The African Slave Trade: The Indian Ocean and East Africa--Country Trends

Arab slave trade
Figure 1.--The British Royal Navy was the primary force used to end the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. Even with the Royal Navy and the European colonization of East Africa, slavery continued after slavery had been abloshed outside tghe Arab world. There slavery continued into the 20th century. A Royal Navy patrol in 1896 captured two Arab “slave dhows” containing these 18 small African boys from East Africa. They were destined to be sold as slaves, but the British were unable to determine what port they were headed for or for what purpose the boys were to be used. Click on the image for additional information on these boys.

It was the European "Scramble for Africa" in the late 19th century that finally put an end to the Arab slave trade though vestages have persited in the Sudan and other Countries. The 19th century Indian Ocean slave trade had centered on the Sultan of Zanzibar. Briatain used both diplomacy and naval power. entury Indian Ocean slave trade had centered on the Sultan of Zanzibar. Briatain used both diplomacy and naval power. The effort was aided by the fact that so much of the Indian Ocean/East African slave trade was concentrated in Zanzibar. This allowed the Royal Navy to focus its limited resources. Eventually Zanzibar was made a protectorate. Limiting the inland trade and slavery itself proved to be much more difficult. The British, French, and Italians seized the Somali coast. The Ehiopians managed to remain independent, defeating an Italian Army (1896). It was the only Europan army to be defeatd by Africans. Britain colonized Kenya and Tanganika. The French colonized Madagascar. The Portugese retained control of Mozamnbique. Actions against slavery varied from colony to colony.

East African Pre-Colonial Political Structure

Historians believe the people of East Africa entered the Iron Age relatively early (6th century BC). There is evidence that people in the Great Lakes area (modern Uganda and Rwanda) wre the first to smelt iron. This was before iron technology reached Westen Africa. East Africa was exposed to Arab penetration because armed Arab merchants controlled the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The Arabs set up trading posts all long the coast. The first outposts were transitory and faced opposition from local tribes. Many were small-scale efforts on the part of exiles or military adventurers (8th and 9th centuries). The Arabs commanded the sea, however, and gradually the Arab trading posts became more permanent. The Arabs gradually spread Islam among the African tribes living close to the coast. Ancient Nubia had been a source oif black slaves in antiquity. The port of Massawa and the Dahlak Archipelago became imports hubs in the slave trade. Both Arabs and Persians set up trading posts along the Indian Ocean coast and slaves were one of the primary trade items. A shift from hunting to keeping livestock dirst occurred along the the Limpopo River, in modern Zimbabwe (about 9th century AD). This occurred later in Africa because people did not suceed in domesticating native animales like wilderbeast and zebras. Rather non-native spoecies were acquired from outside the region--sheep and cattle. The source of the livestock is unknown, but presuably came from from the Bantu people to the north. At about the samne time the Karanga/Shona began speaking a Bantu language. The Karanga people began selling animal furs and ivory. They may have shipped these trade goods down the Limpopo River to the settlements on the Indian Ocean coast. There is also evidence of mining gold in Zimbabwe. These goods were exchanged for glass beads and cotton cloth from India. Arabs both in East Africa and coastal India became intermediaries in this trade by dominating trade in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean (th century). The most advanced civilization in Central Africa was Great Zimbabwe. People began buildig stone palaces (11th century). These were the first monumental structures ever seen in central Africa. They were called zimbabwes, The most impressive structures were built (mid-13th century). Great Zimbabwe was the only major black African states in East Africa. The Great Zimbabwe complex was built by Shona-speaking cattlemen (13th-14th centuries). Information on Great Zimbanwe, other than the stone ruins, is very limited. For the most part there was no strong African state to resist the Arab slave trader who benefitted from wars between African tribes. Some tribes cooperated with the Arabs. Trade through East Africa declined (15th century). This undercut the economic underpinings if Great Zimbabwe and the cities and important trading began to be abandoned. The best known Arab trading post in East Africa became Zanzibar. Its island location made it very secure. In the later period of the slave trade, the Sultan of Oman gained control over much of the Indian Ocean coast. He oversaw the slave trade both to sell slaves, but to obtain labor for his palm oil and spice plantations. They became so profitable that he moved his capital to Zanzibr. East Africa thus served as an important region for the Arab slave trade until the intervention of the British in the late 19th century.

Individual Countries

Quite a number of African countries were involved in the Indian Ocean slave trade, but in different ways. This included both the Arab countries that were involved in slave trading as well as the African countries where slave traders captured Africans for sale. Countries is not quite the right term. There were not yet countries in Africa. The African slave rade began in ancuent times, but did not reach East Africa (except the Sudan and Ethiopia ) in any significant way until the rise of Islam and the Arab dominstion of the Indian Ocean. And the slave trde began well before the European countries colonized East Africa. There were also Indian Ocean islands colonized by the Europeans. The colonists there founded plantations and imported captive Africans to work them. Some slaves were marketed in the americas as well. These were mostly slaves from southern Africa, that the Portuguese sold from their coastal trading posts in Mozambique. Fewer East African captives were sold in the Anericas. By the time the slave trade had penetrayed deep into East Africa, the Royal Navy effort to end the slave trade was well under way. We have divided the examination of the East African skave trade into a disscyssion of modern states. These states of course did not exist, the discussion is centered in wht occurred on tghe territory of the modern states well before these states as now constituted existed.


Campbell, Gwyn, "Madagascar and the Slave Trade, 1810-1895," The Journal of African History Vol. 22, No. 2 (1981), pp. 203-227.

Mujr, William. Life of Mahomet (1861).


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Created: 4:15 AM 4/23/2007
Last updated: 9:37 PM 10/30/2014