The Arab slave trade was the practice of slavery in the Arab world, mainly in Western Asia, North Africa, Southeast Africa, the Horn of Africa and certain parts of Europe (such as Iberia and Sicily) beginning during the era of the Arab conquests and continuing through the 19th century. The trade was focused on the slave markets of the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Slaves were of varied race, ethnicity, and religion.
During the 8th and 9th centuries of the Fatimid Caliphate, most of the slaves were Europeans (called Saqaliba) captured along European coasts and during wars. Historians estimate that between 650 and 1900, 10 to 18 million people were enslaved by Arab slave traders and taken from Europe, Asia and Africa across the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara desert.
Toward the 18th and 19th centuries, the flow of Zanj (Bantu) slaves from Southeast Africa increased with the rise of the Oman sultanate, which was based in Zanzibar in Tanzania. They came into direct trade conflict and competition with Portuguese and other Europeans along the Swahili coast. The North African Barbary states carried on piracy against European shipping and enslaved thousands of European Christians. They earned revenues from the ransoms charged; in many cases in Britain, village churches and communities would raise money for such ransoms. The British government did not ransom its citizens.
Due to the nature of the Arab slave trade, it is impossible to precisely estimate actual numbers of slaves traded. European and American historians assert that between the 8th and 19th century, 10 to 18 million people were bought by Arab slave traders and taken from Africa across the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara desert. The term Arab when used in historical documents often represented an ethnic term, as many of the "Arab" slave traders, such as Tippu Tip and others, were physically indistinguishable from the "Africans" whom they bought and sold.
Arabs also enslaved Europeans. According to Robert Davis, between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured between the 16th and 19th centuries by Barbary corsairs, who were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and sold as slaves. 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. They were also taken from ships stopped by the pirates. The effects of these attacks were devastating: France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships. Long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants, because of frequent pirate attacks. Pirate raids discouraged settlement along the coast until the 19th century.
Periodic Arab 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, for example, the Almohad caliph, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, took 3,000 female and child captives, while his governor of Córdoba, in a subsequent attack upon Silves in 1191, took 3,000 Christian slaves.
The Ottoman wars in Europe and Tatar raids brought large numbers of European Christian slaves into the Muslim world. In 1769 a last major Tatar raid saw the capture of 20,000 Russian and Polish slaves.
The "Oriental" or "Arab" slave trade is sometimes called the "Islamic" slave trade, but Patrick Manning (a professor of world history) states that a religious imperative was not the driver of the slavery. However, if a non-Muslim population refuses to pay the jizya protection/subjugation tax, that population is considered to be at war with the Muslim "ummah" (nation), and 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 Islam, or a negligible portion of the Islamic world. According to European historians, 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:
The Arab slave trade originated before Islam and lasted more than a millennium. Arab traders brought Africans across the Indian Ocean from the Swahili Coast of present-day Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania, and elsewhere in Southeast Africa and from Eritrea and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa to present-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Somalia, 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 Arab world, which at its peak stretched over three continents from the Atlantic to the Far East.
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. Ronald Segal estimates between 11.5 and 14 million were enslaved by the Arab slave 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.
The Arab trade of Zanj (Bantu) slaves in Southeast Africa is one of the oldest slave trades, predating the European transatlantic slave trade by 700 years. Male slaves were often employed as servants, soldiers, or laborers by their owners, while female slaves, including those from Africa, were long traded to the Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms by Arab and Oriental traders as concubines and 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 Far East.
The most significant Jewish involvement in the slave-trade was in Al-Andalus, as Islamic Spain was called. According to historian Alan W. Fisher, there was a guild of Jewish slave traders in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The guild had about 2000 members. The city was a major center of the slave trade in the 15th and later centuries. By 1475 most of the slaves were provided by Tatar raids on Slavic villages. Until the late 18th century, the Crimean Khanate maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, exporting about 2 million slaves from Poland-Lithuania and Russia over the period 1500–1700.
