** Ihe African Slave Trade: Indian Ocean Ports--Aden

The African Slave Trade: Indian Ocean Ports--Aden

Figure 1.-- These are some of the Oromo children a British Royal Navy patrol save from slavery. The children here are a group sent to South Afruca to recuperate. They spent 10 years at Lovedale they proved to be good students and on good terms with their Xhosa-speaking and English school mates. Most remained in South Africa. Weare not sutre when the photigraoh was taken.

Aden for centuries was a port used by Arab slave traders in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Aden is located in the borthern Arabian Sea. It was strateguically palaces in the appriaches to the Red Sea leading to Egypt and the important Cairo slave mnarket. Arab dhows were not ocran going bessels. They had to stay close to the coast and had only limited tange. This they need port calls. This Afen was one of the most imprtant ports fir Indiamn Ocean skve traders because of its strategic location. This was the case over a millenium. Possession of Aden could block the slave trade into the Red Sea. And it offered a source of water and supples there was also a slave market in Aden. The British during the Napoleonic Wars established thenmselves in Aden (1800). At first the interest was strategic as a route to India brgan to develop with an overland leg across Suez. This made Aden the most strategically imnportant port in the Iindian Ocean key to trade routes with India. Then Britain outlawed the slave trade (1807). hile the initial focus was in the Atantic Slave Trade, evebtually attention turned to the Indian Ocean, especially after Parliament emnancipated slaves in the Empire (1835). And here Aden was especially valuable. Afden not omly blocvked slavers from entering the Red Sea and reaching the imprtant Cairo slave market. Short range patrols from Aden could block slavesrs from resching Socotra, Muscat, and the Persian Gulf. The Arrab slavers unlike the Europeans in ythe Atalntic did not have ovean-going vessels and generally followed the cpast. This made them easitto intercept. Aden became used by the Royal Navy as part of its primary base for Indian Ocean anti-slavery patrols.


Geography has shaped the economy of Yeman and the Indian Ocean slave trade, primarily because of tghe location of Aden. The Saharan Desert and Arabian desert blocked commerce brween the Meduterranean wiorksd abs cebntral Asia. This was where the market for slaves existed. There was no great market for slaves in India. There was alarge peasant popukation in India. There simply was no great need for a slave work force. The maket was in the north and theie were two maritime routes into that market. First the Red Sea leading to Egyopt and the Meduterranran basin, Second the Persiam Gulf leadhing to Basra meaning to Arab Mesopotamia and Persia. And Aden dominated one of those routes the straits leading into the Red Sea -- the Bab-el-Mandeb is a strait between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. The Gulf ofAdden is created by the Horn of Africa--essenbtially a narrow Channel that could be easily blocaked. This made Aden one of the nmost strategic points in the entire Indian Ocean. It was also important as a port of call foir Arab skavers who did not have vessels suitable for ocean voyages and thus had to remain close to the coast nd had limited ranges. With the construction of the Suez Canal. Aden took on even more strategic importance, but that sa unconnected wsih the slave trade.


