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A story of slavery and freedom

Histories connecting to slavery are among the worst stories from human history. But, we continue to tell them because they hide important lessons that we can’t afford to forget.

In the Cocos Keeling Islands—a circle of islands with many coconut palms, far off Australia's northwest coast—a very discreet form of slavery took shape and survived until recently as 1984. The man who first inhabited the islands, John Clunies-Ross, started populating them through the mid1900s with labourers of Javanese and Malay origins. They became the workforce for a thriving coconut plantation that Clunies-Ross owned. The Clunies-Ross family maintained control of the islands for five generations with sons succeeding the fathers. The Clunies-Ross family had a favourable relationship with the British empire to which Cocos Islands belonged; The administration of Cocos Islands was first handled by Ceylon and later Australia. But, the Clunies-Ross family controlled the education, healthcare, food and most importantly, the currency—the Cocos Rupee. The Clunies-Ross family positioned themselves as the royalty of Cocos Island and used the name ‘Tuan’ which translates to ‘Sir’ in Malay spoken by nearly 70%. Following a method used by many rulers to build trust with a local majority, Clunies-Ross sons imported brides from the Malay aristocracy; they styled themselves Ross I, Ross II, up to Ross V with Malay names like Tuan Pandai, Tuan Tinggi, Tuan John etc.

The currency introduced for Cocos' citizens by the Clunies-Ross family was ‘Cocos Rupee’; it was actually a token that could only be used at the Clunies-Ross family store which controlled the food in the islands. The Cocos Rupee tokens were first made of paper and later from ivorine—a form of plastic that mimics ivory. Only 5000-odd Cocos Rupee tokens were made according to records. These tokens were what ultimately pegged the people of Cocos in a discreet, nevertheless ugly, form of slavery.

Even as the anachronistic notion of monarchy faded with the failure of empires around the world, Cocos Keeling Islands remained under the control of the Clunies-Ross family. In 1974, a UN mission visiting the islands criticised the Australian government for allowing the John Clunies-Ross to continue controlling the currency, education, and health care. For the next date, the Australian government tried to coerce the Clunies-Ross family to hand over the controls, but they resisted. Eventually, in 1978, John Clunies-Ross sold his land to the Commonwealth under threat of compulsory acquisition.

The story of Cocos Islands was not a case of inhuman atrocities that we usually hear in stories relating to slavery; nor of physical or verbal abuse. But, there was a vicious undercurrent of selfishness and control. Power was being distributed through the virtue of birth. Opportunities were controlled. Access was regulated through one family. It was a case of one family imposing the most fundamental conditions of other citizens’ life—a role reserved only for parents and guardians. It was a breach of freedom.

These stories are still relevant today because we see modern forms of slavery in the world continuing this ugly pattern with politically powerful families and self-interested leaders trying to exert unfair control for narrow, egotistic reasons.

Controlling access to basic rights and resources, pushing people into states of dependency, and limiting access to education and self-sustenance are still ways that modern, more subtle forms of slavery continue in the world under the mask of governance.

We discovered a wooden box mounted with a rare Cocos Island Rupee token through an antique dealer in Sri Lanka. It reads ‘Keeling Cocos Islands 1910’. Knowing that Cocos Islands' administrative functions of the British empire were once centred in Ceylon, we can speculate that this rare token ended up here that way.

These tokens are valued by coin collectors for their rarity. But of course, what we find the most intriguing about it, is the story connecting to the question of freedom; the story of how a system of governance should always be in the interest of the public, not one family. We find this token a fascinating piece linking to themes like power, freedom and justice.


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