The best books about slavery in Asia

Who am I?

I find it crucially important that we acknowledge that slavery is a global phenomenon that still exists this very day. Dutch historians like me have an obligation to show that the Dutch East India Company, called the world’s first multinational, was a major slave trader and employer of slavery. I am also personally involved in this endeavour as I am one of the leaders of the “Exploring the Slave Trade in Asia” project, an international consortium that brings together knowledge on this subject, and is currently a slave trade in Asia database.


I wrote...

The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

By Ulbe Bosma,

Book cover of The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

What is my book about?

Island Southeast Asia was once a thriving region, and its products found eager consumers from China to Europe. Today, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are primarily exporters of their surplus of cheap labor, with more than ten million emigrants from the region working all over the world. How did a prosperous region become a peripheral one?

In The Making of a Periphery, Ulbe Bosma draws on new archival sources from the colonial period to the present to demonstrate how high demographic growth and a long history of bonded labor relegated Southeast Asia to the margins of the global economy. Bosma finds that the intensifying colonial presence in the region during the early nineteenth century led to improved health care and longer life spans as the Spanish and Dutch colonial governments began to vaccinate their subjects against smallpox. The resulting abundance of workers ushered in extensive migration toward emerging labor-intensive plantation and mining belts. 

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State

By James F. Warren,

Book cover of The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State

Why this book?

This book explains how a powerful sultanate located on an archipel in the South China Sea maintained its independence until the very end of the nineteenth century. Being the centre of a ferocious slave-raiding network, it played a pivotal role in supplying the slave labour for commodity production both for China and the West. Warren’s book links an upsurge of slave raiding in Southeast Asia at the end of the eighteenth century with imperial expansion of the West and the economic resurrection of China. It questions the dominant perception that piracy and slavery in Asia were antithetical to economic growth.

I find Warren’s thesis tremendously valuable to understand processes of globalisation and a source of inspiration for my own research and teaching on slavery in the Indonesian archipelago in the nineteenth century. It also opened my eyes to the fact that the upsurge of slave-raiding was fed by illicit arms sales by traders from Europe.


Slavery as an Industrial System: Ethnological Researches

By H.J. Nieboer,

Book cover of Slavery as an Industrial System: Ethnological Researches

Why this book?

Nieboer did groundbreaking research on slavery outside the Atlantic world, and not the least on Southeast Asia. He was the first to propose a universal economic theory for the occurrence of slavery, namely that its existence was the result of a scarcity of labour in relation to the availability of land. After Evsey Domar expanded this argument to serfdom, it became known as the Nieboer-Domar hypothesis and has been widely cited both by historians and economic historians. In any talk about slavery and bondage in Southeast Asia I refer to this thesis to explain why slavery had practically disappeared in densely populated Java in the eighteenth century whereas it probably increased almost everywhere else in the Indonesian archipelago.


Slavery, Bondage, and Dependency in Southeast Asia

By Anthony Reid (editor), Jennifer Brewster (editor),

Book cover of Slavery, Bondage, and Dependency in Southeast Asia

Why this book?

This book became the starting point for many publications on slavery in Southeast Asia. It is a collection of essays that not only provides us with an overview of the entire region over the past 700 years but also suggests how we can study the multifarious forms of slavery and bondage in the region in a comparative manner. Although almost forty years old it is still indispensable reading for any course on slavery in Southeast Asia, including my own course.


The Embarrassment of Slavery: Controversies Over Bondage and Nationalism in the American Colonial Philippines

By Michael Salman,

Book cover of The Embarrassment of Slavery: Controversies Over Bondage and Nationalism in the American Colonial Philippines

Why this book?

Salman shows how the anti-slavery discourse became part of American imperialism and how contentious this issue became during US colonial administration over the Philippines. While the American administration acted with growing determination and harshness against slave-holding societies particularly in the Muslim southern part of the Philippines, it also adopted abolitionism as a legitimation for colonial rule over the entire Philippines. Salman exposes the paradoxes of imperialist rhetoric in which people were subjugated to free them from slavery. 


Lords of the Land, Lords of the Sea: Conflict and Adaptation in Early Colonial Timor, 1600-1800

By Hans Hägerdal,

Book cover of Lords of the Land, Lords of the Sea: Conflict and Adaptation in Early Colonial Timor, 1600-1800

Why this book?

Although broaching many more themes than slavery, this book gives us a unique insight into how local patterns of enslavement linked up with the growing colonial presence of the Dutch and Portuguese in Timor (East Indonesia). The book has been thoroughly researched by the world’s most knowledgeable scholar on this subject. For me, it is a source of inspiration for how local forms of enslavement can be studied in interaction with European colonial expansion.