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Third International Conference on Slavery, Unfree Labour & Revolt in Asia and the Indian Ocean Region

Avignon, 4-6 October 2001
Angela Schottenhammer
p. 113-115

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1In 2001, the third Colloque international sur l’esclavage was held in Avignon, France, on the theme “Slavery, Unfree Labour & Revolt in Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.” It attracted 46 participants from seventeen countries (France, Ethiopia, the United States, South Korea, Mauritius, Thailand, Australia, Nepal, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Canada, Senegal, Portugal, India, Tanzania, and South Africa). They included economists, anthropologists, social administrators (such as representatives of the UNESCO and the Helpless Rehabilitation Society, Nepal), and especially historians.

  • 1 Like in the first two Avignon conferences on slavery, the papers were not presented by their author (...)

2K.D. Chaudhuri opened the conference with a keynote address on “State, Power and Unfree Subjects in the Indian Ocean.” The conference sessions were organized around central themes, each of which was introduced by a discussant before being opened to the floor for discussion:1 “Defining Unfree Labour and Revolt” (discussant: Martin Klein), “Southern & Eastern Africa” (Edward Alpers), “The Indian Ocean Islands” (Gwyn Campbell), “Southeast and East Asia” (Anthony Reid), “Females and Children” (Angela Schottenhammer), “Islam” (Hussein Ahmed), “The Indian Sub-Continent” (K. Raviraman), “Overview of the Asia-Indian Ocean Regions” (Michael Salman), and “The Indian Ocean/Asian and Atlantic Systems Compared” (J.C. Miller).

3The conference committee comprised Gwyn Campbell (Université d’Avignon, conference Coordinator), Hilligje van ‘t Land (Institute for American Universities, Avignon), Edward Alpers (UCLA), and Michael Salman (UCLA). Sponsors included the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS, Leiden), the Institute for American Universities (IAU, Avignon), the Programme franco-indien de coopération en sciences sociales (Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris), the Social Sciences Division of the College of Letters and Science (UCLA), the Comparative and Interdisciplinary Research on Asia (CIRA, UCLA), and the Université d’Avignon.

4In the first session, M. Klein (University of Toronto) introduced two major definitions of unfree labor and revolt. The other sessions were basically arranged according to world regions – Southern & Eastern Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast & East Asia, the Indian Ocean Islands, and the Islamic world – and were followed by one panel focusing on the role of females and children in slavery. Finally, an overview presented by M. Salman (UCLA) and J.C. Miller (University of Virginia) compared the Indian Ocean, Asian and Atlantic Systems and drew a final conclusion.

5Discussions, both in English and in French, focused on the meanings of “freedom” and “unfree labor,” the distinction between “slave” and “non-slave” unfree labor, the differences between European-run and indigenous slave systems, the nature of “resistance” to unfree labor regimes, the widespread phenomena of non-resistance, the genders’ roles in resistance, the difficulty of applying notions used in the discourse on the Atlantic system to the Asia and Indian Ocean regions, and problems of research, including interpretation of non-Western systems.

  • 2 Anthony Reid, in his volume on slavery in Southeast Asia, refers (p. 2) to a definition by H.J. Nie (...)

6At the beginning of the conference, starting out from what had been defined in the papers, two basic definitions for slavery were provided. The first and most widespread views slavery as an institution in which individuals are the personal property of a master for whom they have to perform labor without having any rights or receiving any salary. They are legally unfree individuals (legal aspect), exploited by a master for his own benefit and profit (economic aspect).2 Consequently, slaves can be bought and sold like commodities. The second definition views the kinlessness of slaves as their major feature. This, however, already presupposes slavery and can therefore not really be regarded as an explanation of the term “slavery.” Neither does it stick to one particular feature of slavery. And, although kinlessness may have been a not unimportant social trait of slaves, it does certainly not make up the concept and the crucial point of slavery.

7In the final discussion, it was agreed that slavery should be seen as a process rather than an institution. This definition tries to do justice to all the different forms of slavery, such as the kidnapping and trafficking of young girls, which is in fact very different from the situation of slaves in ancient Greece or Rome or the well-known Atlantic system slavery and slave-trade. There, as a rule, slaves played an important economic role, the reason for enslavement being primarily the search for cheap labor. But in the case of a young girl who has to work for and satisfy her master in various ways and is considered his property, the economic aspect is certainly not the major impetus for enslavement.

  • 3 Only the papers of relevance to eastern Asia are listed below. Richard Allen (Framingham State U.), (...)

8While most of the papers concentrated on forms of slavery in the twentieth century, some investigated earlier periods.3 Altogether, the conference doubtlessly constituted a great opportunity to learn more about the “internationality” of slave trade and forms of slavery in the modern world, as well as on the particulars in different societies, and it contributed to shed more light on forms of slavery still existing today, albeit in different forms from the “traditional, true slavery.”

