early texts from which Cambodian history is derived are replete with references to
slaves. Indeed, slaves seem to have been an integral part of life for most Cambodians.
A maxim of Cbpab Preah Rajamsambhar, dating to the early 18th century, advised that
a good man was one who had "a happy wife and home, children who obey their father,
and slaves who bring themselves to their master to hear his orders."
Yet very little is known of slave roles, their social status, or even who these people
were. Some information is available, however; from the fifth century when Chinese
diplomats recorded that in Cambodia "They take by force the inhabitants of nearby
towns that do not pay them tribute, and make them into their slaves." This resulted
in peoples of different ethnicities serving in Cambodian palaces, households, and
temples. Many inscriptions, even those from before the heyday of Angkor, refer to
Mon, Cham and "yuan" (possibly Javanese) slaves.
There appears to have been very little difference between male and female slaves
in pre-modern Cambodia. Usually inscriptions listed them separately, as knyum ta
si, "slaves that are male," followed by a list, and knyum ta kantai, "slaves
that are female" with a list of women and children. All toiled as laborers in
rice paddies, orchards and fields. As a group they appear to have had ties to particular
people rather than places, as donors gave, removed and redistributed them to religious
personages and communities at will.
Indravarman I (877-889) donated to a temple "a great number of pretty dancers,
singers, reciters, musicians, a great number of handsome and well-made men, tutored
in dance and other arts, of good virtue, ornamented with finery."
Female singers, dancers and musicians received elegant names such as "Jasmine
blossom." Others names reveal more salacious roles, such as "Born-for-love,"
"She-who-laughs-for-penis" and "She-who-eats-penis," although
it is unclear whether these were due to the characters of the persons so named or
a reference to the acts they performed. If the latter is true, there is evidence
to suggest that sexual duties were not universally popular; one inscription records
a woman known as "Penis-hater." Male slaves also received names of this
type, such as "Catch-him-if-you-want-him" and "Mischievous-penis."
Any children of a woman designated a slave automatically became slaves themselves,
clear evidence that at least this strata of society in early Cambodia operated according
to matrilineal lines. For example, during the reign of Yasovarman I (889-910) a female
slave named Kantem was purchased and "the ownership of this woman was given
until her death, and that of her children and grandchildren." It mattered little
if a slave became pregnant, as her master would thereby increase his number of slaves.
Paternity was unimportant.
It was considered extremely bad form for free persons to approach a slave woman of
their own accord for sexual favors. Zhou Daguan, a visitor to Angkor at the end of
the 13th century, recorded that "if by chance a Chinese, arriving in the country
after long abstinence, should assuage his appetite with one of the women slaves,
and the fact becomes known to her owner, the latter would refuse to be seated in
the presence of the man." Slave women remained the property of their master
and were his to offer to his guests, or to avail himself of, as he saw fit.
The practice of offering wo-men to visitors continued well into the modern period.
Jacob van Neck, a Dutch trader of the 17th century, related that as soon as Europeans
arrived in a Southeast Asian port, local men "come and ask them whether they
do not desire a woman." This offering of hospitality, in addition to food and
lodging, was aimed at securing the goodwill, and therefore the business, of the particular
trader. As it was customary for traders to stay for months or even years, temporary
marriages would often be entered into between foreigners and women with obligations
to the master of the house.
These "temporary wives" were great assets. Women in early Cambodia were
responsible for day-to-day economic transactions. The mercantile skills of local
women were an asset to a foreign trader. But there were other benefits of acquiring
a temporary wife: "Once they agree about the money (which does not amount to
much for so great a convenience), she comes to the house, and serves him by day as
his maidservant and by night as his bedded wife. He is then not able to consort with
other women or he will be in grave trouble with his wife, but the marriage lasts
as long as he keeps his residence there, in good peace and unity."
Temporary marriages were conducted in the same manner as a permanent union. Partners
were expected to behave with respect and fidelity towards each other. Local rules
applied to these marriages, with the relatives of the women concerned prepared to
act on their behalf should they be mistreated at the hands of their husband.
Often traders preferred slave women as they were accustomed to fulfilling both domestic
and sexual roles, and, unlike free women, they had recourse to fewer rights under
the law. Middle Cambodian law described three categories of wives, the lowest of
which was prapuon jerng or tasey pirea, an alternative rendition of the Sanskrit
dasi bhariya, "slave wife."
Women with obligations - be they slaves or poor relatives - to the Cambodian elite
in the premodern period were socially bound to fulfil a variety of roles, including
providing sexual services, in furthering the interests or objectives of their patrons.
There was no stigma attached to this; upon the departure of a temporary "husband,"
women could be enter into a liaison with another, "in all propriety, without
scandal." The degree to which such women were able to exercise any freedom of
choice in the matter, however, is highly debatable.
There are 35 complete and fragmentary documents in Khmer that make up the Cambodian
chronicles, found by the French in various wats, the royal palace, and in the possession
of elite families. None date earlier than 1796.
They incorporate earlier oral histories and texts that have since been lost to the
climate and upheaval of civil wars. Together these 35 documents make up eight different
versions of Cambodian history.
Two Khmer scholars working in France, Khin Sok and Mak Phoeun, have translated the
most comprehensive account of the chronicles into French, also offering commentaries
upon dates and events, and supplying in appendices the different or missing accounts.
About the author
* Dr Trudy Jacobsen is lecturer in history at the School of History, Philosophy,
Religion and Classics of the Unversity of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. She has
taught courses on Contemporary Southeast Asia; Genocide and Persecution, Revenge
and Reconciliation; and Ghosts from the Past - Problems of Revenge and Reconciliation