The slaves of 19th century kerala :-from 'The land of charity' a book written around 1850

The slave castes — the lowest of the low — comprehend the Pallars (3,736), the Pariahs (41,360), and the Pulayars (98,766); numbering in a 143,862.

In former times slaves were let or transferred at the choice of the owner, were offered as presents to friends or as gifts to temples, and were hought, sold, or mortgaged in the same manner as the land on which they dwelt or as the cattle and other property of their owners.
 The price of a slave varied from six to nine rupees (twelve to eighteen shillings)
. In some parts of the country, however, as much as eighteen rupees were given
. ' Being frequently engaged in digging and manuring, transplanting the young rice, repairing the banks, and performing other labours in the rice-fields, sometimes standing for hours in the water, they are subject to rheumatism, fevers, cholera, and other diseases, which carry oif many long before the approach of old age. The survivors are often left, when past work, to beg or steal for their support, or to perish with hunger.

Cases of horrid and aggravated cruelty in the treatment of slaves by their masters, especially of those who attempted to escape to the mountains, were once numerous. Indeed, one of the usual clauses in the deed of transfer of slaves was "You may sell him or kill him."
 Both privileges have now, of course, ceased. One instance of savage cruelty by a Syrian towards a poor slave who had made his escape came under the cognizance of the Rev. H. Baker. This slave, after his conversion, went to visit his former master, carrying with him a few presents to avert his anger. He was immediately seized and fearfully beaten, then covered with hot ashes, and confined in the cellar of a granary. There he lay for three days, groaning and praying that God would forgive all his sins and his master's too. He asked for water, and they gave him some filthy compound   from the cattle stall ; at length he died of his wounds and starvation, and they buried his corpse to hide the deed.

Some one told the facts of the case to the Puniattu liajah, who gave notice to the police, and it cost the owner some 500 rupees in bribes " to settle the trouble," as the natives call it.

 Various measures for the amelioration of the condition of the slaves, and ultimately for their emancipation, have, through British and Christian mediation, been adopted by the native Government.
 In October, 1853, the Rajah's proclamation set free the future offspring of Government slaves, and somewhat modified the condition of other slaves ;
 and in June, 1855, another proclamation was issued for the "amelioration of slavery," liberating all Government slaves, forbidding the courts of justice to enforce claims on any person as a slave, and providing for their holding property and obtaining redress for injuries the same as freemen
. Although thus legally emancipated the condition of the slave population remains very much as before ; and perhaps it is Aswell that there should be no sudden or violent convulsions of society. They have not the courage and enterprise, nor perhaps the industry, to avail themselves as a body of their legal rights. or, indeed, is it possible that they should rise to any considerable degree of improvement while the system of caste tyranny and oppression remains in full force.


 Rules and regulations were strictly followed to maintain this supremacy. They were based on (i) keeping prescribed distance in order not to pollute the superior person (ii) removing the cloth if any covering the shoulders and the head, (iii) using in conversation self denouncing form of speech with  special standardised servile expressions  and (iv) asserting bodily poses  which have been culturally standardised..


The distance prescribed to avoid pollution is different according to the position of the castes.
 Thus a Nair shouldn’t come nearer than six paces to a Namboodiri,
 a man of the Barber caste nearer than twelve paces,
 a Tiyyan than thirty six paces and a Pulayan than ninety six paces.
 For Kammalan and artisan the distance is twenty four feet
 and for the Nayadis, seventy four
  C.A. Innes records in the first decade of the twentieth century that, “at present day higher caste men when walking along the road utters a warning grunt or hoot to person of any lower castes who there up on retire to the necessary distance.”  This hoot called 'ochar' differs from cast to caste
 The Nayadis who were interviewed by Thurston in 1901 at Shornur, had by the reason of pollution which they traditionally carry with them. to avoid walking along the long bridge which spans the Bharatha Puzha(Ponnani river) and follow a circuitous route of many miles.

