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Arab slave trade

The Arab slave trade was the practice of slavery in West Asia, North Africa, East Africa, and certain parts of Europe (such as Sicily and Iberia) during their period of domination by Arab leaders. The trade mostly involved North and East Africans and Middle Eastern peoples (Arabs, Berbers, etc.). Also, the Arab slave trade was not limited to people of certain color, ethnicity, or religion. In the early days of the Islamic state—during the 8th and 9th centuries—most of the slaves were Slavic Eastern Europeans (called Saqaliba), people from surrounding Mediterranean areas, Persians, Turks, other neighbouring Middle Eastern peoples, peoples from the Caucasus Mountain regions (such as Georgia and Armenia) and parts of Central Asia, Berbers, and various other peoples of varied origins as well as those of Black African origins. Later, toward the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves increasingly came from East Africa.

Some historians estimate that between 11 and 18 million black African slaves crossed the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara Desert from 650 AD to 1900 AD, or more than the 9.4 to 14 million Africans brought to the Americas in the Atlantic slave trade.

The medieval slave trade in Europe was mainly to the East and South: The Byzantine Empire and the Muslim World were the destinations, pagan Central and Eastern Europe an important source. Slavery in medieval Europe was so common that the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly prohibited it— or at least the export of Christian slaves to non-Christian lands was prohibited at, for example, the Council of Koblenz in 922, the Council of London in 1102, and the Council of Armagh in 1171. Viking, Arab, Greek and Jewish merchants (known as Radhanites) were all involved in the slave trade during the Early Middle Ages.

Periodic raiding expeditions were sent from Islamic Iberia to ravage the Christian Iberian kingdoms, bringing back booty and slaves. In a raid against Lisbon in 1189 CE, for example, the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansur took 3,000 female and child captives, while his governor of Córdoba, in a subsequent attack upon Silves in 1191 CE, took 3,000 Christian slaves.

According to Robert Davis between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates, who were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and sold as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries. These slaves were captured mainly from seaside villages from Italy, Spain, Portugal and also from more distant places like France or England, the Netherlands, Ireland and even Iceland and North America. The impact of these attacks was devastating – France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships, and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. Pirate raids discouraged settlement along the coast until the 19th century.

The Ottoman wars in Europe and Tatar raids brought large numbers of European Christian slaves into the Islamic world too.

The 'Oriental' or 'Arab' slave trade is sometimes called the 'Islamic' slave trade, but a religious imperative was not the driver of the slavery, Patrick Manning, a professor of World History, states. However, since if a non-Muslim population refuses to adopt Islam or pay the Jizzya protection/ subjugation tax, that population is considered to be at war with the Muslim "ummah" and therefore it becomes legal under Islamic law to take slaves from that non-Muslim population. Usage of the terms "Islamic trade" or "Islamic world" has been disputed by some Muslims as it treats Africa as outside of Islam, or a negligible portion of the Islamic world. Propagators of Islam in Africa often revealed a cautious attitude towards proselytizing because of its effect in reducing the potential reservoir of slaves.

From a Western point of view, the subject merges with the Oriental slave trade, which followed two main routes in the Middle Ages:

Historians say the Arab slave trade began in the 7th century and lasted more than a millennium. Arab traders brought Africans across the Indian Ocean from present-day Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, western Ethiopia and elsewhere in East Africa to present-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey and other parts of the Middle East and South Asia (mainly Pakistan and India). Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the New World, Arabs supplied African slaves to the Muslim world, which at its peak stretched over three continents from the Atlantic (Morocco, Spain) to India and eastern China.

Elikia M’bokolo, April 1998, Le Monde diplomatique. Quote:"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

Sources and historiography of the slave trade

A recent and controversial topic

The history of the slave trade has given rise to numerous debates amongst historians. For one thing, specialists are undecided on the number of Africans taken from their homes; this is difficult to resolve because of a lack of reliable statistics: there was no census system in medieval Africa. Archival material for the transatlantic trade in the 16th to 18th centuries may seem useful as a source, yet these record books were often falsified. Historians have to use imprecise narrative documents to make estimates which must be treated with caution: Luiz Felipe de Alencastro states that there were 8 million slaves taken from Africa between the 8th and 19th centuries along the Oriental and the Trans-Saharan routes. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau has put forward a figure of 17 million African people enslaved (in the same period and from the same area) on the basis of Ralph Austen's work. Paul Bairoch suggests a figure of 25 million African people subjected to the Arab slave trade, as against 11 million that arrived in the Americas from the transatlantic slave trade. Owen 'Alik Shahadah author of African Holocaust (audio documentary), puts the figure at 10 million and argues that the trade only boomed in the 18th century, prior to this the trade was "a trickle trade" and that exaggerated numbers have been claimed in order to de-emphasize the Transatlantic trade.

