One form of history that is fascinating to read but a challenge to research is what is often referred to now as subaltern history or “history from below.” This is history not of states and the elite, but of the common people.
Subaltern history is difficult to research because it is hard to find evidence of what common people thought, as their voices are often absent in historical sources. In other words, it is difficult to hear the subalterns “speak.”
One place where you can get a sense of at least what the lives of some common people were like in the past is from court records. To be sure, what we find in court records does not accurately represent what life was like for an entire group of people, but it can provide insights nonetheless.
I was reminded of this the other day as I was reading about a court case from Rangoon, Burma in 1900 in the Rangoon Gazette.
What follows is a summary of the case. Much of what I have below is directly quoted from the article.
Yenketaswamy, a coolie, was charged with attempting to murder a woman, named Padami, on the 25th February last by cutting her neck with a dah [i.e., a knife] under such circumstances that if death had been caused he would have been guilty of murder.
The prisoner on the 24th February, which was a Saturday, at 7-30 p.m. went to the room of this woman, Padami, for an immoral purpose.
The woman alleged that the prisoner took with him two bottles of liquor, one of beer and the other of brandy, and during the course of the evening he himself imbibed one bottle, the other being put by.
They both appeared to have been together until one o’clock in the morning, when the prisoner awoke her and requested her to lie on her back. She appeared to have demurred and said she was accustomed to lie on her side.
She then went to sleep.
At 2 o’clock, her story was [that] she was roused by the prisoner cutting her throat with the knife. She naturally screamed out, and one witness whom Counsel would call, who had a room underneath, stated that she heard the woman call out that a man was cutting her throat with a knife. Padami seized hold of him by the waistband.
An Arab who happened to be in the adjoining room name Abdulla heard the woman’s screams and he rushed to the spot. He stood at the door-way and saw the prisoner with a knife in his hand and the woman grappling the prisoner by the waistband.
Another man who lived in the same building came up from below and he happened to look from the doorway and saw the same thing.
The woman who lived underneath, stated that directly [after she] heard that the man was cutting the woman’s throat she rushed upstairs and she likewise saw the prisoner with the knife.
Yenketaswamy did not deny that he had committed this act, however he presented various versions of what happened that different from what Padami claimed. He stated in one version that he went to the room of this woman whom he did not know before, that he gave her Rs. 4 [for] immoral purposes and as she refused, he was justified in exercising this spite or retaliation.
Another version is that he gave the woman Rs. 4 to procure another woman and that she failed to do so, and he therefore committed this act.
The jury concluded after a few minutes of deliberation that Yenketaswamy was not guilty of attempted murder, but that he was guilty of causing grievous hurt to Padami with a dangerous weapon.
In sentencing the prisoner, His Honour told him that his act was more that of a wild beast than that of a human being. The accused was sentenced to transportation for life.
So can we hear the subaltern speak here? One would have to read more of such cases and study more about the history of the period to say for sure, but this case does provide an interesting picture of the life of some common people at that time.
It is not clear to me if the location where the crime took place was a house of prostitution or some boarding house for migrant workers. What is interesting is that there were men and women in the same building, and people of different ethnicities, namely Arabs and South Asians.
Yenketaswamy went there to sleep with a woman for 4 rupees. Was Abdulla doing the same thing next door? Or did he live there? If he lived there, what did he think about the fact that a woman next door was prostituting herself? Who was the woman downstairs and what did she do?
The scene of this crime brings up many questions about who the people there were and what they were doing not only in that house but in Burma as well. Such questions are difficult to answer, but in seeking to find out more we can get some sense of how some common people at the time lived.
For the entire article about this court case, see the following: