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The Demographics of Slave-Raiding in Arakan

Arakan, Rohingya
By Aman Ullah
The importation of the slaves into the kingdom of Arakan produced far reaching results. With the constant arrival of a large number of captives the size of the population of the kingdom of Arakan increased considerably. Sometimes, the import of such wretched victims reached such a greatness that according to an estimate, “between 1621 and 1624 AD the Portuguese brought to Chittagong 42, 000 slaves.” [1] Manrique writes: ‘During the five years (1629-34 AD) I spent in kingdom of Arracan, some eighteen thousand people came to the port of Dianga and Angaracale’ [2] Before his arrival at Chittagong ‘over twenty thousand persons entered this port (of Chittagong). [3]
Of these eighteen thousand captives Manrique and other Portuguese priests baptized eleven thousand four hundred seven. Before Manrique, his predecessor priests baptized sixteen thousand ninety captives from Bengal. Manrique gives other examples of carrying away captives from Bengal by the pirates. Manrique and other priests welcomed the piratical activities, because the more people the pirates enslaved, the better for them to baptize them. [4]
It is well known that the kingdom of Arakan was a thinly populated area, which required huge amounts of human labor for agriculture. With this intention the Arakanese employed a large number of captives in the tillage of land on the banks of the Kaladan river to the Naf. This captive’s population of the country forms about 15 percent of the whole population. [5]
The Portuguese Catholic priest, Sebastiao Manrique claimed to have told Thiri-thu- dhamma-raza in the 1630s, Min-kamaun had depopulated Arakan during his wars against Pegu, Assam, and the Mughals; the “Portuguese” repopulated them with entire villages and towns brought over from Bengal, involving over eleven thousand families.[6]
Prof. Dr. Micheal Charney wrote that, “We have general statistics for the 1622-1629 period: Manrique claimed that the Portuguese brought 24,000 Bengali captives, or about 3,000 per year, to the two settlements near Chittagong known as Dianga and Angarcale. [8] For the 1630-1634 period, Manrique claims that the Portuguese brought 18,000 slaves, or about 3,600 per year, to these two settlements. [9] These statistics are likely not as incredible as those provided by the priests for ambiguous “conversions” of the captives. The Dutch records show, for example, that Arakanese royal agents at Chittagong kept detailed lists of the personal data for each captive in “big black books.”[10] I borrowed five as a standard family base from Than Tun. Than Tun used an average family size of five people to calculate the probable size of Burma’s population in the 1630s-1640s. [11] Further, since these slaves were commodities to the Portuguese, the Portuguese likely had a keen interest in keeping detailed records and (in view of the percentage of booty which had to be given to the royal court) would have underestimated, rather than overestimated these numbers. Manrique, who worked amongst these captives and had day-to-day interactions with both Arakanese royal authorities and the Portuguese slavers, easily had access to either source. Thus, from 1622-1634, 42,000 Bengali captives likely passed through Dianga and Angarcale. This does not include Bengalis taken captive during royally-sponsored campaigns. “[12]
Charney Further stated that, “Arriving at an estimate for the number of Bengali captives brought into Arakan during the period prior to 1622 or after 1634 is more problematic. It becomes easier if the parameters of an estimate are limited to a beginning year of 1618 (when the Portuguese slave community likely become active at Chittagong) and 1666 (when the Mughals captured Chittagong). Thus, estimates need to be made for the 1617-1621 periods (five years) and the 1635-1666 periods (32 years). If we apply the lowest average (that for the 1622-1629 period) of 3,000 captives per year to the 1617-1621 and 1635-1666 periods, we arrive at the rough estimates of 15,000 captives for the 1617-1621 period and 90,000 captives for the 1617-1621 period. Altogether, this would amount to 147,000 Bengali captives brought to Arakan between 1617 and 1666.” [13]
According to him, “Of course, other factors would reduce the 147,000 figures. A high death rate among people brutally captured, treated, and transplanted must have occurred. According to Dutch sources, for example, forty percent of the ten thousand captives taken by Thiri- thudhamma-raza in a raid in the 1630s died quickly in captivity. [14] Even then, out of a group of slaves who had survived the journey to Mrauk-U, seventy-five percent died after they were bought by the Dutch. [15] Many Bengali captives also escaped throughout the seventeenth century, and it is not impossible to imagine that the overall numbers of captives may have included many people captured a second or a third time. Finally, the Portuguese-Arakanese arrangement supposedly limited the number of captives delivered to the Arakanese royal agents at one-fourth of the total (even though this was often exceeded), or about 37,000 captives.” [16]