Another obstacle to a history of the Arab slave trade is the limitations of extant sources. There exist documents from non-African cultures, written by educated men in Arabic, but these only offer an incomplete and often condescending look at the phenomenon. For some years there has been a huge amount of effort going into historical research on Africa. Thanks to new methods and new perspectives, historians can interconnect contributions from archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, linguistics and demography to compensate for the inadequacy of the written record.

In Africa, slaves taken by African owners were often captured, either through raids or as a result of warfare, and frequently employed in manual labor by the captors. Some slaves were traded for goods or services to other African kingdoms.

The Arab slave trade from East Africa is one of the oldest slave trades, predating the European transatlantic slave trade by hundreds of years. Male slaves who were often made eunuchs were employed as servants, soldiers, or laborers by their owners, while female slaves, mostly from Africa, were long traded to the Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms by Arab and Oriental traders, some as concubines and others as servants. Arab, African, and Oriental traders were involved in the capture and transport of slaves northward across the Sahara desert and the Indian Ocean region into the Middle East, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent.

From approximately 650 CE until around 1900 CE the Arab slave trade continued in one form or another. The Moroccan Sultan Moulay Ismail "the Bloodthirsty" (1672-1727) raised a corps of 150,000 black slaves, called his Black Guard, who coerced the country into submission. Historical accounts and references to slave-owning nobility in Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere are frequent into the early 1920s. In 1953, sheikhs from Qatar attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II included slaves in their retinues, and they did so again on another visit five years later. As recently as the 1950s, the Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 450,000 — just 20% of the population. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 black Sudanese children and women had been taken into slavery in Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Slavery in Mauritania was legally abolished by laws passed in 1905, 1961, and 1981. It was finally criminalized in August 2007. It is estimated that up to 600,000 black Mauritanians, or 20% of the Mauritania’s population, are currently enslaved, many of them used as bonded labour. For some people, any mention of the slave-trading past of the Arab world is rejected as an attempt to minimise the transatlantic trade. Yet a slave trade in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Mediterranean pre-dates the arrival of any significant number of Europeans on the African continent.

Descendants of the African slaves brought to the Middle East during the slave-trade still exist there today, and are aware of their African origins.

Medieval Arabic Sources

These are given in chronological order. Scholars and geographers from the Arab world had been travelling to Africa since the time of Muhammad in the 7th century.

  • Al Masudi (died 957), Muruj adh-dhahab or Meadows of Gold, the reference manual for geographers and historians of the Muslim world. The author had travelled widely across the Arab world as well as the Far East.
  • Ya'qubi (9th century), Book of Countries
  • Al-Bakri, author of Book of Roads and Kingdoms, published in Cordoba around 1068, gives us information about the Berbers and their activities; he collected eye-witness accounts on Saharan caravan routes.
  • Al Idrisi (died circa 1165), Description of Africa and Spain
  • Ibn Battûta (died circa 1377), Marinid geographer who travelled to sub-Saharan Africa, to Gao and to Timbuktu. His principal work is called Gift for those who like to reflect on the curiosities of towns and marvels of travel.
  • Ibn Khaldun (died in 1406), historian and philosopher from North Africa. Sometimes considered as the historian of Arab, Berber and Persian societies. He is the author of Historical Prolegomena and History of the Berbers.
  • Ahmad al-Maqrî (died in 1442), Egyptian historian. His main contribution is his description of Cairo markets.
  • Leo Africanus (died circa 1548), author of a rare description of Africa.
  • Rifa'a al Tahtawi (died in 1873), who translated medieval works on geography and history. His work is mostly about Muslim Egypt.
  • Joseph Cuoq, ''Collection of Arabic sources concerning Western Africa between the 8th and 16th centuries (Paris 1975)

European texts (16th - 19th centuries)

Other sources

  • African Arabic and Ajami Manuscripts
  • African oral tradition
  • Kilwa Chronicle (16th century fragments)
  • Numismatics: analysis of coins and of their diffusion
  • Archaeology: architecture of trading posts and of towns associated with the slave trade
  • Iconography: Arab and Persian miniatures in major libraries
  • European engravings, contemporary with the slave trade, and some more modern
  • Photographs from the 19th century onward
  • Ethiopian (Ge'ez and Amharic)historical texts

Historical and geographical context of the Arab slave trade

A brief review of the region and era in which the Oriental and trans-Saharan slave trade took place should be useful here. It is not a detailed study of the Arab world, nor of Africa, but an outline of key points which will help with understanding the slave trade in this part of the world.