From approximately 650 until around the 1960s, the Arab slave trade continued in one form or another. Historical accounts and references to slave-owning nobility in Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere are frequent into the early 1920s. In 1953, slaves companied sheikhs from Qatar attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and they did so again on another visit five years later.
As recently as the 1950s, Saudi Arabia's slave population was estimated at 450,000 — approximately 20% of the population. During the Second Sudanese Civil War people were taken into slavery; estimates of abductions range from 14,000 to 200,000. 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 Mauritanians, or 20% of Mauritania's population, are currently in conditions which some consider to be "slavery", namely, many of them used as bonded labour due to poverty.
We passed a slave woman shot or stabbed through the body and lying on the path. [Onlookers] said an Arab who passed early that morning had done it in anger at losing the price he had given for her, because she was unable to walk any longer.
Some descendants of African slaves brought to the Middle East during the slave-trade still live there today, and are aware of their African origins. Some men were castrated to be eunuchs in domestic service as were some slaves in the Middle East during its Greek, Roman and Christian periods.
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 religion of Islam appeared in the 7th century AD. In the next hundred years, it quickly diffused throughout the Mediterranean area, spread by Arabs after they conquered the Sassanid Persian Empire and many territories from the Byzantine Empire, including the Levant, Armenia and North Africa. The Muslims invaded the Iberian peninsula, where they displaced the Visigothic Kingdom. These regions therefore had a diverse range of different peoples and were, to some extent, unified by an Islamic culture built on religious, political and legal foundations. For example, 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 the center of pilgrimages for all Muslims, whatever their origins.
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 were allowed to earn their living if they opted for that, otherwise it is the owner’s (master) duty to provide for that. They also could not be forced to earn money for their masters unless with an agreement between the slave and the master. This concept is called مخارجة (mukhārajah) (Lane: "And خَارَجَهُ He made an agreement with him, namely, his slave that he (the latter) should pay him a certain impost at the expiration of every month; the slave being left at liberty to work: in which case the slave is termed عَبْدٌ مُخَارِجٌ") in Islamic law. If slaves agree to that and they would like the money they earn to be counted toward their emancipation, then this has to be written in the form of a contract between the slave and the master. This is called مكاتبة (mukataba) in Islamic jurisprudence. Muslims believe that slave owners are strongly encouraged to perform mukataba with their slaves as directed by the Quran:
...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. ...|Quran, sura 24 (An-Nur), ayah 33
The framework of Islamic civilization was a well-developed network of towns and oasis trading centers with the market (souq, bazaar) at its heart. These towns were inter-connected by a system of roads crossing semi-arid regions or deserts. The routes were traveled by convoys, and slaves formed part of this caravan traffic.
In contrast to the Atlantic slave trade, where the male-female ratio was 2:1 or 3:1, the Arab slave trade instead usually had a higher female-to-male ratio. This suggests a general preference for female slaves. Concubinage and reproduction served as incentives for importing female slaves (often Caucasian), though many were also imported mainly for performing household tasks.
In the Hadith, the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and the overwhelming majority of Islamic jurists and theologians, all stated that humankind has a single origin and rejected the idea of certain ethnic groups being superior to others.
Despite this, some ethnic prejudices later developed among Arabs for at least two reasons: 1) their extensive conquests and slave trade; and 2) the influence of Aristotle's idea of final causes which argues that slaves are slaves by nature.[POV? ] A refinement of Aristotle's view was put forward by Muslim philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Avicenna, particularly in regards to Turkic and black peoples; and the influence of ideas from the early mediaeval Geonic academies regarding divisions among mankind between the three sons of Noah, with the Babylonian Talmud stating that "the descendants of Ham are cursed by being black, and [it] depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates." However, ethnic prejudice among some elite Arabs was not limited to darker-skinned people, but was also directed towards fairer-skinned "ruddy people" (including Persians, Turks and Europeans), while Arabs referred to themselves as "swarthy people". The concept of an Arab identity itself did not exist until modern times. According to Arnold J. Toynbee: "The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue."
