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Unbelievable Taxes from Ancient History

posted November 03, 2016

By Kallie Szczepansk , Asian History Expert updated August 09, 2016.

Each year, people in the modern world fret and groan about paying their taxes. Yes, it can be painful – but at least your government only demands money!

At other points in history, governments have imposed much harsher demands on their citizens. Read more about some of the worst taxes ever.

  1. Japan: Hideyoshi’s Rice Tax

In the 1590s, Japan’s taiko, Hideyoshi, decided to regularize the country’s taxation system.

He abolished taxes on some things, like seafood, but imposed a tax of 67% on all rice crop yields. That’s right – farmers had to give 2/3 of their rice to the central government!

Many local lords, or daimyo, also collected taxes from the farmers who worked in their districts. In some cases, the farmers of Japan had to give every grain of rice they produced to the daimyo, who would then return just enough for the farm family to survive as “charity.”

Source: De Bary, William Theodore. Sources of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

 

  1. Siam: Labor Tax

Up until 1899, the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) used to tax its peasants through a system of corvee labor. Each farmer had to spend three months of the year or more working for the king, rather than earning money for his own family.

At the turn of the last century, Siam’s elites realized that this forced labor system was causing political unrest. They decided to allow the peasants to work for themselves all year, and levy income taxes in money instead.

Source: Tarling, Nicholas. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

  1. Shaybanid Dynasty: Wedding Tax

Under the rule of the Shaybanid Dynasty in what is now Uzbekistan, during the 16th century, the government imposed a heavy tax on weddings.

This tax was called the madad-i toyana. There is no record of it causing a drop in the marriage rate, but you have to wonder…

In 1543, this tax was outlawed as being against Islamic law.

Source: Soucek, Svatopluk. A History of Inner Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Peter Adams / Getty Images

  1. India: Breast Tax

In the early 1800s, women of some low castes in India had to pay a tax called mulakkaram (“breast tax”) if they wanted to cover their chests when they went outside of their homes. This type of modesty was considered a privilege of upper caste ladies.

The tax rate was high, and varied according to the size and attractiveness of the breasts in question.

In 1840, a woman in the town of Cherthala, Kerala refused to pay the tax. In protest, she cut off her breasts and presented them to the tax collectors.

She died of blood loss later that night, but the tax was repealed the next day.

Sources: Sadasivan, S.N. A Social History of India, Mumbai: APH Publishing, 2000.C. Radhakrishnan, The Unforgettable Contributions of Nangeli in Kerala.

Priceypoos on Flickr.com

  1. Ottoman Empire: Tax Payment in Sons

Between 1365 and 1828, the Ottoman Empire levied what may have been the cruelest tax in history. Christian families living within Ottoman lands had to give their sons to the government in a process called the devshirme.

Approximately every four years, government officials would travel throughout the country selecting likely-looking boys and young men between 7 and 20 years old. These boys converted to Islam and became the personal property of the sultan; most were trained as soldiers for the Janissary corps.

The boys generally had good lives – but how terrible for their mothers!

Source: Lybyer, Albert Howe. The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913.

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