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Women and Economic Change: The Pepper Trade in Pre-Modern Southeast Asia

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Women in Southeast Asia are traditionally said to have occupied a “high status”, especially in comparison with China and India. As yet, however, little research has been undertaken on the pre-modern period. This paper examines the development of the pepper trade in Sumatra during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and explores the manner in which this new cash crop affected the position of women. Prior to the introduction of pepper, females dominated horticulture and local marketing. Initially pepper was incorporated into household gardens, but increased production made its growing and marketing less easily allied with domestic tasks. The arrival of Europeans accelerated the process whereby control of pepper resources fell into male hands, both local and foreign. Declining prices meant pepper's popularity declined, but the Dutch and English East India Companies still tried to persuade local rulers to enforce cultivation. On the east coast of Sumatra the pepper areas were far from coastal centers of control, and compulsion proved impossible. On the west coast, however, the pepper districts were closer to English posts, and the changes brought about by forced cultivation were therefore more far reaching. Women were particularly affected, since Europeans saw plantation agriculture as a male preserve, with females occupying a secondary position. Growing local resistance to pepper growing is normally attributed to the low returns it offered from the mid seventeenth century onwards. As a case study, this paper suggests that another element was the cultural disruption that European policies introduced, and especially the effects on the traditional roles of women in the domestic economy.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Asian Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa


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