Tiraana Bains (Yale University)

Image 1While researching the engagement of the East India Company with practices of slave trading and slavery in and across its territories in the East Indies, I was particularly struck by the records of the Company’s settlement in Bencoolen (also rendered as Bencouli or Benkulen, and now Bengkulu in modern Indonesia) among the India Office Records at the British Library, London. Bencoolen is often written out of the narrative of the East India Company’s history, dismissed as an insalubrious space that simply failed to be profitable. The settlement, in fact, enjoyed the status of a Presidency for several decades during the second half of the eighteenth century, not unlike the better known Bengal, Madras, and Bombay Presidencies.

Image 2My specific interest in Bencoolen stemmed from the presence of “Company slaves” as well as privately owned slaves and their deployment for the performance of a range of tasks over the course of its history as a British territory, including soldiering, construction, and pepper cultivation and manufacturing. Tracing the arrival of such slaves in Bencoolen pointed to the trans-oceanic networks that bound together the territories of the East India Company, from St. Helena in the South Atlantic to the outposts on the subcontinental mainland. Equally, my tracing the discourse around pepper pointed to the linkages connecting the Company’s territories with the lucrative trade in China, and the effort to produce goods that would produce sufficient profits to offset the cost of purchasing Chinese tea. Image 3The vicissitudes of warfare and inter-state conflict on the South Asian mainland, especially British military and economic competition with the state of Mysore under the leadership of Tipu Sultan, were closely bound with efforts to increase pepper production in Bencoolen. I would argue that the often neglected records of Bencoolen offer a more complete picture of what we would typically think of as solely “Indian” economic histories.

Image 4The images in this essay are primarily taken from the IOR/G/35 “Sumatra” series. Both image 1 and 2 are drawn from the same communication from 1769 and discuss the effort to establish sugar and arrack works in Bencoolen, as well as the provision of slave labor to a German Protestant community that would supervise the effort. Image 3, meanwhile, provides an invaluable and often hard to come by source: a list of slave names, alongside their age and apparent profession. The list dates back to 1787. Finally, image 4 features a detail of an aquatint from the British Library’s prints collection that provides a visualization of Bencoolen.

May 2017