We have no informationm about the market for African slaves during the pre-Islamic period. Slaves were imprtant in the Meditrerranean world. Theeatlrst examples of African slave taking comes from the Egyptians. A carve stone from the Second Cataract depicts an Egyotian boat packed wityh Nubian captives destincd fo slavey in Loewer Egypt (2900 BC). {Collins, p. 57.] For the next 5,000 years African slaves were marched or trans ported to nothern slavery. Those from the coiming across the Sahara or uo the Nile went binto the Medfuiterranean Basin . Those coming up the Red Sea were more lkiely to go to the Middle East. [Collins, p.58.] Most of Africans ensalaved by the Nile were Nubians brought up the Nile, but some came from Punt (Ethiopia). Punt at the time was closely connected with Yemen. We have no information on the slave trade in ancient Punt, but we know from the Egyptians that slaves were coming from the area. Greece and Rome were in many ways slaves socities. And enslavung defeating people were part of the incentives for war. The romans attemted to invade Arabia Frlix (Fortunste or feertile Arabia), but it failed (26-24 BC). [Strabo xvi, p. 780-83.] There is no data on the number slaves from the Red Sea, but the numbers seem limited. And we have no information on Aden or other Yemeni slave markets. We know, however, that there was extendive trade with India which touched on Yemen from the Egyptian Red Sea port of Bernice Troglodytuca. Wuilke the invasion faialed a Roman fleet destroyyed the port of Eudaemon (modern Aden) which is said to secure the Roman merchant route to India -- an early recognition of the strategic importance of the port. One author repotrs that "... Africans formed only a modest portion of the Roman slave community as the abundant supply from Asia Minor and Europe became more than adequate for the economic and military needs of the empire. Not surprisingly, African slaves were more numerous in the Roman cities of the Mediterranean littoral. There can be no reasonable estimate of the number of slaves exported from Africa to the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean before the arrival of the Arabs in Africa...." (7th century) [Collins, p.58.] And only a small fraction would have come the Indian Ocean. With the fall of Rome (5th century), as part of the developing feudal system, there was a generral move away from slavery in the Christian world, but not in the Islamic world. This of course affected where slaves could be sold during the medieval era. Aden and Yemen passed through various hands during the medival period. During the ancient era, Yemen was dominayed by several trading kingdoms. With the rise of Islam (7th century AD), these were all Islamic powers. The historical record on these various regimes is well established, although there is virtually no data on the slave trade and the numbers of enslaved involved. None of these powers restricted the slave trade and thus the two Indian Ocean routes north to slave markets were wide open (the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf). European slavers in the Atllantic kept detailed records of their activities and thus we know a great deal about it. The Arab slavers active in the Indian Ocean were active for cernturies and virttually no records have been foun. This was centuries before the Atllantic slave trade, but even in the modern era, records are very rare. One scholar estimates that the Saharan/Indian Ocean slave trade wile spead over a longerr perriod 800-1900 AD involved about the same number of captive Africans as the SAtlksntuc slave trade -- 12.6 million people. [Collins, p. 57.] We are not sure that data exists to prove that the two were comaparable, but we think that is safe to say ythat that the Induan Ocean skave trade was very substantial and that a large prtion of that trade was conduycted up the Red Sea by bor through the port oi Aden.

Aden Slave Markets

We have been unable to obtain much information about slave markets in Aden, other than that they existed. e belive that Aden was also a port iof call used by yhe vdlavers fir water and oriviusions.

The Europeans (15th-18th centuries)

Portuguese navagator Vasco da Gama led Europeans into the Indian Ocean. Other Europeam countries countries followed. The Indian Ocean had been essentially an Arab lake. The Portuguese crushed Arab (and Venetian) sea power at Diu (1607). The Europeans at the time were interested in trade with India and China further east. Slaves were not an important European objective. This was almost exclusively an Arab activity in the Indian Ocean. There was virtually no interested in the northern coast meaning Yemen and Arabia. The Arabs had nothing of their own to trade. What they had been trading to the Europeans were goods from Africa, India, the East Indies, and China. Once the Europoeans entered the IUndian Ocean, they had direct access to these goods. Over time Britain and France energed as the primary force in the India and staged a struggle to contol India. The British emrrged victorious as a result if the Seven Yars War and Clive's victories in India (1760s). Shortly after they lost their important American colonies (1780s). This findamentally changed British's strategic orientation. India becamne the 'jewl in the crown'. At ythe tyime, trade with India reuired a lengthy voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. Frenvh Emperor Napolein Bonparte changed that. He invaded Egypt (1797). The British responded and that bergan a long involvement which led to the developmenrnt of a Meidterranean route with a land passage across Suez. Suddenly the northercoast of the Arabiab Sea (Indian Ocean) became of great strategic importnce. And this mnean Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea.