The famous 9th-century Muslim author Al-Jahiz, an Afro-Arab and the grandson of a Zanj slave, wrote a book entitled Risalat mufakharat al-Sudan 'ala al-bidan (Treatise on the Superiority of Blacks over Whites), in which he stated that Blacks:
...have conquered the country of the Arabs as far as Mecca and have governed them. We defeated Dhu Nowas (Jewish King of Yemen) and killed all the Himyarite princes, but you, White people, have never conquered our country. Our people, the Zenghs (Negroes) revolted forty times in the Euphrates, driving the inhabitants from their homes and making Oballah a bath of blood.
Blacks are physically stronger than no matter what other people. A single one of them can lift stones of greater weight and carry burdens such as several Whites could not lift nor carry between them. [...] They are brave, strong, and generous as witness their nobility and general lack of wickedness.
Al-Jahiz also stated in his Kitab al-Bukhala ("Avarice and the Avaricious") that:
"We know that the Zanj (blacks) are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of their actions."
Jahiz' criticism however, was limited to the Zanj and not blacks in totality, likely as a result of the Zanji revolts in his native Iraq.
This sentiment was echoed in the following passage from Kitab al-Bad' wah-tarikh (vol.4) by the medieval Arab writer Al-Muqaddasi:
As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.
...the moral characteristics found in their mentality are close to the instinctive characteristics found naturally in animals.—Andrew Reid and Paul J. Lane, African Historical Archaeologies
By the 14th century, an overwhelming number of slaves came from sub-Saharan Africa, leading to prejudice against black people in the works of several Arabic historians and geographers. For example, 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."
Mistranslations of Arab scholars and geographers from this time period have led many to attribute certain racist attitudes that weren't prevalent until the 18th and 19th century to writings made centuries ago. Although bias against those of very black complexion existed in the Arab world in the 15th century it didn't have as much stigma as it later would. Older translations of Ibn Khaldun, for example in The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained which was written in 1841 gives excerpts of older translations that were not part of later colonial propaganda and show black Africans in a generally positive light.
In 14th century North Africa, the Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, wrote in his Muqaddimah:
When the conquest of the West (by the Arabs) was completed, and merchants began to penetrate into the interior, they saw no nation of the Blacks so mighty as Ghanah, the dominions of which extended westward as far as the Ocean. The King's court was kept in the city of Ghanah, which, according to the author of the Book of Roger (El Idrisi), and the author of the Book of Roads and Realms (El Bekri), is divided into two parts, standing on both banks of the Nile, and ranks among the largest and most populous cities of the world. The people of Ghanah had for neighbours, on the east, a nation, which, according to historians, was called Susu; after which came another named Mali; and after that another known by the name of Kaukau ; although some people prefer a different orthography, and write this name Kagho. The last-named nation was followed by a people called Tekrur. The people of Ghanah declined in course of time, being overwhelmed or absorbed by the Molaththemun (or muffled people;that is, the Morabites), who, adjoining them on the north towards the Berber country, attacked them, and, taking possession of their territory, compelled them to embrace the Mohammedan religion. The people of Ghanah, being invaded at a later period by the Susu, a nation of Blacks in their neighbourhood, were exterminated, or mixed with other Black nations.—William Desborough Cooley, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained
Ibn Khaldun suggests a link between the decline of Ghana and rise of the Almoravids. However, there is little evidence of there actually being an Almoravid conquest of Ghana aside from the parallel conflict with Takrur, which was allied with the Almoravid and eventually absorbed by them.
Ibn Khaldun attributed the "strange practices and customs" of certain African tribes to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa and made it clear that it was not due to any curse in their lineage, dismissing the Hamitic theory as a myth.
The 14th-century North African Berber geographer and traveller, Ibn Battuta, on his trip to western Sudan, was impressed with occasional aspects of life.
We ... traveled by sea to the city of Kulwa (Kilwa in Tanzania)...Most of its people are Zunuj, extremely black...The city of Kulwa is amongst the most beautiful of cities and most elegantly built... Their uppermost virtue is religion and righteousness and they are Shafi'i in rite.