According to these estimates, Bengali Muslim captives may have comprised thirty percent or so of the pre-existing population by the 1660s. In short, despite the lack of complete data, it is still apparent that the demographic contribution of Bengali captives to Danra-waddy’s population base was considerable. [17]
In 1644 AD, when the king of Chittagong rebelled, Arakan king Narapati-kri sent a substantial force with his right-hand man but failed to protect and the result of these expeditions was the total destruction of Chittagong. The returning army brought with them in the course of 1644 AD an estimated 80, 000 Bengalis, a large number of cattle, estimated at 30, 000 oxen, cows and buffaloes, and a large sum of money. The object of the operation was apparently to resettle in the Danya-waddy area the Chittagonians as minkyun or royal service groups. The people who were brought to Arakan were mostly weavers, dyers and other craftsmen working in the Bengali textile industry.[18]
The captives Muslim resettled in Arakan gradually formed two different kinds of social groups; rural Muslims in the countryside and royal Muslims in the court and royal city.
Prior to the 1570s, there is very little evidence of a rural Muslim community in Arakan. Later the Muslim population made up a substantial proportion in the 1770s. During the 1770s Muslim population in Danrawaddy may have been three-quarters of total population. [19]
Although Bengali captives coped with the local environment in ways similar to that of the indigenous population, their approach to the local environment was gradually reinterpreted in Muslim terms. In short, by examining settlements of Bengali agriculturalists we can see in part how broader Arakanese or Banga beliefs and perceptions of how things worked were Islamized.
The Arakanese placed or sold many captives procured from Bengal into rural areas as agricultural cultivators. [19]
There is evidence to suggest that the Arakanese court placed some of the captives in uncultivated areas (“in the forest”) in order to foster the development of new agricultural communities. [20]
It seems that since many of the rural Muslim communities were located closer to the coast than was Mrauk-U, maritime traders conducted their business at markets in rural Muslim communities in the area [21] More generally, Muslim traders stopped periodically along the Arakanese and other western mainland coasts for food and water during their journey from India and Bengal to maritime Southeast Asia.
Many Muslim captives from Banga entered royal service in the royal city. [22] Some Bengali Muslims, if they were craftsmen, probably formed specialized communities in or around the royal city, providing the court with special items or producing goods which would be sold by the king’s agents to maritime traders. Such craftsmen were so important to the royal court that on several occasions the king himself forbade the Dutch from buying artisans or anyone with a trade: “I do not want those craftsmen should be sold to you [the Dutch], or taken out of this land.” [23] Craftsmen or ‘tradesmen’ emerged in the following two centuries as a devoted and influential segment of Arakan’s Muslim population. In the nineteenth century, for example, it was the Muslim craftsmen of Mrauk-U who sponsored and repaired the Santikhan mosque. [24]
By the mid-seventeenth century, a substantial number of minor court officials and some important ministers were Muslim. [25] According to Manrique, the commander of the royal bodyguard in 1630 was a Muslim, entitled lashkar-wazir, [26] Likewise, port officials and others were often drawn from the Muslim traders in Mrauk-U. Like all titles in the Mrauk-U polity, revenues came along with such appointments. The lashkar-wazir, whom Subrahmanyam believes was the eunuch Ashraf Khan, for example, was also given the revenues from the rice-trade at Chittagong. [27]
According to Muslim Bengali works (written in Mrauk-U) in 1630s Arakan, Ashraf Khan had the “rajaniti (government) largely in his hands.”[28] There was also a Muslim minister to whom Manrique attributes all kinds of ritual excesses. Manrique admits that these stories were rumors, and all Manrique really tells us is that the king placed great faith in this Muslim minister and that the minister was well known for having gone on the hajj. [29] perhaps the rumors heard by Manrique were stories circulated by elites in Mrauk-U who feared a minister who was getting too close to the king, and hence pushing them further away from the royal center. [30] Any case, without evidence this suggested scenario must remain conjecture.
