Slavery and cultural creativity in the Banda Islands

Phillip Winn

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    In his influential edited volume Slavery, bondage and dependency in Southeast Asia, Anthony Reid suggests that long-term slave-based systems of production were absent from agriculture in Southeast Asia, and had an ambiguous presence at best in other areas of economic activity. The argument he presents suggests that indigenous slavery in the region merged into a kind of serfdom or household membership, a situation that continued after the arrival of Europeans whose slave-holding practices were profoundly shaped by the local traditions they encountered: slavery in the European colonies owed more to the Southeast Asian environment than to European legal ideas. Reid's analysis is insightful and his conclusions persuasive. But he also notes a single exception to this general picture: the Dutch perkenier system for producing nutmeg in Banda with hundreds of slave labourers on large estates. The nutmeg estates of the Banda Islands, in eastern Indonesia, provide a rare unequivocal example of a slave mode of production in Southeast Asia, and its sole instance in an agricultural context. The islands have a similar status within established accounts of slavery in Asia more generally. While some degree of geographic and historical variation is usually acknowledged, European slavery practices in Asia are regarded as distinct from colonial slavery in the New World, where European systems were imported wholesale. Against this conclusion, the perkenier system in the Banda Islands has been described as a form of exploitation unheard of in Asia, one that represented a Caribbean cuckoo in an Asian nest'.5 In other words, Dutch nutmeg cultivation in the Bandas constituted a New World style system of slavery operating in an Asian context.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)365-389
    JournalJournal of Southeast Asian Studies
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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