Last month, I wrote about the anniversary of the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia. That natural disaster, the single most violent volcanic eruption on record, would eventually wreak havoc around the globe. But in the first weeks and months after the eruption, the worst of the disaster was in the immediate area between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Not long before the eruption, an Englishman had instituted new regulations by which he intended to protect the native populations under his jurisdiction. Yet, in the aftermath of Tambora, the result of his regulations only exacerbated the suffering of those he had meant to help.
How the abolition of slavery in Java backfired . . .
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was a well-known figure during the Regency, despite the fact that he spent little time in England during that decade. In 1811, Raffles was involved in the British invasion of Java, and was appointed the Lieutenant Governor there when the British seized it from the Dutch. He continued in that position until 1815, and was still there during the Mount Tambora eruption. In fact, he heard the eruption while in his residence in Batavia, the capital, that evening before he retired for the night. He awoke the following morning to find his home inundated with volcanic ash and the day-time skies as dark as night.
When Raffles took control in Java, he soon learned that slavery was common throughout the area. However, slavery in Indonesia was a most complicated institution which few outside the culture were fully able to comprehend. Certainly, a large number of these enslaved people had been captured or kidnapped by the various pirates and other marauders who operated in the region. These people were sold into slavery solely for profit of their captors, much like the slave trade which was active between Africa and America. These slaves were treated like cattle and had no control over when, where, or to whom they would be sold. Nor were there any conditions attached to their treatment as slaves.
However, there was also an indigenous aspect to slavery throughout the Indonesian area which had been practiced for centuries. Poor people often sold themselves, or their children, into slavery, typically when their poverty was so severe that they had no other means by which to gain the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter. These sales were more like the transactions made by poor Britons, and those from other countries, who sold themselves into indentured servitude in order to pay their way to the American colonies. In many parts of Indonesia, people sold themselves for a set period to gain funds to pay a debt or for other purposes. But many people sold themselves into slavery for life, with the understanding that they would be decently fed, clothed and housed in return for their labor. Religious law mandated such treatment for those who had sold themselves or their children into slavery, thus ensuring better treatment than those who had been sold by their captors.
The English who took over government in Java, including Raffles, did not fully grasp the nuances of the slave situation there. They assumed the entire institution was brutal, inhuman and unwanted by all of those who labored within it. They did not understand that those slaves put to the hardest labor were those who had been captured and sold by others, while those who sold themselves into slavery were usually given work in affluent households or businesses. Many times, the kind of work which might be denied them as free men. Those who sold their children into slavery often did so to ensure those children had a better start in life than they could give them, and the hope of a secure future.
As free-born Englishmen, neither Raffles, nor his staff, could see any good in slavery. Wishing to show the native inhabitants of Java that the English could offer them more humane rule than the Dutch, whom they had ousted, slavery was abolished in the capital city of Batavia, in 1812. Human trafficking was soon heavily regulated throughout the area controlled by the British, so much so that slavery was nearly abolished in those areas. Then, Mount Tambora erupted, in April of 1815, and this humane mandate resulted in the deaths of thousand of people and the intense suffering of many thousands more.
The pyroclastic flow which Mount Tambora spewed into the atmosphere during the eruption was spread by the prevailing winds so that it covered hundreds of square miles in one to three feet of ash. Most of the crops in the area were burned and smothered by the hot ash, so that there was very little food left in the region. The ash was so thick that it created great floating islands which blocked both the ports and the shipping lanes, making it difficult to deliver food and other supplies to the stricken areas. Many thousands of people were left starving and destitute.
Before 1812, the poor and the starving would have been able to take advantage of the institution of slavery, which, for them, functioned as a kind of social safety net. Had they been able to sell themselves, or their children, into slavery, they would have been provided with food, clothing and shelter in return for the work they would do for their masters. But by 1815, slavery was illegal in much of the region, making it impossible for parents to sell their children, thereby assuring their children might escape the disastrous famine under the protection of a wealthy master. Instead, many parents killed their own children, to spare them the pain and suffering of starving to death. Some parents then took their own lives, thus wiping out entire families who might have been saved, had they been able to sell themselves to those who would then have the responsibility of caring for them.
Sir Stamford Raffles may have learned that his efforts to provide the natives of Indonesia with a more humane life had actually caused them greater pain and suffering. For, when he became Governor-General of Bencoolen, he allowed the system of debtor-slavery to continue, though he did regulate it to ensure humane treatment of slaves and basic education for their children. However, he remained a staunch abolitionist all his life. He strongly advocated the abolition of slavery in British West Indies, since none of the slaves there had voluntarily sold themselves into slavery, they had all been stolen from their homelands along the African coast by slave traders.
Though Raffles was not to know it, his abolitionist attitude would result in the most outrageous treatment of his remains after his passing. Raffles died of apoplexy in July of 1826, at his home, Highwood House, north of London. Theodor Williams, the vicar of St. Mary’s in Hendon, Raffles’ parish church, refused to allow Raffles to be buried in the church, due to his anti-slavery views. Williams’ family had been slave traders in Jamaica and Williams himself owned shares in a plantation in the West Indies which employed many slaves. It would seem that the Raffles family were able to lay their loved one to rest in a vault near the church, but were not allowed to mark it. In 1887, a brass memorial plaque was placed in the church, though not at his actual grave site. In fact, the location of Raffles’ remains were unknown for nearly a century. They were finally located in 1914, probably identified by the breast plate on his coffin. During remodeling in the 1920s, Raffles tomb became part of the structure of the church. At that time, a floor tablet, with an inscription, was placed over the actual location and remains in place to this day.