9The fourth Colloque international sur l’esclavage will be held in Avignon on 16-18 October, 2002, on the theme “Women in Slavery”, in honor of Suzanne Miers. It will examine the roles of women in slavery across the world, in various systems of slavery (indigenous and imported), over a period ranging from the Antiquity to contemporary times, and focus on trades in female slaves and other means of acquiring them, and these persons’ tactics of “resistance” and other accommodations to the positions in which they found themselves. As Maria Jaschok and Suzanne Miers put it in the introduction to their volume on Women and Chinese Patriarchy: “Poverty and the patriarchal system in China, British labor recruitment practices, the indifference of both the Chinese and British governments, and the lucrative nature of the traffic all conspired to turn prostitutes into marketable commodities.” A minority of the prostitutes did, of course, emigrate by their own “free” will, as they intended to earn money for their families, but most were sold by poverty-stricken parents, kidnapped or lured away by trickery. This is but one form of slavery still existing today, and Suzanne Miers has for many years made the role of females in slavery one of the main topics of her research.

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1 Like in the first two Avignon conferences on slavery, the papers were not presented by their authors during the panels. Instead, they had been circulated in advance and, at the beginning of each session, a discussant (rapporteur) summarized in a thirty-minute presentation the main ideas of the papers relevant to each panel’s topic and theme. At the same time, the rapporteur stimulated the ensuing discussion (one hour) by addressing particularly problematic and interesting ideas and arguments.

2 Anthony Reid, in his volume on slavery in Southeast Asia, refers (p. 2) to a definition by H.J. Nieboer as one most useful: “We may define a slave in the ordinary sense of the word as a man who is the property of another, politically and socially at a lower level than the mass of the people, and performing compulsory labour” (Nieboer 1910: 5). See Slavery, Bondage and Dependency in Southeast Asia, A. Reid (ed.), St. Lucia, etc.: University of Queensland Press, 1983. Reid continues (p. 3): “Nieboer clearly does not mean, as McDermott has claimed for his Chinese nu-p’u […], that a group cannot be slaves if a few of them became rich and powerful. If that were true we would have to stop using the term slavery for the Ancient World and most of Asia…”

3 Only the papers of relevance to eastern Asia are listed below. Richard Allen (Framingham State U.), “A Serious and Alarming Daily Evil: Illegal Absence, Desertion, and Vagrancy in Colonial Plantation Systems;” Gwyn Campbell (U. d’Avignon), “Slavery, Fanompoana and Revolt in Imperial Madagascar;” Jim Hagan, Rob Castle, & Andrew Wells (U. of Wollongong, Australia), “‘Unfree’ Labour on the Cattle Stations of Northern Australia, the Tea Gardens of Assam, and the Rubber Plantations of Indo-China, 1920-1950;” Janet Hoskins (U. of Southern California), “Slaves, Brides and Other ‘Gifts:’ Resistance, Marriage and Rank in Indonesian Exchange;” G. Roger Knight (U. of Adelaide), “‘Unfree Labour’ and ‘Revolt.’ Dissecting Colonial Categories in Nineteenth Century Java: Military Slaves and Queen Raziyya;” Michael Lambek (U. of Toronto), “Revolted but not Revolting: Reflections on the Sakalava Division of Labour and Forms of Subjectification (Madagascar);” Kim Bok Rae (Center for International Area Studies, Seoul), “The Resistance of Korean Nobi (hereditary slaves);” Michael Salman (UCLA), “Resisting Slavery in the Philippines, 1913-1914: Reflections on the Polymorphous Structures of Domination/Resistance and the Reversibility of Comparisons;” Shigeru Sato (U. of Newcastle, Australia), “Romusha’s Resistance in Java during World War Two;” Ralph Shlomowitz, Robin Haines, & John McDonald (Flinders U., Australia), “The Time-Patterning of Slave Deaths in the Middle Passage;” Angela Schottenhammer (Munich U.), “Slavery and Revolt in China;” Marc Spindler (Leyden U.), “La position des missions protestantes au xixe siècle sur l’esclavage.”

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Bibliographical reference

Angela Schottenhammer, Third International Conference on Slavery, Unfree Labour & Revolt in Asia and the Indian Ocean RegionMoussons, 4 | 2001, 113-115.

Electronic reference

Angela Schottenhammer, Third International Conference on Slavery, Unfree Labour & Revolt in Asia and the Indian Ocean RegionMoussons [Online], 4 | 2001, Online since 18 March 2016, connection on 23 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Angela Schottenhammer

Munich University

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Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue Moussons sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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