British Protectorate (1800-1967)

European maritime trade with Europe began (16th century). Gradually Britain and France developed as the primary contending powers. Britain emerged as the major European power in India after the Seven Years War and Clive's victories in India (1760s). India became seen as the jewel in the crown and became a huge factor in British strategic thinking. This trade for three centuries was conducted around the Cape of Good Hope, meaning Britain had no real interest in Aden. This changed with Napoleon's Egyptian camping (1798-99). On result of this was the development of a Red Sea route to India involvement a land component fro the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Suddenly Aden became important to the British. The British established a garrison at Aden (about 1800). They signed a treaty with Aden's ruler, the Sultan of Laḥij. This route grew in importance after the Napoleonic War. The concern was strategic involving trade and commerce. Further developments increased British interest in Aden. Britain outlawed the slave trade (1807). There primary concern was the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the Royal Navy was committed to ending it. Eventually Britain extended its efforts to the Indian Ocean. And Aden was an important slave market. (Yemen would be the last country to abolish slavery.) Another development was the advent of steam navigation leading to the need for a coaling station. The British seized Aden from the Ottoman Sultan (1839). Aden became such a huge coal-bunkering facility that it became known as the 'Coalhole of the East'. Aden only grew in importance with the opening of the Suez Canal (1869). The British negotiated a series of treaties which established the south Arabian Protectorate. While the British controlled Aden, the Ottoman Sultan had religious authority -- extremely important in a Muslim territory and conveying political import. Aden was not a colony and the British did not intervene significantly in domestic affairs other than efforts to end the slave trade. Their interest was focused on the naval base and coaling station. A World War II loomed, Aden became a Crown Colony.

Supressing the Slave Trade

The Britis interest in Aden was at first strategic, to protect the developing Mediterranean sea route through the Red Sea to India. From Aden it was a direct shoot to India and points east. Aden was a potential cirk min the bottle and this Britain had to have it. The British roilke in Aden began to change. After Trafakgar (1805), there was mo real challenge to British seapower. Parliament imoved tom ablosh the slave trade. And the Royal Navy was given the job. The initial effort was primarily in the Atlantic. The effort gained further e,petus when Parlaiment emamncipated the slaves in the Empire (1835). Evenentually the Royal Navy began to work on the Indian Ocean slave trade. And here Aden was vital. A britih squadron in Aden was like cork nin the bottle. This closed iff the Red Sea route to northrnnmarkets. But denm located along the north coast of the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean, was also close to the Starits of Hormuz and Oersuan Gulf, another imprtant route to northern markets. The Royal Navy for the first half of the 19th century focused its resources on the Alantic slave trade. This was the portion of he slave trade most known to Europeans. It was an enormous undertaking, taxing the even substantial resources of the Royal Navy. It was only after mid-century tand the Crimean War that the Royal Navy began to seriouisly address the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. In many ways the logistics were much simpler. Most od the captive Africans in the norther Indin Ocean slave trade were shipped out of one port--Zanzibar and nearby instalations. This is made the enforcemrent effort much easier.

Indian Slaves

Aran mercvhants did not just capture Africans. They Barbary Pirates, took Ruropens ands Americans in the Mediterranean. And Arab merchants operating in British India enslaved people there. The numbers were small compared to Africans, but the British even before the Raj moved against this practice. Apparently Arab merchants wee kidnapped Indians, usually children, and then sold thrm as slaves along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. British officials in Aden and the Gulf attempted to crackdowm on this oaractice and protect Induan children from slavers, and if possible to reunite rescued chkdren with their families in India. The cases oftn oproved difficult tomprove as was anattemot to free a boy named However, this could be a difficult undertaking, as the case of a boy named Nusseeb (November 1843). J H Patton, Chief Magistrate of Calcutta, who acting on information received from Captain S B Haines, Political Agent at Aden, believed to have enslaved by one. The case was never proived and both Nusseeb and Ali Abdullah disappeared.

British Anti Slavery Patrols

The Royal Navy primarily from Aden conducted anti-slavery patrols for decades. In none of the last major incidents, the HMS Osprey operting as part of the Royal Navy anti-slave trade mission in the Red Sea from Aden, intercepted three Arab dhows sailing from from Rahayta ad Tadjoura on the Ethiopia coast (1888). They found 204 boys and girls being transported for sale in Arabian markets. Other dhows with more youthful caoptives were also intercepted. The children and youths were from the highland area of Ethiopias's Oromia Region and spoke the Oromo language. The Oromo, were the most populous of all Ethiopian groups, but weren dominated by the country's Amhara and Tigrayan elites and many were enslaved. Emperor Menelik II has been described as Ethiopia's 'greatest slave entrepreneur', taxed the trade to pay for guns and ammunition as he battled for control of the whole country which he ruled from 1889 to 1913. Many of the children the British encountered had been forced to make a trek several hundred kilometres to the coast. One of the chikdren recalls the sound of automatic gunfire blasting into the sails and rigging of the slave dhow while she huddled below deck with the other Oromo children. They all fully expected to be eaten as this is what the Arab slave traders had told them would happen if they were captured by the British. The British took the children back to their home port in Aden. The Muslim children werre turn over to Muslim familes. The Christian children were taken in by the Free Church of Scotland mission at Sheikh Othman. It was determned that many of the chilkdren were too weak to withstand the harsh climate and prevalent malaria. As a result, In 1890, 64 of the survivors were transferred to the Free Church of Scotland’s Lovedale Institution, in Alice, a town in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. [Morton] There were, howver, still occasional incidentys even after the patrols had been ended. This includes an incident reported at the at the British naval depot at Bassidu on the northwestern tip of Qishm Island off Persia (Iran). A group od slaves had escaped from Dubai where they had been forced into pearl diving. One had been kidnapped at 6 byears of age. [Hopper]

Freed Captives

The fate of the *frican captives the Britidh freed from slavers is a little complicated. In the Atlantic, the Amerucan and British had Kiberia and Sierra Leone where they could deposit freed slaves. Not such safe haven existed for the Africans freed by the Royal Navy anti-slavery patrols in the Indian Ocean. If they were reyturned to thee dusembrcation ports they werre likely to be promtly renslaved. And it the case of Arab stakes, slavery was still legal and emancioation strongly resusted as it had Koranic authority. These patrols in the Indian Ocean were mostly conducted after British emancioation (1835). Slkavery was, mhowever, legal in Atab lkands and moy of Aftriva which ahs not yet been colonized. One optiomn open was the sea. Social conventions were much looser at sea and sime even joined the Royal Navy. [Ewald]

Persistence of Slavery

While the British emancipated slaves (1835), skavery persisted in Aden and ir was surriunded byb coiuntries where skavey was legal (Saudi Arabia. Yemen, amd Oman. One 1937 report inducated that, "The situation was still more complex in the British protectorate of Aden. Reports counted between five and ten thousand slaves; the British sought to reach agreements with local sultans and chiefs; however not all of them accepted and, even so, treaties were not necessarily enforced. The British embarrassment grew bigger for, as many reports proved, slaves were well treated and some of them –military slaves- belonged themselves to the elites. [Stanzian, p. 23.]


Bilé, Serge. Bilé is a jourmnalist that has primarily focused on the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Collins, Robert. "The African slave trade to Asia and the Indian Ocean Islands," in Roberyt O. Collins, Uncovering the History of Africans in Asia (2008). Collins is talking about Asia, but this would primarily be the Middle East, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Persia.

Ewald, Janet. "Slavery and the slave trades in the Indian Ocean and Arab worlds: Global connections and disconnections ," Proceedings of the 10th Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University (November 7‐8, 2008 ).

Hopper, Matthew S. "Slavery and the slave trades in the Indian Ocean and Arab Worlds: Global connections and disconnections," Proceedings of the 10th Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University (November 7‐8, 2008).

India Office Records. " Slave Trade," Vol. 3 "Proceedings regarding the charge of slave dealing against Ali Abdulla, the supercargo of the barque called the Aden Merchant, in the case of a boy named Nusseeb, who Ali Abdulla allegedly purchased from Ali Ibn Hamed of Aden" (reference IOR/F/4/2066/94848), pp.1-28.

Morton, Fred. "The story of Oromo slaves bound for Arabia who were brought to South Africa," The Conversation (May 9, 2019).

Stanziani, Alessandro. "Slavery and post slavery in the Indian Ocean World. (2020). ￿hal-02556369￿

Strabo. Geographica (Alexandria: 7 BC - 23 AD).


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Created: 5:11 AM 9/30/2021
Last updated: 5:30 AM 10/2/2021