** slavery in the Middle East and North Africa

Slavery in the Middle East and North Africa

Figure 1.--This photograph shows a market scene in Seiyun, Yemen, during 1946. In the center we can see an African featured boy. Yemen under internationl pressure abolished the slavery in 1962. So in 1946 he probably was a slave boy. Notice he is the only person without a shirt. Reports from Yemen suggests that slavery still exists there and is tolerated by the authorities. Recent developments and the advent of fundamentalism may mean that it has actually increased.

Western historigraphy on slavery has focused on classical slavery and the Atlatic slave trade. Interestingly, classical Greece which invented the idea of freedom also had an economy which relied on slavery to a greater extent than the Middle Eastern socities of Mesopotamia and Egypt where civilization was developed. Much is made of this, but often not pointed out is that the peasantry, the great bulk of the population, lived in a state of near slavery meaning tht slavery was notbneeded to exploit their productiv energies and labor. Many modern works on slavery are written as if the European Atlantic slve trade was the only important modern manifestation of slavery. Some authors report that the slavery was more widespread and brutal than the counterpart in the Americas. Historians have taken to calling slavery as 'America’s original sin' which has some validity. What does not have historival validity is the widespread ignoring od slavery in the Middle East, especially after the Islamuc outburst and creation of the caliphate. One historian writes that, "American slavery was benign compared to the much more extensive, vastly crueler practice of slavery in the Middle East." [Farron] This is not immrdiately apparent becausde there are relatively few people in the region with Agrican features. This suggests that relatively few cative Africans were nought into the region and condemned to slavery. This is simply not the case and here we wabt to look at slavery in the various countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Not only have historianns largely ignored slavery in the Middle East and North Africa, but so have journlists and the mostly Muslim authoriris in these countries.


The North African coast west of Egypt (modern Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco)in the 17th and 18th century was knowm as the Barbary Coast. These principalities were nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire, but in fact with the decline of Ottoman Sea Power (17th century) became essentially independent. The principalities there watched Europe become rich and modern while they lanuished in poverty. Thus they developed economies based on piracy, slavery and extortion. They became known as the Barbary Pirates or Corsairs. The European powers locked in wars with each other found it cost effective to but protection through treaties rather than conduct military expeditions. This affected America because as British colonies, they flew the Union Jack and their vessels were protected. And the american colonists had a very substantial merchant fleet. This all changed with the Treaty of Paris and American independence (1783). When the Barbary Pirates began to see a new flag in the Mediterranean waters, they began attacking American shipping. Thomas Jefferson became America's Minister to France (1784). At the same time, the Continental Congress sought to continue the Ruropean policies of bribing the Barbary States rather than engaging them in war. Actually the United States fis not have that option as it had no navy. Algerian pirates captured American ships and enslaved all Americans onboard. The Dye of Algiers demanded an unheard-of ransom of $60,000 (July 1785). It was a pure extortion. Ambassador Jefferson plain and simple case of extortion, and Thomas Jefferson was vehemently opposed to such payments. He suggested the formation of a coalition of nations who could force the Islamic states to end piracy and make peace. As America did not have a navy at the time, he was essentially suggesting that the Europeans should supress the pirates. This was before America had agreed on the Constitution and had a president, let alone a navy. Congress did a calculation and decided it would be more expensive to build a navy than to pay the ransom to free the enslaved Americans.


very is a very common social institution. We find a histort of slavery in most countries over different time periods. Our discussion of slavery follows a generally chronological/regional thread. This works for most countries, but some countries which have undergone massive social changes over time are mote difficult to follow with this approach. Countries of more modern origins can be better studies with the alphaberical country index. More borders are cnot the same as ancient brders, complicating an assessment of slavery based on modern states. A good example here is Egypt where in addition top Phronic times, we have Roman and Arab period which both fostered slavery. Cairo for many years was an important slave market.



Modern Libya was another of the Barbary pirate states. The power was centered in Tripoli. Tripoli had an embassy in Paris. Ambassadors Thomas Jefferson joined by John Adams met with Tripoli's ambassador to Britain to determine why the Barbary Pirates were attacking American shipping and enslaving American citizens. And why Muslims held such hostility towards America, a nation with which they had no previous contactsof any form. They got an ear full. Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja informed them that Islam "was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Quran that all nations who would not acknowledge their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise." This made a major impression on the two men that would follow George Washington as president. And no doubt President Adams had those words in mind when he decided to despite Democratic-Republicans and and build six frigates. He is today known as the father of the U.S. Navy.


The Mauritanian Muslim human rights activist, Biram Ould Abeid, astionished his countrymen by burning a collection of Islamic jurisprudence books. This suceeded the world’s attention to the plight of a Mauruitanian slaves. Amid charges that these books were largely responsible for the continuation of slavery by endowing it with Islamic religious legitimacy. He and a dozen other members of the non-profit organization Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania (RA) set a collection of Maliki jurisprudence books on fire after the Friday communal prayer (April 28, 2012).


