Silences in the Archives

While the slave manumission statements recorded by British officials are an invaluable source for the study of slave trade routes and the social and familial lives of slaves in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, the statements are not always as detailed in this regard as historians would like. In addition to being bureaucratic documents intended to determine whether the slave met the criteria for consular manumission, the statements were intended to provide actionable intelligence on slave-trading activities that had been prohibited by anti-slave trade agreements between Great Britain and the rulers of Oman, Bahrain, Iran, and the sheikhdoms of the Trucial Coast (today’s United Arab Emirates). British officials sought to use information gathered from slave testimonies to identify emerging slave traders and slave trade routes. Slave manumission statements and testimonies therefore often reflected British administrative and diplomatic priorities over any genuine interest or curiosity in slave experiences. The statements were not intended to be comprehensive biographies of slaves’ lived experience. Rather, the statements were intended to provide targeted information about two related aspects of the slave’s life:

  1. Was the slave imported illegally or otherwise sold in violation of Britain’s anti-slave trade agreements?
  2. What information can the slave provide about ongoing slave trading patterns, including slave catchers and dealers, that might permit the British to intervene diplomatically or navally?

The manumission statements consequently read somewhat formulaically as responses to a set series of questions designed to provide British officials with actionable information. We should not assume, therefore, that the manumission statements contain the entirety of slave stories, or, to put it in other words, that silences or things that go explicitly unmentioned in the statements demonstrate an absence of such experiences. Furthermore, when reading the slave manumission statements, it is important to keep in mind that slaves who absconded to British consulates often did so because they had grievances against their masters and those slaves who appear in the manumission statements were generally from the most vulnerable elements of the slave population in the Persian Gulf. As elsewhere in the Middle East, slaves served a variety of socioeconomic purposes in the Persian Gulf, including both productive and domestic labor. Slave grievances were consequently varied in that they reflected the vulnerabilities attendant to the labor to their socioeconomic roles in society. Elite slaves, such as eunuchs and slave soldiers, often enjoyed greater dignity and material comforts and were consequently far less likely to seek consular manumission than enslaved pearl divers and domestic laborers who lived lives of greater hardship and were more subject to daily indignities. We should not assume, therefore, that the manumission statements represent the full range of slave experiences, but rather the experiences of the most vulnerable enslaved populations. In other words, the British manumission statements provide us with a window into the familial and social lives of slaves and the range of vulnerabilities that slaves could be potentially subjected to.