Another Bengali Muslim, Magan Siddiqi, was a high court official under two successive Arakanese rulers (1645-1660) [31] Muslims in the royal city remained influential in the Arakanese court until the Burman conquest in 1784. [32]
What often seems to be anti- Muslim activity may very well have been purely the pursuit of material or political gain against a community that did quite well in Mrauk-U. [33]
Unlike Bengali Muslims settled in rural villages in Danra-waddy, some Bengali Muslims in Mrauk-U participated in the development of an elite Muslim culture in the royal city, perhaps reflecting their privileged backgrounds in Banga. The Bengali Muslims whom the Arakanese had selected for settlement in the royal city, for example, came from educated elites or specially-skilled groups. High and mid-level posts in the royal court and chief ministries, a literate and elite urban culture, and association with traders and others from elsewhere in the Muslim world gave them greater access to mainstream cultural trends in the Muslim world. These Muslim elites in turn helped foster the development of an elite Muslim culture in the Arakanese royal city. The more successful urban Muslims, for example, displayed their wealth and support of Islam by sponsoring Bengali-Muslim poetry and other forms of cultural expression. Urban Muslims were also literate and often well-educated, as opposed to the Bengali Muslims settled in rural Arakan.
Muslims in the royal city, as opposed to the rural captives, seem to have played a special role in converting some in Arakan to Islam. Some of these Muslim elites, especially rich traders, for example, were also great purchasers of Bengali slaves and even European captives or children as well. [36] In one case, for example, the Mrauk-U lashkar Ashraf Khan had circumcised and converted a Dutchman of whom he had taken possession. [37]
It is likely during periods of heavy taxation, famine, or epidemics that Arakanese tried to sell themselves to wealthy and high-status Muslim traders and officials (as well as to non-Muslim elites) in Mrauk-U. Remco Raben, for example, has made the valuable observation for India of this period that during times of famine, “starvation forced many people to sell themselves.” [38] The rationale was that rich owners would provide food and security. During the Arakanese famine of the mid-1640s, for example, numerous Arakanese tried to sell to the Dutch their wives, sisters, and friends. [39] Since Muslim officials and traders were wealthy, just like their Buddhist counterparts in the royal court (even more so, as there seems to have been no indigenous, non-Muslim class of free merchants), [40] they, like the Dutch, may have offered the most likely prospects for hungry Arakanese. We do have evidence that wealthy Muslim merchants in Mrauk-U were indeed buying slaves. [41]
Another factor was the flight by Arakanese from royal taxation, which could be quite onerous. As one Dutch source explains of the heavy royal taxes in Arakan under Narapati-kri in the early 1640s, men “had therefore to sell their women and children.” [42] These were likely temporary transfers of family members for the duration of a loan. As Lieberman has explained, this form of slavery, debt-bondage, often involved no more difficult or demanding life than that encountered among many asis (free people) and ahmú-dáns (royal servicemen) generally. Debt-slavery, for example, removed the burdens of royal taxes and corvee labor (although corvee labor might have been required in lieu of the master’s personal obligations). [43] Again, Muslim officials had the wealth necessary to provide both loans and the authority necessary to ensure that royal tax and corvee demands upon their slaves (as clients) were circumvented. Even then, this scenario does not include the more common patron-client relationships which accompanied wealth and influence, and through which clients likely emulated the religious identity of their patron. It is difficult to ascertain, however, which identity, Muslim or Bengali, had developed sufficiently, even as late as the mid-seventeenth century, to define this urban elite. On the one hand, it, especially the class of rich merchants, sponsored Bengali- language poetry and culture. They spoke Bengali or a dialect of it, and the Arakanese chronicles, after all, knew them mainly as Kalas (Indians), not frequently as Muslims. On the other hand, the authors of Bengali Muslim poetry during this period praised their patrons as Muslims, and they may have been important sponsors of mosque-building in certain villages. Given the high degree of Islamization that was developing in southeastern Banga, whence most of these Bengali and Muslim elites came, we could view their identity in a different way: for these elites, to be Bengali was to be Muslim. Of course, this cannot be demonstrated with any degree of certainty, but it does help explain why the Bengali population brought over to Arakan from Banga developed over the next two centuries into Arakan’s large Muslim population.
