Coerced labour: culture or demography?

William G. Clarence-Smith, SOAS, London (


According to the Nieboer Hypothesis, coerced labour arises where labour is in short supply in relation to land, but this elegantly simple proposition conflates micro and macro levels. While it may make sense for the individual employer or 'firm' to coerce workers, the process is destructive of overall labour supplies. Early Modern Mainland Southeast Asia's population stagnated at a low level despite a favourable ecology, due to incessant war between competing rulers, aiming to seize forced labour for wet rice cultivation. Similarly, Humphrey Fisher suggests that slaving kept population densities in West Africa low. Conversion to Islam emerged as a regulating and restricting compromise, banning the enslavement of Muslims, the mistreatment of slaves and human sacrifice.

That said, one cannot stand the Nieboer Hypothesis on its head and argue that low population density was the consequence of coerced labour. Some areas which resorted to coercion had large populations. There were some 8 million slaves in British India in 1843, and perhaps 25 million in China, compared to around 2 million freed in the British Caribbean after 1833. At the same time, peoples disposing of little labour might shun coercion, for example hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari and Amazon Basins, and pastoralists of East and South Africa.

It thus makes more sense to see coerced labour as emerging from a wider matrix of culture and institutions. Maritime Southeast Asia's criminal and civil law made slavery the normal result of serious crime and debt. Similarly, John Thornton suggests that African slavery reflected a legal system where people were privileged over land as assets. Some African pastoralists avoided slavery because they stressed livestock as collateral.

Religion may hold the ultimate key. Localised Animist societies often lacked a concept of the 'humanity' of out-groups, treating them as a kind of livestock. World religions were ambivalent. Hindu-Buddhist reincarnation made status depend on actions in previous lives, Confucian 'filial piety' turned a slave into a quasi-child, and Judaic faiths preached submission to constituted authority. However, there were also powerful traditions of equality of believers (and more widely of humans as potential believers), which sat uneasily with slavery and forced labour. The admissibility of coercion may thus have depended on complex struggles within religions.