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13 June 2022

‘I wish to be made free and to remain in this country’: Testimony of liberated enslaved women, girls and boys

On 19 November 1847, Gregor Grant, Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay (Mumbai), sent depositions of forty-seven women and girls and twelve boys to the Government of Bombay. These individuals had been on board five baghlahs (sailing vessels) captured in the Persian Gulf in September 1847 by the East India Company’s Indian Navy and brought into Bombay Harbour. The five baghlahs (and six other vessels which were also seized), belonged to subjects of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd. The vessels were seized for carrying enslaved people, in contravention of the 1845 treaty between the United Kingdom and the Sultan, which prohibited the export of enslaved people from his East African dominions and the import of enslaved African people into his Omani territory (but still allowed the transport of enslaved people in the area between Lamu and Kilwa, including Zanzibar). The treaty was effective from 1 January 1847, and this was the first instance of the terms of the treaty being carried out by British authorities.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin scriptWhite paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin scriptWhite paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Copy of the treaty of 2 October 1845 between Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd, IOR/L/PS/5/452, ff 318-19. Copyright status unknown.

The correspondence concerning the five baghlahs and the people on board can be found in the India Office Records file IOR/L/PS/5/452, which has been digitised and can be accessed through the Qatar Digital Library.

The depositions generally consist of brief statements on the same subjects, indicating that the individuals concerned were each asked the same or similar questions orally, the responses to which were translated into English and recorded in writing, or paraphrased, since the same or similar phrases tend to be used in different depositions. However, although they are in a mediated form and should therefore be treated with some caution, the depositions do provide access to the voices of enslaved women, girls and boys. This post will focus on their testimony, and what happened to them subsequently in Bombay.

The women, girls and boys were declared liberated by the British authorities in Bombay, but were placed under Grant’s charge and initially detained in a police hulk. Three of the women stated that they were actually the wives of three of the nakhudas (captains or masters) of the baghlahs, to whom they wanted to return. Grant informed the Government of Bombay that one of these women, ‘Absheree’, was ‘perfectly inconsolable under the separation’ and he was satisfied from the testimony of ‘the whole of her companions’ and of the women themselves that they were indeed the nakhudas’ wives, so he sent them back to their husbands.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Absheree’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 380v. Crown copyright.

Grant reported that the remaining individuals appeared to be ‘Gallas or Abyssinians’ (Oromo or Habesha people), except three or four individuals who appeared to be natives of Zanzibar. The majority of the individuals stated in their depositions that they remembered where they were born or where their parents were from, with the most frequently named places including Gurage and Jimma in Ethiopia.

A map of Ethiopia with names in Latin script written in black ink in various directions; roads indicated with red or black lines; yellow colouring for coasts, and bluish colouring for water
‘Sketch delineative of the ROUTES OF SLAVE-CARAVANS through Abyssinia to the shores of ARABIA.’, c 1842, IOR/L/PS/5/413, f 517. Crown copyright.

Most of the individuals stated that they did not know how old they were, although one woman, ‘Boutie’, said she was ‘under twenty years of age’. Grant reported that their ages ‘appear to vary generally from 8 or 10, to 18 or 20 – but there are one or two girls beyond the former age and one or two women who appear considerably older than 20 years of age’. There is plenty of evidence that purchasers of enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean region (including East Africa and Madagascar, North-Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and the western coast of the Indian subcontinent) preferred children and young people, and it was rare for enslaved people over thirty years’ old to be sold. Children and young people were more easily captured and subdued than adults. Young people were also more able to assimilate with their owners through learning a new language and adopting unfamiliar manners and customs, and they were valued for their potential upon reaching physical maturity. The gender ratio of the enslaved people on board the baghlahs, most of them being female, supports the conventional view that the majority of enslaved people traded in the Indian Ocean World were female (although Hideaki Suzuki argues that a number of contemporary records from East Africa challenge this view). Gwyn Campbell states that girls and young women were valued particularly for sexual attractiveness and reproductive capability. Some female enslaved people in the Indian Ocean World were employed as water carriers and in agriculture, textile production, and mining, but most were absorbed into wealthy households, mainly to provide domestic and sexual services, as servants, secondary wives, concubines, wet nurses, or entertainers.

Nearly half of the individuals deposed that they had been taken captive when very young and sold into slavery, but others stated that they had been captured and enslaved as recently as a year ago. Whilst several individuals stated that they remembered their parents, nearly half stated that they could not remember them. Several of the women and girls said that they had been made captive during a war or by a ‘hostile tribe’.

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Deposition of ‘Hulkakesh’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 377v. Crown copyright.

Some of the depositions refer to the individuals ‘passing through several hands’ after being sold into slavery. Many enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean region experienced short periods of possession and frequent resale by owners. The main reasons for this were that enslaved people were at risk of illness or death from the repeated serious epidemics of diseases the region experienced, and British naval attempts to suppress the trade in enslaved people meant that holding and trading in enslaved people was a dangerous activity. Thus there was less risk involved in short-term possession of enslaved people and owners were more likely to be able to sell them on for a profit.

