The Indian Ocean and East African Slave Trade: Ethiopia

Arab slave trade
Figure 1.--The photo was taken in 1908 in Axum, Ethiopia. Also certainly the chained boys were slaves. There was in Ethiopia a complex slave system with both 'black' and 'red' slaves. Age and gender were also important. Younger boys like this often were worth more than older slaves because they could be trained. After about age 20 buywes began to see them as untrainable. The boys are rather well clothed, almost certainly in garments given them by a seller at alave market. This reflects the value he saw in them. Note that the leg mannicles are just the right size for children. This of course meant that children were commonly sold in the Axum slave market.

Slavery in Ethiopia has existed since ancient times. Slavery has been an integral part of Afro-Asiatic-dominated Ethiopian society since its inception and contonues into the 20th century. The major source of slaves was Nilotic Shanqella people living in Ethiopia's southern interior. These were people with a lower level of development and technology and thus unable to defend themselves from slave rading. Another important source of slaves was captives taken in war. Slavery was not only an integral part of Ethiopian society, but a very complex social structure. The status of slaves as well as their treatment and duties varied in part on the source and how they were acquired. [Abir, p. 57.] Details on slavery in ancient times is limited. It is known to have existed. Little information is available on the extent and importance. We do not know about trade with the Roman Empire. We know they were African slaves in the Roman era, although the numbers seem limited. We believe they mostly came through Egypt, but some may have come through Ethiopia. Our impression is that Ethipoian slavery in ancient times was primarily domestic. More is known about the medieval era which essentially emcompses the era beginning with the Arab outburst from Arabia creating the Islamic era. Ethiopia participated in the Arab slave trade, but its role was different than in most of the rest of Africa. There were relatively powerful Ethiopian states that made the Arab slave trading that went on throughout the continent more difficult. It was Ethiopians who sold slaves to the Arabs. The numbers are unknown, but this trade went on for centuries. The Arabs used these slaves for a range of purposes, including concubines, bodyguards, servants, treasurers, and other duties. [Smith] As far as we can tell, the primary role of slavery in Ethiopia throughout the medieval era was domestic. There were major changes in the 19th century as Britain used the Royal Navy to end the slave trade, first the European Atlantic slave trade and than the Arab Indian Ocean slave trade. Thus with foreign markets severed, Ethiopian slavery thus became almost entirely domestic. Ethiopian emperors beginning in the mid-19th century began efforts to abolish slavery, but the institution was so ingrained that this proved difficult, but some progress was made. The firt emperor to ban slavery was Tewodros II (1855-68). There was in Ethiopia a complex slave system with both 'black' and 'red' slaves. Age and gender were also important. Younger boys like the ones seen here were often worth more than older slaves because they could be trained (figure 1). After about age 20 years becauses they began to see them as untrainable. Major efforts did not begin until Ethiopia joined the League of Nations (1923), but slavery was still a fact of life in many rural areas. The Italians also made some efforts after invading and seizing the country (1935), but again slavery persusted away from urban centers administered by the Italians ho were not aversed to using forced lbor themselves. The Western Allies which liberated Ethiopia durung World War II (1941), demanded that the country abolish abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Emperor Haile Selassie issued a proclamation outlawing slavery (August 26, 1942). This and subsequent enforcement finally forvall practical purposes put an end to the practice.


Abir, Mordechai. Ethiopia: the Era of the Princes: The Challenge of Islam and Re-unification of the Christian Empire, 1769-1855 (Praeger, 1968).

Smith, Clarence-Smith. William Gervase, ed. The Economics of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century (London, England: Frank Cass, 1989).


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Created: 4:34 AM 12/24/2014
Last updated: 4:34 AM 12/24/2014