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Voyage to Madagascar: Thomas Locke Lewis and the Anglo-Merina Treaty of 1817

Slavery, ownership and exchange

The fact that Radama could distribute land was only one of the King’s powers over property. Lewis states that: ‘All possessions belong to, and are at the immediate disposal of the King; but owing to political motives, he never disturbs those to whom he has granted property, and these possessions descend in a direct line of inheritance and so easy is it to obtain land that disputes on this subject seldom occur.’

An understanding of the nature of property ownership and how it changed hands would likely have been an important commercial consideration for trade. Similarly, understanding how goods were bought and sold also interested Lewis. The Ovah, he claims, ‘well know the use of money and their love of it is extreme’, and that it was ‘for scents and baubles’ and the accessories of dress ‘that they will part with their money freely’.

Manuscript text relating to a voyage to MadagascarOpening showing pages 44 & 45However, for the Ovah people, the system of exchange was not solely based upon currency. A barter system also existed, and whether money or bartering was used depended on the transaction: ‘Slaves, rice & cattle’ could be bartered ‘for arms, clothes, ammunition, & money’, and such money could be used ‘for scents, baubles & the like’ (pp 39-40, 44-45).

The system was made more complex when it came to slavery, as a monetary value was assigned to slaves from which part-payment could be made, with the remainder of the value to be made up through bartering. The monetary value that could be used would alter, however, ‘entirely upon circumstances’.

Lewis records that ‘previous to the prohibition of the traffic, they were sold in the interior from eight to twenty dollars; a smaller portion is always paid in Money, and the balance in cloth at nearly treble its cost at the Mauritius; or gunpowder or arms at six times their cost’. He goes on to say that ‘This is one third of the price that slaves are sold for at the coast’ (pp 44-45).

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