Of the individuals who knew the name of or remembered the place where they were put on board the vessels captured by the Indian Navy, seventeen stated that this had been at Sur in Oman, five at Muscat, and three at Berbera. They deposed that the nakhudas were ordered to take them to Basra to be sold.

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Deposition of ‘Futaleh’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 375. Crown copyright.

The depositions of the majority of the individuals state either that they wished to remain in Bombay or that they were willing to do so, with many stating that they had no desire to return to their country of birth. One woman, ‘Futaleh’, stated: ‘I wish to be made free and go to my own country – but if “Belilla” remain in this country I shall be very glad to stay also’. Several other women and girls stated that they wished to remain in Bombay if a particular woman or girl, or the other women they were with, also stayed there.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Uttegoollee’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 371v. Crown copyright.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Tomasha’, IOR/L/PS/5/413, f 372. Crown copyright.

Grant wrote to the Government of Bombay that the twelve boys ‘seem very fine intelligent lads’. He reported that two boys, ‘Amber’ and ‘Roba’: ‘positively deny that they are, or ever were slaves [enslaved people], and they are most anxious to be permitted to return to their master, who they state, is instructing them as seamen’ (although Roba’s deposition actually states that he was his master’s ‘household slave’). Therefore these two boys were allowed to return to their master, the nakhuda of one of the baghlahs. Grant subsequently reported that in accordance with the Government’s instructions, the remaining ten boys had been made over to the Superintendent of the Indian Navy, Commodore Sir Robert Oliver, for ‘care and naval education’.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Depositions of ‘Amber’ and ‘Roba’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 381. Crown copyright.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Songoee’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 373. Crown copyright.

Grant had also been instructed to invite applications from ‘respectable persons’ to take the women and girls on as servants, with preference to be given to Christian families. He informed the Government of Bombay on 30 December 1847 that there had been many applicants, mostly ‘Mahomedans’ [Muslims], and also ‘a few respectable Portuguese Gentlemen’. He met the applicants at the house where the women and girls were being accommodated and ‘did all in [his] power to induce some of them’ to accompany the Portuguese applicants to their homes. Grant had previously reported that the women and girls ‘have been taught nothing whatever of Religion beyond the fact that there is a God – and on this score consequently no difficulties present themselves as regards their disposal’. However, he now reported that:

‘on the very mention of their taking service with Christian families, they became most violent, declaring that they would rather lose their lives than enter the families of the “Frank” and the “Kafir” [non-believers]. – as they designated all who had not on the Mahomedan garb’.

Only one woman, ‘Zaide’, agreed to take service with one of the Portuguese applicants. Grant wrote that he ultimately persuaded ‘the greater number of the girls’ to accompany ‘some respectable Mahomedan Gentlemen’ to their houses, but they:

‘divided themselves into parties of four or five each, and absolutely refused to be separated. They were, therefore, made over according to their own selection to the most respectable of the applicants, who promised to take care of them in their families till they should have acquired such knowledge of the language and the people among whom they have been brought to live as to enable them to act for themselves. They were most capricious in fixing on the individuals to accompany; those whose dress approximated to that worn by Arabs seemed to be preferred; and there was no alternative but to let them have their choice’.

Grant went on to state that he would communicate the manner in which the remaining girls ‘may be disposed of’, but this is the last reference to them in this file.

The Government of Bombay instructed Oliver to direct the naval officers in the Persian Gulf to make the seizures of the baghlahs widely known, so that ‘all may see the firm purpose of Government to suppress slavery’. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had transformed Britain from a nation prolific in the trade in enslaved people (including involvement in the Indian Ocean trade between the 1620s and the late eighteenth century), to the world’s leading campaigner against the trade. The British naval campaign against the trade in enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean was active from the 1840s, following a series a legal agreements to suppress the trade with Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd and rulers on the Arabian coast of the Gulf. Naval suppression measures up to 1860 were insufficient though, and by the 1850s only a relatively small number of enslaved people had been liberated. In 1873, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Barghash bin Sa‘īd Āl Bū Sa‘īd, signed a treaty banning the trade in enslaved people in his territory. This treaty did not actually end the trade in the western Indian Ocean, but it meant it was illegal and clandestine, and the treaty was followed by conventions between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire in 1880 and Persia (Iran) in 1882 which aided suppression efforts in the Red Sea and the Gulf.

Susannah Gillard, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image

Further reading


Richard B. Allen, ‘Satisfying the "Want for Labouring People": European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850’ Journal of World History, 21 (2010), 45-73.

Gwyn Campbell (ed.), Abolition and its Aftermath in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, London: Routledge, 2005. (YC.2007.a.1041)

Gwyn Campbell (ed.), The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, London: Frank Cass, 2003. (YC.2005.a.4903)

Robert Harms, Bernard K. Freamon, and David W. Blight (eds.), Indian Ocean Slavery in the Age of Abolition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. (YC.2014.a.11288)

Hideaki Suzuki, Slave Trade Profiteers in the Western Indian Ocean: Suppression and Resistance in the Nineteenth Century , Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. (DRT ELD.DS.342900)