Dark history lesson: Slavery in Malaya where Malays used Orang Asli as slaves in the 18th century

Is it still a page in history if it hasn’t really stopped?

Photo: Cilisos

Many of us know that slavery exists throughout the world and was prevalent throughout the African diaspora.

However, many may not know that the Orang Asli (plural), which are the original inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, were also used as slaves in Malaya in the 18th century.

Orang Asli is a collective term for the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia. The name is a Malay term, which translates as ‘original people’ or ‘first people.’ They comprised of 18 different communities and live primarily in the jungles of Malaysia.

Back then, slavery wasn’t as controversial as it is now. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slavery was an element of Malay culture.

The slave raiders targeted Orang Asli because they were commonly viewed as ‘kafirs’, ‘non-humans’, savages or rough jungle dwellers.

Orang Asli gave the term ‘Sangkil’ to the slave raiders. It is said that it was the Sangkil that attacked and enslaved the Orang Asli. The Sangkil were known to have come from the Indonesian Islands, especially the Rawa and Mandailing.

During the violent period of slave raids, the Orang Asli had to constantly migrate from one place to another to escape from the clutches of slavery. Those who dared to fight back were mercilessly killed.

In 1870, there was a war known as the Perang Sangkil. According to a book based on the Perang Sangkil events, the Orang Asli were frequently sold off as slaves or given to local rulers as concubines to gain their favour.  

The enslavement of the Orang Asli by the Malays was observed by James Wheeler Woodford (J.W.W.) Birch. Birch was the first British Resident in Perak, Malaysia.

He was portrayed as unpopular with the Malays because he treated them badly, showing little respect to their traditions and customs.

Photo: Orang Perak


Birch also attempted to eradicate slavery. He often described his abhorrence to the slave practice in Malaya in his journal as follows:

“… by which men and women of the country of the Sakkais or wild people of the interior are captured after being hunted down, and are then sold, and made slaves. There poor people, from what I’ve seen, are worse treated than any other slaves.”

– J.W.W Birch, quoted from Taming the Wild: Aborigines and Racial Knowledge in Colonial Malaya

He eventually outlawed slavery but was killed in 1875. Many believed that Birch was assassinated because he would not tolerate slavery in Perak.

Modern slavery and labour abuses still exist in Southeast Asia

Indeed, efforts to eradicate slavery have come a long way in this region. However, the fight to end slavery continues as modern slavery and labour abuses in Southeast Asia is on a rise.

According to a report from a supply-chain analyst firm Verisk Maplecroftthe rise of robot automation and adoption of robot workers will escalate slavery and labour abuses in the region.

“Without concrete measures from governments to adapt and educate future generations to function alongside machines, it could be a race to the bottom for many workers.”

– Dr Alexander Channer of Maplecroft

This begs the question, what are the strides taken by governments for tackling modern slavery?

According to the Global Slavery Index, governments are taking proactive measures such as strengthening laws, providing support to victims, and engaging with business on supply chain transparency to ensure that they are taking a stronger stand against slavery— much is to be seen in the coming years.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the 1954 Aboriginal Peoples Act is the main legislation addressing the affairs of the Orang Asli including land matters. However, this continues to be deemed by international eyes as too weak to protect the Orang Asli, especially in relation to the issues of land usage and ownership.

Based on the figures reported by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) in 2015, these are human rights problems affecting about 13.8% of the 31,660,700 million Malaysia population therefore affecting a fairly sizeable number of people.

Recently reported in Free Malaysia Today (Feb 28), that Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), urged ministers and top government officials to stop using outdated “legal fictions and culturally offensive terms of the Old Malaysia” in dealing with the rights of the Orang Asli.

This is coming from an NGO involved in a variety of activities and campaigns related to environmental and development issues,

A sure sign that there is more legwork required that what is being done in protecting the rights of the Orang Asli. Afterall, we have the responsibility to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of one another.

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