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3 - “Following the Debt”: Credit and Debt in Southeast Asian Legal Theory and Practice, 1400–1800

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2015

Peter Boomgaard
Affiliation:
University of Amsterdam
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Summary

It must have been fairly easy to get into debt in early modern Southeast Asia. At least, this is suggested by the fact that slavery, in the broadest sense of the term, was such a widespread phenomenon. While not all forms of slavery were related to indebtedness (war captives being the main exception), generally speaking it could be argued that debt was the main road to slavery.

It is convenient (and conventional) to distinguish between three types of bonded people: fully fledged slaves, whose status is hereditary and who can be bought and sold; serfs, who are tied to the soil and have certain (servile) obligations to a patron other than the ruler, but who cannot be bought or sold; and people in debt bondage (also called debt peonage), who likewise cannot be bought or sold. In principle, debt bondsmen and women can redeem themselves, subject to certain limitations. Alas, it is not always easy to establish what type of bondage is meant in specific cases in the historical record — or even in legal texts.

People could become (debt) slaves in any of the following ways. A debtor could become the debt bondsman of a creditor in order to work off the debt; sell himself — or herself, or relatives, into slavery (usually when faced with the threat of imminent starvation); be pawned to a creditor by someone else and not be redeemed; or be unable to pay a fine or compensation money. In all these cases indebtedness — or, more generally, poverty — was the root of slavery. Debt or poverty was sometimes also involved when a person became a glebe slave (in the Southeast Asian context, a temple or pagoda slave), dedicating him- or herself to a religious institution. However, other (religious) motives might also be involved in such a case. The golden age of glebe slavery seems to have been over by the fifteenth century. Finally, people became slaves or serfs if taken captive by a conquering army or by raiders (often pirates), or if they were born in slavery.

Type
Chapter
Information
Credit and Debt in Indonesia, 860–1930
From Peonage to Pawnshop, from Kongsi to Cooperative
, pp. 61 - 79
Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2009

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