Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph. – Haile Selassie.
Slave trade existed in the African sub-region for a very long time. On the Arabian slave trade there has been divergent views depending on the background of the scholar who writes. This brief piece therefore makes use of where these scholars share same or similar views/opinions.
While Europeans in their trade of slaves majorly targeted men in West Africa, the ‘Arab’ trade primarily targeted the women of East Africa to serve as domestic slaves, wet nannies and sex-slaves in the infamous harems (This is not to say men were not captured). Their children were born free to Arab fathers, and thus would have been heirs to wealth and status, fully and equally assimilated into the population (good for Arabia, bad for African identity). Their mothers received the title of “umm walad”, which was an improvement in their status as they could no longer be sold. Among Sunnis, they were automatically freed upon their master’s death, however for Shi’a, mothers were only freed so long as their children were still alive; a mother’s value is then deducted from this child’s share of the inheritance. These umm walad, attained “an intermediate position between slave and free” pending their freedom, although they would sometimes be nominally freed as soon as they gave birth.
However, Besteman, 1999 reveals that not all African women were raped or used for sex slavery. The Bantu (Hudwick) were less frequently used for sex-slavery as they were not seen as attractive as Habesha (Ethiopian) slaves. The Somali slavers avoided all sexual contact with Bantu slaves due to perceived racial superiority.
Arab enslavement of Africans was radically different from its European counterpart. It was more complex and varied depending on time and place.
NB: ‘Arab’ is not a racial group, but an overarching term hugging Arabs who are African and some who are White and Jewish. (Mizrahi, which includes Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, Kurdish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and Tunisian Jews). This makes any discussion of the Arab slave trade problematic using 21st century identity models.
Scope of the trade
Salt was profitable, gold was more profitable still, but no commodity was more abundant and profitable than slaves. There had always been slavery in Africa, but the Arabs brought to the trade a new thoroughness and energy, unsurpassed in its rapaciousness until the mercantilist economies of the West turned their attention to Africa.
The trade of slaves across the Sahara and across the Indian Ocean also has a long history, beginning with the control of sea routes by Arab and Swahili traders on the Swahili Coast during the ninth century. These traders captured Bantus (Zanj) from the interior in present-day Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania and brought them to the littoral. The captives were sold throughout the Middle East. This trade accelerated as superior ships led to more trade and greater demand for labour on plantations in the region. Eventually, tens of thousands of captives were being taken every year. The Zanj were for centuries shipped as slaves by Arab traders to all the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs recruited many Zanj slaves as soldiers and, as early as 696 AD, there were slave revolts of the Zanj called the Zanj Rebellion against their Arab enslavers in Iraq.
During the 19th century, the Arab slave trade took a brutal turn. The Portuguese had destroyed the Swahili coast and Zanzibar emerged as the hub of wealth for the Arabian state of Muscat. By 1839, slaving became the prime Arab enterprise. The demand for slaves in Arabia, Egypt, Persia and India, but more notably by the Portuguese who occupied Mozambique and created a wave of destruction on Eastern Africa. 45,000 slaves were passing through Zanzibar every year.
It’s worth stating that in April 1998, Elikia M’bokolo, wrote in Le Monde diplomatique. “The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth).” He continues: “Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean”.
The most expensive enslaved group in Arabian societies were the eunuchs who were castrated men drawn from Europe but also Darfur, Abyssinia, Korodofan and other African nations. Ironically because of their lack of sexual function they obtained great privileges while African female slaves privileges were due to their sexuality. Young boys, victims from raids and wars were subjected to the horrid monstrous inhumane process of castration without anaesthesia which had a 60% mortality. To stop the bleeding hot coals were cast into the naked wound, which was followed by the most blood curdling alien scream a human could make. If the child survived this brutal act there was to be a life of influence and luxury; silk garments, Arabian thoroughbreds, jewels, were bestowed on them to reflect the wealth of their masters.(Hunwick) Strangely eunuchs were both distinguished and greatly revered as elites in Arab society, despite being enslaved. They served as guards and caretakers of mosques as well as administrators.
One of the biggest differences between Arab slaving and European slaving was that slaves were drawn from all racial groups and they were rarely used as a means of crop production; slaves were not the economic engine behind Arab economies. Social mobility was possible “from slave to Sultan” (Mamluks and Najahid dynasty), many Africans were used in the armies of Moroccan sultan (17th century) and also in the Egyptian forces during the early days of Islamic expansion.
Unlike the European trade in enslaved Africans, the physical remnants of this trade are very hard to measure. No one has detailed records of numbers lost, or a full chronology of events.
Slavery, mild or otherwise, is a crime against a human being.
Alexander, J. (2001). “Islam, Archaeology and Slavery in Africa”. World Archaeology. 33 (1): 44–60.
Allan G. B. Fisher (1970). Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa, ed. C. Hurst. London .
Catherine Lowe Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery, (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1999).
Edward R. Tannenbaum, Guilford Dudley (1973). A History of World Civilizations. Wiley. p. 615.
Gwyn Campbell (2003).The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. 1 edition, Routledge, p.ix.
Habeeb Akande, Illuminating the Darkness: Blacks and North Africans in Islam (Ta Ha 2012)
John Donnelly Fage and William Tordoff (December 2001). A History of Africa (4 ed.). Budapest: Routledge. p. 258.
Lewis, Bernard (2002), Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford University Press, p. 93.
Murray Gordon (1989). Slavery in the Arab World. New York: New Amsterdam Books. p. 41.
Patrick Manning (1990). Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge, UK.
Paul Lovejoy, Slavery On the Frontiers of Islam
Paul E. Lovejoy (2000). Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. Cambridge, UK.
Talhami, Ghada Hashem (1 January 1977). “The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered”. The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 10 (3): 443–461.