References: –
1. Father Delaunoit, ‘Catholic Encyclopedia’, (1907) qt Campos, op. cit., p.105
2. Manrique I, p.286
3. Ibid
4. Dr. Abdul Karim: ‘The Rohingyas: A short Account of Their History and Culture’ Chittagong (2000) p. 36
5. A.P. Phayre, ‘Account of Arakan’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. X (1841) p. 681
6. Manrique, Itinerario. Pp.1:133;
7. Manrique cites two previous Portuguese priests who were at Dianga and Angarcale prior to him. At a later point, Manrique encompasses these years with the five years he was in Arakan (late 1629 to early 1635) under “thirteen years.” Thus, the earlier total should refer to the years from 1622 to the end of 1629. Manrique, Itinerario. I p. 253
8. Manrique was in Arakan from the very end of 1629 to the very beginning of 1635. Thus, his “five years” in Arakan mainly refers to the period 1630-1634. Manrique, Itinerario.I p.253
9. This comes from Stephan van Galen, personal communication, Leiden, the Netherlands, June, 1998, from his research in the Dutch archives.
10. Than Tun, “Administration Under King Thalun 1629-1648,” Journal of Burma Studies 51 (1968): p.175
11. Charney, M.W., Where Jambudipa and Islamdon Converged: Religious Change and the Emergence of Buddhist Communalism in Early Modern Arakan (Fifteenth to nineteenth Centuries) (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation University of Michigan; Ann Arbor 199)
12. Ibid
13. Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants: Dutch tribulations in seventeenth century Mrauk-U’ Journal of Early Modern History 1,3 (1997) p.225
14. Ibid.
15. Charney; 163
16. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ‘p. 218
17. Roberts, “Account of Aracan,” 159.
18. Stephan Van Galen, Leiden University,’ Arakan at the turn of the first millennium of the Arakan era’ Arakan Post issue3, March 2004 Dhaka, p .26
19. Talish, “The Feringi Pirates of Chatgaon,” p. 422; Roberts, “Account of Aracan,” p.157; Manrique, Itinerario. pp.1:133; Roberts, “Account of Aracan,” p.157; Charney, p. 164
20. Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants” p. 237, 241; and Forchhammer, Report. P. 60.
21. Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants,” 227.
22. Dutch letter translated in Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants,” 225. See also Ibid. 232.
23. Tavemier, ‘Travels in India’. 1:368
24. Manrique, Itinerario. 2:15.
25. Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants,” 221-2.
26. Ibid., 223.
27. Manrique, Itinerario. 1:316
28. After all, Manrique says they were heard by the Portuguese from others and considering the intimate connections between the women of the Portuguese community and Arakanese handmaidens in the royal palace it is likely that the Portuguese community had a keen ear for the rumor-mill among the Mrauk- U elite
29. Yunus, A History of Arakan. 88.
30. Roberts, “Account of Aracan,” 159.
31. Ibid. 159
32. Yunus, History of Arakan. 87; and Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants,” 222
33. Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants,” 222lbid. 224, 246.
34. Ibid. 224.
35. Ibid„ 222.
36. ibid., 224, 246.
37. Ibid„ 224
38. Raben, ‘Batavia and Colombo’, 120, Ibid. 119
39. Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants,” 234
40. Anthony Reid, ed. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 123-148.
41. Subrahmanyam, “Slaves and Tyrants,” 246
42. Quoted in ibid, 229
43. Liebennan. ‘Burmese Administrative Cycles’, 108
(Aman Ullah: ’A History of Rohingyas to 1948’, Chittagong (2024) pp. 94-105)

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