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Author Topic: Slave Trade in East Africa & The Sahara  (Read 20792 times)
Posts: 533

« on: March 07, 2014, 12:35:22 PM »

Slave Trade in East Africa & The Sahara

By Dr. Akosua Perbi

Before the 1500s, the majority of slaves were moved from East Africa to the Arabian mainland. Arab slave traders as opposed to European traders preferred to carry out raiding sorties, often travelling far into Africa. Their other distinction was that their markets back home preferred to buy female slaves as opposed to male.  This was because there was a stronger demand for household maids as well as sexual slaves rather than slaves to work on farms.

Zanzibar became an important sea port for the trade. In 1822, the Omani Arabs signed the Moresby Treaty which amongst other things, made it illegal for them to sell slaves to Christian powers. However, the anti-slaving treaty was widely ignored, and the trade in Black Africans continued. Caravans departed from Bagamoyo on the coast, travelling as far inland as 1,000 miles on foot up to Lake Tanganyika. Slaves who survived the long trek from the interior were crammed into dhows bound for Zanzibar, and paraded for sale in the Zanzibar Slave Market.

The trade in slaves in East Africa at this time was intense. Demand for ivory reached its peak as the industrial revolution in the west made luxury items, such as billiard balls and piano keys, more popular. In 1856 alone, Zanzibar exported a quarter of a million pounds of ivory. Slaves were needed for the arduous caravan journeys upcountry, where diseases such as sleeping sickness killed horses and donkeys. However, burgeoning clove plantations in Zanzibar and Pemba began to create such a high demand for slaves that by the 1860s, more than two-fifths of the 22,000 slaves exported from Kilwa yearly remained in Zanzibar and Pemba. Although British colonial documents described the East African slave trade as “Arab,” less than a fifth of these slaves were transported to the Arabian Peninsula, India and Indian Ocean Islands.

One must understand that the 18th century definition of "Black" did not exist in this period and some so-called Arabs were Arab linguistically but racially African. Thus, the Arab trade in enslaved Africans was not only conducted by Asiatic and Caucasian Arabs, but also African Arabs: Africans speaking Arabic as a first language embracing an Arab culture. These Africans would have been part of the Arab society; they would have permanently resided within Arabia for generations.

The expanding presence of Europeans along the East coast pushed Arab traders to focus on the land slave caravan routes across the Sahara Dessert from North Africa to the Sahel region.

In North Africa slavery was practiced in the Sahara desert and its southern border lands as well as in the region of modern western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria among the Berbers. In the Central Sahara and in the sub desert areas further south, the Tuaregs practiced slavery. In North East Africa, the Ethiopians, Somalis, Egyptians and the people of the Sudan were all familiar with the institution of slavery.


Slave cell at Mji Mkongwe (Stone Town), Zanzibar

Slave cells were built below sea level
Posts: 533

« Reply #1 on: March 07, 2014, 12:54:26 PM »

"The role of Islamic traders on the African continent is one that is crucial in bridging the gap between indigenous servitude systems and the genocidal European-generate slave trade. According to Kwaku Parson Lynn, when Arabs arrived in Africa in earnest in the name of spreading Islam, this brought a whole new dimension to the African systems of servitude. To understand the profound effect Islam had on the nature of slavery in Africa, one must understand the Islamic ideology of slavery. All who were non-Muslim were seen as kufr, or infidels. While a Muslim could not enslave a fellow Muslim, all others were acceptable. While in traditional African servitude systems the dependents retained certain rights and privileges and were not seen as outsiders in the clan, in the Islamic world-view all slaves by virtue of their non-belief were outside of the strict lines of lineage and genealogy and were "without honour and praise and identity – moved by savage and irrational instincts; swayed by animal propensities; indeed... outside civilized life if not outside humanity itself" (Willis 4) Probably one of the best indicators of the conditions of slaves under this Islamic code was that of the Zanj. Runoko Rashidi tells of Zanj slave revolts in Baghdad:
"Here were gathered tens of thousands of East African slave laborers called Zanj. These Blacks worked in the humid salt marshes in conditions of extreme misery. Conscious of their large numbers and oppressive working conditions the Zanj rebelled on at least three occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries... The rebels themselves, hardened by years of brutal treatment, repaid their former masters in kind, and are said to have been responsible for great slaughters in the areas that came under their sway". (Rashidi)"


"The conditions described in this extract seem to resemble the chattel slavery of Europeans that Africans would be subject to in the Americas. It is important to mention as well the prevalent view that many Arab traders had of African people. While several scholars and humanitarians wrote tracts and treatises defending Africans, they could not stem the tide of the negative attitudes that many Muslim elites had towards Africans and other minorities. The strong influence of Jewish tradition on Islamic society can be partially blamed for this, given the exegetical works of the Jewish/ Babylonian Talmud that concur that black people were cursed with blackness by God as punishment for their ancestor Ham, son of Noah. (Willis 66) While extensive scholarship has not been able to fully determine the extent of this negative attitude, one can surmise that the combination of non-belief in Islam and the blackness of Africans did not auger well for future relations.

While in the 15th century the prized commodity traded between Arab and African traders was gold, by the jihads of the 18th century, slaves soon eclipsed gold as the primary commodity. Nehemia Levtzion details the swift change in the mode of the slave trade as well as the social and political relationship between states. Islam not only created divisions between the converted and the kufr, but it also introduced a different element, that of the superiority of some tribes over others." The Islamization of the people of Bagirmi southeast of the Lake Chad made them consider themselves superior to their neighbors; proud of their supposed preeminence and eager for the profits of the slave trade they raided their own neighbors" (Levtzion 183) Islam, as a military and political force to be reckoned with by this time, forced many tribes to appear Islamic or to convert to Islam to benefit from the protection of their forces against other tribes who also were eager to share in the spoils of the slave trade. What we observe here is a dramatic shift in the indigenous African systems of servitude, which operated on a much smaller scale, to a widespread raiding and trading spree. Large portions of the population, instead of being circulated to build and serve in African tribes, were shipped off the continent to labour on plantations in the West and the Far East. This period of Islamization altered the shape of African society, and paved the way for the European entrance."

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