[The people of Mombasa in Kenya] are a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built.
Ibn Battuta was also impressed with aspects of the Mali Empire of West Africa, which he visited in 1352, writing that the people there:
...possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.—Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354
In addition, he wrote many other positive comments on the people of the Mali Empire, including the following:
I met the qadi of Malli... he is a black, has been on a pilgrimage, and is a noble person with good qualities of character... I met the interpreter Dugha, a noble black and a leader of theirs... They performed their duty towards me [as a guest] most perfectly; may God bless and reward them for their good deeds!
Another of [the Malli blacks'] good qualities is their concern for learning the sublime Qur'an by heart...One day I passed a handsome youth from them dressed in fine clothes and on his feet was a heavy chain. I said to the man who was with me, 'What has this youth done -- has he killed someone?' The youth heard my remark and laughed. It was told me, 'He has been chained so that he will learn the Qu'ran by heart.'
[the people of Iwalatan in West Africa] were generous to me and entertained me...and as for their women -- they are extremely beautiful and are more important than the men...
Ibn Battuta's remarks contrasted greatly to that of many other comments from Arab authors concerning blacks. However, many of the exaggerated accounts are noted to have been based on hearsay and even perpetuated by Africans themselves in an attempt to keep their states and economies isolated, in addition to Ibn Battuta having been the only medieval Muslim scholar referenced here to have actually traveled to both east and west Africa.
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"
In the 8th century, Africa was dominated by Arab-Berbers in the north: Islam moved southwards along the Nile and along the desert trails.
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 the Turkish odalık, meaning "chambermaid") 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, concubine). 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 Córdoba, 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 Rhone valley to reach the lands to the south of the Pyrenees.
There are also historical evidence 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 the book titled White Gold by Giles Milton). The majority of slaves traded across the Mediterranean region were predominantly of European origin from the 7th to 15th centuries. The Barbary pirates continued to capture slaves from Europe and, to an extent, North America, from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Slaves were also brought into the Arab world via Central Asia, mainly of Turkic or Tartar origin. Many of these slaves later went on to serve in the armies forming an elite rank.
Caravan trails, set up in the 9th century, went past the oasis 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.—Catherine Lowe Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery
Slave labor in East Africa was drawn from the Zanj, Bantu peoples that lived along the East African coast. 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, 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 Srivijaya in Java.
Slaves were often bartered for objects of various kinds: in the Sudan, 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 slave 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 sub-saharan Africa (merchandise was paid for with sacks of cowries).
Enslaved Africans were sold in the towns of the Arab World. In 1416, al-Maqrizi told how pilgrims coming from Takrur (near the Senegal River) had brought 1,700 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. Thomas Smee, the commander of the British research ship Ternate, visited such a market in Zanzibar in 1811 and gave a detailed description:
'The show' commences about four o'clock in the afternoon. The slaves, set off to the best advantage by having their skins cleaned and burnished with cocoa-nut oil, their faces painted with red and white stripes and the hands, noses, ears and feet ornamented with a profusion of bracelets of gold and silver and jewels, are ranged in a line, commencing with the youngest, and increasing to the rear according to their size and age. At the head of this file, which is composed of all sexes and ages from 6 to 60, walks the person who owns them; behind and at each side, two or three of his domestic slaves, armed with swords and spears, serve as guard.
Thus ordered the procession begins, and passes through the market-place and the principle streets... when any of them strikes a spectator's fancy the line immediately stops, and a process of examination ensues, which, for minuteness, is unequalled in any cattle market in Europe. The intending purchaser having ascertained there is no defect in the faculties of speech, hearing, etc., that there is no disease present, next proceeds to examine the person; the mouth and the teeth are first inspected and afterwards every part of the body in succession, not even excepting the breasts, etc., of the girls, many of whom I have seen handled in the most indecent manner in the public market by their purchasers; indeed there is every reasons to believe that the slave-dealers almost universally force the young girls to submit to their lust previous to their being disposed of. From such scenes one turns away with pity and indignation.
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