The Islamic world

The religion of Islam appeared in the 7th century CE, and in the next hundred years it was quickly diffused throughout the Mediterranean area, spread by Arabs who had conquered North Africa after its long occupation by the Berbers; they invaded the Iberian peninsula where they displaced the Visigoth kingdom. Arabs also took control of western Asia from the Byzantine Empire and from the Sassanid Persians. These regions therefore had a diverse range of different peoples. To some extent, these regions were unified by an imposed Islamic culture built on both religious and civic foundations; they used the Arabic language and the dinar (currency) in commercial transactions. Mecca in Arabia, then as now, was the holy city of Islam and pilgrimage centre for all Muslims, whatever their origins. It must be noted here that the conquests of the Arab armies and the expansion of the Islamic state that followed, have always resulted in the capture of war prisoners who were subsequently set free or turned into slaves or Raqeeq (رقيق) and servants rather than taken as prisoners as was the Islamic tradition in wars. Once taken as slaves, they had to be dealt with in accordance with the Islamic law which was the law of the Islamic state especially during the Umayyad and Abbasid eras. According to that law, slaves are allowed to earn their living if they opted for that, otherwise it is the owner’s (master) duty to provide for that. They also can’t be forced to earn money for their masters unless with an agreement between the slave and the master. This concept is called “مخارجة” in the Islamic jurisprudence. If the slave agrees to that and he would like the money s/he earns to be counted toward his/her emancipation then this has to be written in the form of a contract between the slave and the master. This is called “مكاتبة” (mukatabah) in the Islamic jurisprudence. Muslims believe that slave owners in Islam are strongly encouraged to perform “mukatabah” with their slaves as directed by Qur’an
And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. 24:33

The framework of Islamic civilisation was a well-developed network of towns and oasis trading centres with the market (souk, bazaar) at its heart. These towns were inter-connected by a system of roads crossing semi-arid regions or deserts. The routes were travelled by convoys, and black slaves formed part of this caravan traffic.

Arabic views on black people

Prejudice against black people, who were often known as Zanj, sometimes occurred in the works of several Arabic historians and geographers. In 14th century North Africa, the Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, wrote in his Muqaddimah:

However, Ibn Khaldun was also critical of his own people, the Arabs, especially the nomadic Bedouin tribes:

His critical attitude towards Arabs has led the scholar Mohammad A. Enan to suggest that Ibn Khaldun may have been a Berber pretending to be an Arab in order to gain social status, but Muhammad Hozien has responded to this claim stating that Ibn Khaldun or anyone else in his family never claimed to be Berber even when the Berbers were in power.

In the same period, the Egyptian historian Al-Abshibi (1388-1446) wrote, "It is said that when the [black] slave is sated, he fornicates, when he is hungry, he steals.

However, another North African Arabic geographer and traveller Ibn Battuta visited the Mali Empire in 1352 and held more positive views on black people, writing that they:

Africa: 8th through 19th centuries

In the 8th century AD, Africa was dominated by Arab-Berbers in the north: Islam moved southwards along the Nile and along the desert trails.

  • The Sahara was thinly populated. Nevertheless, since Antiquity there had been cities living on a trade in salt, gold, slaves, cloth, and on agriculture enabled by irrigation: Tahert, Oualata, Sijilmasa, Zaouila, and others. They were ruled by Arab, Berber, Fulani, Hausa and Tuaregs. Their independence was relative and depended on the power of the Maghrebi and Egyptian states.
  • In the Middle Ages, sub-Saharan Africa was called bilad -ul-Sûdân in Arabic, meaning land of the Blacks. It provided a pool of manual labour for North Africa and Saharan Africa. This region was dominated by certain states: the Ghana Empire, the Empire of Mali, the Kanem-Bornu Empire.
  • In eastern Africa, the coasts of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean were controlled by native Muslims, and Arabs were important as traders along the coasts. Nubia had been a "supply zone" for slaves since Antiquity. The Ethiopian coast, particularly the port of Massawa and Dahlak Archipelago, had long been a hub for the exportation of slaves from the interior, even in Aksumite times. The port and most coastal areas were largely Muslim, and the port itself was home to a number of Arab and Indian merchants.

The Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia often exported Nilotic slaves from their western borderland provinces, or from newly conquered or reconquered Muslim provinces. Native Muslim Ethiopian sultanates exported slaves as well, such as the sometimes independent Adal Sultanate. On the coast of the Indian Ocean too, slave-trading posts were set up by Arabs. The archipelago of Zanzibar, along the coast of present-day Tanzania, is undoubtedly the most notorious example of these trading colonies. East Africa and the Indian Ocean continued as an important region for the Oriental slave trade up until the 19th century. Livingstone and Stanley were then the first Europeans to penetrate to the interior of the Congo basin and to discover the scale of slavery there. The Arab Tippu Tip extended his influence and made many people slaves. After Europeans had settled in the Gulf of Guinea, the trans-Saharan slave trade became less important. In Zanzibar, slavery was abolished late, in 1897, under Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed.

Africa and the Arab slave trade

People were captured, transported, bought and sold by some very different characters. The trade passed through a series of intermediaries and enriched some sections of the Muslim aristocracy.

Slavery fed on wars between African peoples and states, which gave rise to an internal slave trade. Those conquered owed tribute in the form of men and women reduced to captivity. Sonni Ali Ber (1464–1492), emperor of Songhai, waged many wars to extend his territory.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Caliphs had tried to colonise the African shores of the Indian Ocean for commercial purposes. But these establishments were ephemeral, often founded by exiles or adventurers. The Sultan of Cairo sent slave traffickers on raids against the villages of Darfur. In the face of these attacks, the people formed militias, building towers and outer defences to protect their villages.

Geography of the slave trade

"Supply" zones

Merchants of slaves for the Orient stocked up in Europe. Danish merchants had bases in the Volga region and dealt in Slavs with Arab merchants. Circassian slaves were conspicuously present in the harems and there were many odalisques from that region in the paintings of Orientalists. Non-Muslim slaves were valued in the harems, for all roles (gate-keeper, servant, odalisque, musician, dancer, court dwarf). In the Ottoman Empire, the last black slave sold in Ethiopia named Hayrettin Effendi, was freed in 1918. The slaves of Slavic origin in Al-Andalus came from the Varangians who had captured them. They were put in the Caliph's guard and gradually took up important posts in the army (they became saqaliba), and even went to take back taifas after the civil war had led to an implosion of the Western Caliphate. Columns of slaves feeding the great harems of Cordoba, Seville and Grenada were organised by Jewish merchants (mercaderes) from Germanic countries and parts of Northern Europe not controlled by the Carolingian Empire. These columns crossed the Rhône valley to reach the lands to the south of the Pyrenees.

There are also many historical evidence and reports of North African Muslim slave raids all along the Mediterranean coasts across Christian Europe and beyond to even as far north as the British Isles and Iceland. See book titled White Gold

Slaves were also brought into the Arab world via Central Asia. many of these slaves went on to serve in the armies forming an elite rank.

  • At sea, Barbary pirates joined in this traffic when they could capture people by boarding ships or by incursions into coastal areas.
  • Nubia and Ethiopia were also "exporting" regions: in the 15th century, Ethiopians sold slaves from western borderland areas (usually just outside of the realm of the Emperor of Ethiopia) or Ennarea, which often ended up in India, where they worked on ships or as soldiers. They eventually rebelled and took power (dynasty of the Habshi Kings in Bengal 1487-1493).
  • The Sûdân region and Saharan Africa formed another "export" area, but it is impossible to estimate the scale, since there is a lack of sources with figures.
  • Finally, the slave traffic affected eastern Africa, but the distance and local hostility slowed down this section of the Oriental trade.

Routes

Caravan trails, set up in the 9th century, went past the oases of the Sahara; travel was difficult and uncomfortable for reasons of climate and distance. Since Roman times, long convoys had transported slaves as well as all sorts of products to be used for barter. To protect against attacks from desert nomads, slaves were used as an escort. Any who slowed down the progress of the caravan were killed.

