Parliament Abolished British Slave Trade
The British government under Lord William Wyndham Grenville passed an Act of Parliament to abolish the British trading of slaves in January 1807. However, this was not the same as stopping slavery, which was difficult to enforce across Britain’s overseas settlements. Compensation for slave-owners and those dependent on slave labour revolved around complex systems. In Melaka and Penang, the local colonial government developed registries, as a transitional measure, to accommodate the property rights of those who had immigrated with their slaves. By 1826, aside from those who had remained on the registries, slavery was illegal throughout the Straits.
Raffles: Abolishing Slavery and Establishing a Convict Labourer System
In October 1822, 50 slaves were imported and sold by the Bugis close to the Resident William Farquhar’s house. Some were sent as presents to him and Stamford Raffles, who was scandalised.
Earlier in 1819, Raffles had explicitly banned the practice of slavery when he established a trading post in Singapore. He established regulations for Singapore’s Slave-Debtors, such as prohibiting the practice of offering slavery as a means of paying off debts, in the case of the Malays. Despite that, many exceptions were made. For instance, Chinese labourers could be debt bonded up to a maximum of two years. Further exceptions were made for the household of the Sultan and the Temenggong, as well as traders who did not have a fixed residence in Singapore.
The initiative failed to achieve what it set out to do in the larger scheme of things. Slaves became debtors, who were given the possibility of buying their freedom at a price that most could never afford.
Nevertheless, the formal abolition of slavery had some positive impact. In Bencoolen
Originally known as Bengkulu, this province is on the southwest coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. When the British arrived, they positioned it as a pepper trading centre and put up a garrison. It also became known as Bencoolen. On 15 October 1817, Stamford Raffles was appointed the Governor-General of Bencoolen, where he enacted major reforms. After about 140 years, the British ceded Bencoolen to the Dutch in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. Bencoolen Malays soon left their homes and came to Singapore.
, where Raffles was Lieutenant-Governor, abolishing slavery led to a pressing need for labour. This was replaced with convict labour, which in the spirit of rehabilitation and to address the lack of government funds for convict management, Raffles suggested a model where prisoners became their own warders for Singapore. This method was implemented in 1823, when the first batch of convict labourers were transferred from Bencoolen to Singapore, and they served as an important source of cheap manpower for the construction of public works and buildings.
Female Slavery in Singapore
The increasing gender disparity in Singapore was created by the influx of single men, who worked as labourers, and the lack of immigrating women. This led colonial administrators to believe that the absence of women would result in violence, criminal behaviour and homosexuality. This led to a willingness to regard prostitution as an indispensable vice to give migrant labourers a ‘normal’ life. For a long time, colonial authorities in Singapore were indifferent to and lacked the resources to regulate the illegal slave trade of non-European women for domestic and sexual labour.