  Gilbert Slater reports. “Uptill 1916 no man other than the 'jenmis' was allowed to tile his house, to build an upstair building or a gateway. Even now it is rash for a ryot to ask for such permission

 No man should approach him with more than a single cloth around his waist which shouldn’t fall below his knees.
The minimum penalty to those who violated the law was excommunication or often death Under the native rajas, Nairs thought nothing of cutting down on the spot a number of lower castes who had approached with polluting distance of his person. If a man of lower caste were by misfortune to touch a Nair lady her relatives would immediately kill her and like wise the man who touched her and all his relatives
 This shows that even blood relations were undermined to maintain the caste laws
.
The author of Cochin State Manual observes that, “the tradition fostered by the Brahmins ascribes to the mandate of Parasurama which ordained that Sudra women would put off chastity and devote themselves to satisfy the desire of Brahmins.

 We have interesting accounts of the social customs like sambandham by which a Namboodiri can cohibit with any Nair lady be likes without bothering of future obligations or liability

.Writing in the year 1900. T.K. Gopala Panikkar describes that, at present day there are families, especially in the interiour of the district (Malabar) who look up on it as a honour to be thus united by Brahmins.

 Giving evidence before the Malabar Marriage Commission of 1891, the District Munsiff of Badagara said; “ Polyandry seems to have been largely prevalent in its worst form in South Malabar in the earliest times.
Instances in which a woman has 27 and 12 husbands who visited her by rotation are even now mentioned by some old men.”

Besides the above social taboos and cruelties,
 the low castes were forbidden access tro temples and bazaars.
They were not permitted to drink from the well used by the upper castes.
 Education was forbidden to them.
The prohibition was so stringent that they couldn’t go even to a post-office to buy postal articles

As owners of the land they exploited the lower castes who were their tenants
. “ The smallest show of independence by the tenant was resented as an affront. The Hindu tenants were the worst sufferers.
 The tenants were required to contribute to the expenses of wedding and other ceremonies in their jenmi’s house
 and to make presents for asking permission to celebrate wedding in his own family.
 Excommunication was the most painful punishment meted out to those tenants who violated the traditions, that all the kith and kins kept “the culprit” off.
 He could’t escape even if he changes his residence to another village.
 He would also be evicted from his land. Thus the punishments ruined the tenant for ever.
 His last resort was to change his religion to Islam or to Christianity. and thus claim a new identity in Society beyond the reach of jenmis and Brahmins.
The attitude of the artisans towards Islam and Muslims is clear from the cases of Kunhelu the martyr of Malappuram and Asari Tangal of Ponnani.
Kunhelu was a Hindu goldsmith, but fought on the side of Muslims in their battle against the Hindu chieftain. Paranambi at Malappuram in 1738

 Asari Tangal was the carpenter whoheaded the construction of Ponnani Juma Masjid in the sixteenth century.


Describing the excommonication of Nairs:- Barbosa says that, the excommunicated Nair those who on account of the breach of social observances such as the eating of forbidden food, association with the people considered to be impure was forced to run away from the country. Otherwise they were sold to the lower castes. Such people found refuge either in Christianity or in Islam

It was this abhorrent system which compelled Swami Vivekananda to call Malabar a “mad house”."The people of Malabar are mad and their houses are mad houses." he said

Muslims maintained a close relationship with low castes and this influenced them to a large extent for conversion .Since there was no Vysya or trading caste among Hindus of Malabar, the Mappilas filled the vacuum and the inter-relationship


Shaikh Zainuddin reports:-The unbelievers never punish such of their countrymen,who embrace Islam, but treat them with the same respect,shown to the rest of the Muslims though the convert,belongs to the lowest of the grades of their society

C. Kesavan, a social reformer, in his book, has quoted an appeal submitted by the Ezhava community to the maharaja of Kochi.
The appeal points to the plight of the Ezhava in a very pathetic manner: “Even now in certain schools, especially in the girls’s schools, we, the slaves.  had no permission.
 We, the slaves, are never admitted in the students houses. Even We the slaves, cannot go near a post office.

 We, the slaves are not appealing for higher privileges and had no desire to enter temples of caste Hindus.

 Our appeal is very moderate and it is that, while we are continuing as Hindus we may be provided the right and liberties which we get when we are converted either to Islam or Christianity.