Historians know less about the sea routes. From the evidence of illustrated documents, and travellers' tales, it seems that people travelled on dhows or jalbas, Arab ships which were used as transport in the Red Sea. Crossing the Indian Ocean required better organisation and more resources than overland transport. Ships coming from Zanzibar made stops on Socotra or at Aden before heading to the Persian Gulf or to India. Slaves were sold as far away as India, or even China: there was a colony of Arab merchants in Canton. Serge Bilé cites a 12th century text which tells us that most well-to-do families in Canton had black slaves whom they regarded as savages and demons because of their physical appearance. Although Chinese slave traders bought slaves (Seng Chi i.e. the Zanj) from Arab intermediaries and "stocked up" directly in coastal areas of present-day Somalia, the local Somalis -- referred to as Baribah and Barbaroi (Berbers) by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively (see Periplus of the Erythraean Sea),and no strangers to capturing, owning and trading slaves themselves -- were not among them:

One important commodity being transported by the Arab dhows to Somalia was slaves from other parts of East Africa. During the nineteenth century, the East African slave trade grew enormously due to demands by Arabs, Portuguese, and French. Slave traders and raiders moved throughout eastern and central Africa to meet the rising demand for enslaved men, women, and children. Somalia did not supply slaves -- as part of the Islamic world Somalis were at least nominally protected by the religious tenet that free Muslims cannot be enslaved -- but Arab dhows loaded with human cargo continually visited Somali ports.

Slave labor in East Africa was drawn exclusively from the Zanj, who were Negroid Bantu-speaking peoples that lived along the East African coast in an area roughly comprising modern-day Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. 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, we learn of slave revolts of the Zanj against their Arab enslavers in Iraq (see Zanj Rebellion). Ancient Chinese texts also mention ambassadors from Java presenting the Chinese emperor with two Seng Chi (Zanj) slaves as gifts, and Seng Chi slaves reaching China from the Hindu kingdom of Sri Vijaya in Java.

Barter

Slaves were often bartered for objects of various different kinds: in the Sûdân, they were exchanged for cloth, trinkets and so on. In the Maghreb, they were swapped for horses. In the desert cities, lengths of cloth, pottery, Venetian glass beads, dyestuffs and jewels were used as payment. The trade in black slaves was part of a diverse commercial network. Alongside gold coins, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic (Canaries, Luanda) were used as money throughout black Africa (merchandise was paid for with sacks of cowries).

Slave markets and fairs

Enslaved Africans were sold in the towns of the Muslim world. In 1416, al-Makrisi told how pilgrims coming from Takrur (near the Senegal river) had brought 1700 slaves with them to Mecca. In North Africa, the main slave markets were in Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Cairo. Sales were held in public places or in souks. Potential buyers made a careful examination of the "merchandise": they checked the state of health of a person who was often standing naked with wrists bound together. In Cairo, transactions involving eunuchs and concubines happened in private houses. Prices varied according to the slave's quality.

Towns and ports implicated in the slave trade

See also

References

This article was initially translated from the featured French wiki article "Traite musulmane" on 19 May 2006.

  • Mintz, S., Digital History/Slavery Facts & Myths

Bibliography

Books in English

  • The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton Series on the Middle East) by Eve Troutt Powell (Editor), John O. Hunwick (Editor)
  • Edward A. Alpers, The East African Slave Trade (Berkeley 1967)
  • Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) ISBN 978-1403945518
  • Allan G. B. Fisher, Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa, ed. C. Hurst (London 1970, 2nd edition 2001)
  • Murray Gordon, Slavery in the Arab world (New York 1989)
  • Bernard Lewis, Race and slavery in the Middle East (OUP 1990)
  • Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah trans. F.Rosenthal ed. N.J.Dawood (Princeton 1967)]
  • Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge 2000)
  • Ronald Segal, Islam's Black Slaves (Atlantic Books, London 2002)

Audio Material

Books and articles in French

  • Serge Daget, De la traite à l'esclavage, du Ve au XVIIIe siècle, actes du Colloque international sur la traite des noirs (Nantes, Société française d'histoire d'Outre-Mer, 1985)
  • Jacques Heers, Les Négriers en terre d'islam (Perrin, Pour l'histoire collection, Paris, 2003) (ISBN 2-262-01850-2)
  • Murray Gordon, L'esclavage dans le monde arabe, du VIIe au XXe siècle (Robert Laffont, Paris, 1987)
  • Bernard Lewis, Race et esclavage au Proche-Orient, (Gallimard, Bibliothèque des histoires collection, Paris, 1993) (ISBN 2-07-072740-8)
  • Olivier Petré-Grenouilleau, Les Traites oubliée des négrières (la Documentation française, Paris, 2003)
  • Jean-Claude Deveau, Esclaves noirs en Méditerranée in Cahiers de la Méditerranée, vol. 65, Sophia-Antipolis
  • Olivier Petré-Grenouilleau, La traite oubliée des négriers musulmans in L'Histoire, special number 280 S (October 2003), pages 48-55.

Websites

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