The Slave Trade in Women in Bengal

P.R. Sarkar
In the coastal areas of Bengal, the Portuguese carried out piracy. Their main business was to kidnap children and young men and women from the coastal areas if Chittagong, Noakhali and Bakharganj districts of eastern Bengal and sell them to wealthy families of western Bengal. They made huge profits out of this trade. The ealthy families of Burdwan, Hooghly, Midnapur and 24-Parganas districts who ha a number of unmarried boys in their families would buy these kidnapped girls. If a girl was beautiful and talented, she would be married to one of these sons, and if she was not beautiful, she was used as a menial or house servant. The upper-caste, or kuliina (high-born), families would be put into trouble if these girls’ ancestry be known. For fear of being declared outcaste, it was common practice that no one asked about the caste of any girl.

Caste rules say that if you touch wood that has been touched by certain castes you are required to perform ablutions in holy water, but that if such and such castes and upper-castes travel in the same boat or are compelled to sit and eat together in the same boat, you will not lose caste. That’s why to save one’s caste it is declared: “In a huge block of wood there is no impurity” (Brhat ka’s’t’he dos’ah na’sti). That is, it will not affect your caste purity to come in contact with others when the timber is very large.

Once there was a Bhattacharya (high-caste) family living Burdwan. They were highly respected kuliinas. What to speak of low-caste, they scrupulously avoided even the average Hindu. They even refused food offered by the Vaidyas (whose profession is medicine). Once they bought a slave-girl from the Chandanagar Bibirhat. In those days Chandanagar Bibrihat was a large market for the sale of girls. Boys were also sold in this market. Now, this girl was very good-looking and cultured. Later the family arranged a marriage between their eldest son and this bought girl. Things went smoothly for a few months. Their neighbours came to look over the bride and give her wedding gifts. The bride spoke very little. If she ever opened her mouth, she spoke very carefully so that her east-Bengal accent could not be detected.

But Providence smilingly took a hand. One day, the bride was preparing vegetables. She turned to her mother-in-law and said, “Well, Mother, shall I cut this kadu (an east-Bengali Muslim word for gourd)?”

The mother-in-law held her head in her hands; her eyes rolled up into her head. She was stunned. She stammered, “What’s this that you’re saying! My daughter-in-law has called gourd kadu! I smell danger and troubles lying ahead.”

Mr. Bhattacarya consoled her, “Wife, what can we do about it now? Although you know the danger, you must conceal it. Don’t let this news pass on to others. Now, you know it and I know it, but let no one else know it. If it leaks out, we will lose our caste, gotra (lineage) and everything.”

A similar thing happened to a Banerjee family in Basirhat. They bought an exquisitely beautiful girl. They married her to their second son. One day the mother-in-law was seen sitting out in the noonday sun, crying piteously. She repeatedly moaned, “What misfortune has befallen our family! Our golden family is burnt to ashes this day!”

The neighbours rushed to the scene. They asked her, “Why are you crying, sister? What happened? Who has brought misfortune to your family? Tell us what’s happened.”

The mother-in-law said, “Sisters, I am undone! We are finished! What hell our daughter-in-law is creating! She has applied kohl below her eyes, and is calling a lamp cira’g!” (The style of applying kohl and use of the word cira’g (oil lamp) betray the girl’s Muslim upbringing.) There are many similar stories about those who were sold into slavery by the Portuguese pirates. You should understand one thing more in this context. Many who boast of their so-called purity of caste lost it several generations ago because their ancestors bought slave-girls from the pirates.

If a slave-boy was found intelligent and educated, he would be given the family’s daughter in marriage and accommodated into the family. If he was not educated, he was used as a menial or servant. The ancestors of a certain Chatterjee family of my acquaintance bought a young man at the Kelomal market in the Tamluk subdivision. Tamluk was a big slave market in those days. The big market for the sale of boys was Kelomal, while the girls were sold at Radhamani Bazaar (a market famous for delicious sweets). That Chatterjee family bought a fifteen-year-old boy from the Kelomal market. He was given the responsibility of a cowherd. His job was to take care of the cows a clean the shed, and in between these chores he attended classes in a Sanskrit school. When asked, the boy used to say in an east-Bengali accent, “I am a fisher-boy.” After a few years, the boy got his degree in Sanskrit studies. As Mr. Chatterjee failed to find a suitable match for his daughter, he gave his daughter in marriage to this youth. After the marriage, people came and said to him, “In the past you said that you were a fisher-boy, so how is it that you could marry a Brahman girl?”

He answered in a Burdwan accent, “I am actually a Brahman of the Rarhi caste, but as I was tending cows and was not educated, my patron told me that I should introduce myself as a fisher-boy. But now that I am educated, I have no hesitation to call myself a Brahman.”

One more thing I have to say. In those days there were many very beautiful, talented girls and handsome boys who were purchased by weight in exchange for silver bullion. It is said that something kings and nobles used to purchase women for their weight in gold. These purchased youths were used as slaves or adopted as sons or sons-in law, and the girls became menials or were adopted as daughters-in-law.

Shabdha Cayanika 11, also The Awakening of Women

Copyright Ananda Marga Publications 2011

5 thoughts on “The Slave Trade in Women in Bengal”

  1. It is true that the Portuguese carried out piracy in the coastal areas of Bengal as well as deep within Bengal via the tributaries of the rivers. It is also true that they abducted people and sold off for profit as slaves. The writer above gave examples of only Muslims being sold off as slaves! The Portuguese pirates did not discriminate by only abducting Muslims. More than half the Bengalis were Hindus in the 17th,18th, and 19th centuries. So, the biased and wrong opinion of the the above psudo writer should not be read as a full truth.

    1. Excuse me, but the entire piece above seems to be about how Bengalis from the eastern areas and so-called low caste persons have been discriminated against by upper caste persons of Bengal. It is a topical article that does not purport to cover slavery in Bengal in its entirety. Respected P.R. Sarkar has written extensively on exploitation in all forms and against various groups of people, animals, plants etc. You may keep your opinion of pseudo-writer to yourself.

    2. I think P.R.Sarkar actually tried to point out how orthodox people turned out to be flexible when they are in need.For example during boat journey it is not possible for an upper caste to segregate himself but at times of necessity an upper caste might have to take recourse to a boat journey in those days. Hence,to console himself the proverb was born-Brihat kasthe dosha nasti. similarly if a girl was beautiful it was immaterial whether she was a muslim or hindu or from Esat Bengal or West Bengal.

  2. Sir,  presenly I am doing research on chandannagore. Shall you help me by referring   some of the books related to it for further  cultivation. Thanking you.Sulagna Chakraborty 

    1. Hello Sulagna,
      Shrii Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar’s works (you may get Sarkar’s complete works in English on CD to search all references in full) hold numerous references to Chandannagar (Chandannagore). Such as: “… the worship of Jagaddhátrii is carried out in both Krishnanagar and Chandannagar with great pomp and pageantry. An inhabitant of Chandannagar – possibly his name was Gauṋgá Govinda Bandyopádhyáya – was the Dewan, the Prime Minister, of Nadia. Following the example of Krishnanagar he introduced the worship of Jagaddhátrii in Chandannagar also. In art, grandeur, pomp and pageantry, Chandannagar lags behind Krishnanagar. But Chandannagar can claim supremacy in one special area: there the Jagaddhátrii idols are of gigantic size.”
      From “All Bask in the Glory of Shiva – 1 (Discourse 6)” in the book Namah Shivaya Shantaya.
      Regards, Editors

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