses to the point where more

The present trend is for Holerus to solve on an individual basis their contradictory desires of not wanting to be indentured but wanting to marry. A few have particularly good relations with a Havik family from whom they are able to get money in return for some form of service. Those few who have land or property are able to afford a cheaper form of marriage. Nevertheless, a relatively large segment of the community remains unwed. As in any social system, the personal desires of individuals are not always in harmony with what the same individuals feel is best for their group as a whole. Witness the feeling of admiration and at times devo­tion of some servants toward their masters, and the reluctance of in­dividuals to lower bride price. It is in this context that another form of marriage must be viewed. For an unwed girl to become pregnant is shameful, and it is felt to reflect upon the honor of the caste. It is punished by demoting the couple to an inferior status within the caste, but not by excommunication. If an unmarried or widowed girl becomes pregnant, it is mandatory that a husband be found for her, preferably but not necessarily the genitor of her child-to-be. Thus, paradoxically, Hole­rus, are anticipating a rise in their caste's prestige by rejecting in­dentureship, are faced with the possibility of offsetting these benefits by also having changed their marriage practices.[13]




[1]       Ghanshyam Shah, Social Movements in India, New Delhi, Sage, 1990, pp. 25-35.

[2]       E. Thurston, Op.Cit., Vols. V & VI.

[3]       E.R. Leach (ed.), Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North West Pakistan, Cambridge, 1960, pp. 1-10.

[4]       E. Thurston, Op.Cit., Vol. III, pp. 307-11.

[5]       James Silverberg(ed), Op.Cit., p. 77.  Also see E. Thurston, Op.Cit., Vol. IV, p. 40.

[6]       E.R. Leach (ed.), Op.Cit., pp. 45-46.

[7]       James Silverberg (ed.), Op.Cit., pp. 78-94.

[8]       Ibid., p. 84.

[9]       S.H. and L.I. Rudolph, Op.Cit., pp. 29-87.

[10]      E.R. Leach (ed.), Op.Cit., pp. 45-50.

[11]      James Silverberg, Op.Cit., p. 102.  Also see E. Thurston, Op.Cit., Vol. III & IV.

[12]      David Mandelbaum, Society in India, University of California Press, 1970,     pp.40-50.

[13]      James Silverberg, Op.Cit., p. 105.