M. Bajracharya (Hrsg.): Slavery and Unfree Labour in Nepal

Slavery and Unfree Labour in Nepal. Documents from the 18th to Early 20th Century

Bajracharya, Manik
Documenta Nepalica – Book Series
Anzahl Seiten
291 S.
€ 52,90
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Stefan Lüder, Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Slavery and Unfree Labour in Nepal. Documents from the 18th to Early 20th Century is a valuable and timely source book that makes a significant contribution to the historiography of slavery and unfree labour in the central Himalayan region. The book is edited by Manik Bajracharya with contributions by Simon Cubelic, Rajan Khatiwoda, and Axel Michaels, and is part of the Documenta Nepalica series. The publication is partly an outcome of the conference “Masters and Servants: Slavery, Bondage and Unfree Labour in Nepalese History” which was jointly organized by the Research Unit “Documents on the History of Religion and Law of Pre-modern Nepal” of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the National Archives of Nepal, and held on 3rd to 4th March 2019 in Patan, Nepal. Slavery and Unfree Labour in Nepal provides the reader with editions, translation and a study of selected documents and legal texts that shed light on the practices, causes, forms, economics and abolition of slavery and unfree labour in the Himalayan state from 18th to the early 20th century.

In their introduction, Manik Bajracharya and Axel Michaels draw on various primary and secondary sources, such as some dharmaśāstras (genre of Sanskrit texts on law and conduct) and Sanskrit treatises, legal codes, historical documents, historiographical publications, and contemporary reports, to illustrate and discuss the various forms and causes, legislative regulations and procedures, conditions and economics, emancipation and the abolition of slavery and unfree labour. The chapter also provides a brief chronology of important events related to slavery in Nepal. The authors further try to situate the case of Nepal within the broader context of slavery studies in South Asia and beyond by highlighting the sociocultural specificities of the Himalayan region as well as the similarities and differences with other regions and models of slavery in the world.

The second chapter is a collection of editions and translations of documents related to slavery and unfree labour in Nepal from the 18th to early 20th century. The chapter itself is divided into seven sections, each containing several documents that provide insights into various aspects of slavery in Nepal, such as donations and the practice of satī (widow burning) of slaves, transactions, bond servitude, unfree labour and the so-called hulāka system (governmental postal and transport system), the emancipation of slaves before 1924 and the abolition of slavery in 1925, including some official correspondences between the ruling Rāṇā family and administrators of the British Raj regarding the issue.

The last chapter of the book is essentially a compilation of selected articles from the Ain of 1854, the first legal code of Nepal, that standardised and systematised the slavery-related terminology and legislation intended to provide the reader with a broader view of historical slavery in Nepal. The articles of the Ain included in this volume have been translated by Rajan Khatiwoda, Simon Cubelic, and Axel Michaels under whose authorship a complete translation of the Ain of 1854 into English has recently been published.1 Their inclusion aims at helping the reader understand the legal aspects of slavery and unfree labour in 19th Nepal and the Rāṇā rulers’ legislative endeavours to regularize, standardize and “[…] to reconfigure their relation to key institutions of the Rāṇā order, such as the state, feudal landholdings, religious endowments, the caste system or the household.” (p. 209). The book concludes with a glossary of terms related to slavery and unfree labour in Nepal and a list of references.

Slavery and Unfree Labour in Nepal is a commendable effort to make an important collection of primary sources on slavery and unfree labour in Nepal available and accessible to scholars, students, and a broader interested audience. It offers a concise overview of the topic, synthesizing the existing literature and highlighting the main issues and debates. It reveals how slavery and unfree labour were intertwined with the social, political, economic, and religious systems of Nepal, and how they affected the lives and rights of millions of people. The book also examines how slavery and unfree labour were challenged by various actors such as reformist rulers, social movements, foreign powers, and international conventions and ultimately abolished. The inclusion of the selected articles of the Ain of 1854 broadens our understanding of the overall legal framework of the historical period.

However, Slavery and Unfree Labour in Nepal does have its limitations due to its conceptualization as a source book. As Manik Bajracharya explains in his preface: “[…] rather than dealing with complex theories relating to slavery, [the book] aims to be a reader of resources to assist prospective studies on historical slavery in Nepal.” (p. xiii). Consequently, the book does not engage much with the theoretical and methodological challenges and questions that arise from studying slavery and unfree labour in Nepal nor does it provide historical contextualisation beyond the perspective of the state’s administration or any analysis of the documents and legal texts that are presented. It would have been helpful to elaborate on and discuss, for instance, the provenance, genre, authorship, audience, purpose, and reception of these sources, as well as their historical background and significance more detailed. Thus, these tasks are by design left to future generations of scholars for whom these deliberate shortcomings can serve as a vantage point for their own research projects that further explore, for example, the experiences and agency of women, children, and marginalized groups who were subjected to the various forms of bondage and exploitation or the comparative and transnational dimensions of slavery and unfree labour in the Himalaya, South Asia and other parts of the world, especially in relation to the global movements and networks of abolitionism, anti-colonialism, and human rights.

In conclusion, Slavery and Unfree Labour in Nepal is a significant contribution to closing the gap of the largely under-represented topic in the historiography of Nepal. As a rich and informative source book, it provides a solid foundation for future studies. The editor and all contributors have done a meticulous job of editing and translating the documents and legal texts, providing annotations, explanations, comments, and cross-references where necessary and deserve great credit for this labour intensive and arduous work. Although the book lacks theoretical and methodological depth, it nevertheless contributes to the empirical diversification of the global history of slavery and unfree labour. It raises important questions and issues that invite further critical and nuanced analysis of slavery and unfree labour in Nepal. And being an open access publication that can be downloaded as a pdf for free is not only incredibly generous but also ensures that it will serve as a work of reference for anyone interested in the history of slavery and unfree labour in the Himalaya, South Asia and beyond.

1 Rajan Khatiwoda / Simon Cubelic / Axel Michaels, The Mulukī Ain of 1854: Nepal’s First Legal Code, Heidelberg 2021, https://doi.org/10.17885/heiup.769 (02.06.2023).

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