Modern Morocco was a part of the Roman Empire. We are not sure how far Roman rule extended into the interior. As the climate was different than the modern arid climate, North Africa was a a major grain producing region for the Romans. We suspect that slaves were extensively used on agricultural estates. We have little actually inform,ation on slavery in Morocco during the Roman era. While Roman slavery is a well reserached topic, this usually maeans slavery in Rome itself and the Italian peninsula. Much less is known about slavery in the various provinces of the Empire. We expect that the slaves in what is now Morocco were mostly European captives and war prisoners. We have no information at this time about the enslavdement of sub-Saharan Africans. The Sahara may have been a relatively effective barrier to trade. Nor do we have information on practices with the Vandal and Byzantine cionquest. After the Arab conquest (8th century AD), important slave markets operated in North Africa (Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Cairo). The most established Moroccan slaves markets were in Tangier and Marrakesh. Other reports mention one in Ceuta. The camel made possible expanded trans-Saharan trade. African slaves from the Senegal River area were brought across the Sahara and sold in public places or in the established souks (markets). Very little information is available on the early Moroccan slave trade. We know from more recent accounts that potential buyers were allowed to carefully examine the offered 'merchandise'. We note the recent work of a scholar who writes that contrary to Islamic principles, Arabs and Berbers in northwest Africa imposed a racial slavery upon the black peoples of the region. He concentrates on Sultan Mawlay Ismail's who enslaved 221,000 black Moroccans (late-17th century) to form a substantial army at relatively low cost. These slave soldiers and their families managed to leverage the important contruibution to the Sultan's administration and gradually free themselves. Many later fell back into slavery after the demise of the Sultan's dynasty. The varying fortunes of e black Moroccans stand in contrast to Islamic claims of a non-racial brotherhood. [El Hamel] The Barbary Pirates also operated from what is now Morocco. One of the accomplishments of Islam is a relative progressive approach to racial dififferences, but imperfectly accepted. In Morocco today, Africans even in the country legally report bring attacked and called ugly names, including the ephitat 'slave'.


Niger is a Saharan state of modern creation. The slave trade began centuries before Niger was created and trade routes through Niger wre very important. Niger was part of several different empires which dominated different regions of West Africa over time. The French abolishd slavery, but did not aggressively pursue abolition. The Taureg were the tribe that most resisted the French and the tribe most committed to slavery. Niger becane independent (1960). The country abolished slavery upon independence, but made not effort to criminalize slave keeping or punish violations. Many personal testimonies report that slavery continued in Niger. Criminal penalties were added to the penal code (2003). The Niger Government refuses to enforce the law and claims that slavery does not exist. The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) found Niger guilty of failing to protect its people from slavery (2008).


The Arabian peninsula juts out into the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. Thus as might be expected, the Sultanate of Oman played a major role in commerce between Africa and the Middle East. Little is know about this trade in the early years after the Arab outburst (7th century AD). We do know that Muscat and the Sultanate of Oman was an important part of that trade and slaves were an important part of that commerce. More is know about after the arival of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean. Vasco de Gama reached the Cape of Good Hope (1488). This opened up the possibility of direct European trade with the Orient for the first time. First the Indian Ocdean had to be made safe for European shipping. The Battle of Diu premanently broke Muslim (Ottoman/Arab/Persian) naval dominance in the Indian Ocean (1509). This ended Muslim dominance of the Indian Ocean, but it did nor end Muslim (mostly Arab trade) in the Arabian Sea. And this included the trade in slaves. The numbers of enslaved Africans, primarily from East Africa, sold into the Middle East by Arab traders, however, is not well documented. Arab commerce was, however, limited by the fact that the Portuguese dominated much of the eastern coast of Africa south of what is now Somalia. The Portuguese were, however, by the end of the 17th century, the weakest of the European colonial powers. Omani Sultan Saif bin Sultan decided to challenge Portuguese control of the western Indian Ocean by seizing their fortified trading posts (1690s). The first to fall to the Omanis was Fort Jesus which was at Mombasa in modern Kenya (north of Zanzibar). It fell after a 33-month seige (1699). The Omanis subsequently seized one Portugrese base after another as far south as Kilwa in modern Tanzania (south of Zanzibar). The island strionghold of Zanzibar fell (1699). It was more secure than the mainland outposts and became the center of Omani trade in East Africa, although the Omanis also garisoned Pemba (a smaller island near Zanzibar) and Kilwa. The Omanis did not give great attention to their African conquests. And they did not move inland, although Arab traders from their coadtab bases did set up trade networks inland. Products included gold, ivory, and slaves. Trade began to expand (late-18th century). The most importantv commercial centers Kilwa Kivinje (modern Kenya) and Bagamoyo, Lindi, Mikandani, Pangani, and Tanga (modern Tanzani)on the African mainland. Mikandani was the southern-most extent of Omani rule. The Portuguese held control of Mozambique to the south. Much of the trade from these outposts were chanelled through Muscat which became an especially importanht slave market for supplying the wider Middle East. Eventially the slavec trade became so important that the Sultanate seat of rule to Zanzibar.

Ottoman Empire

Slavery is an ancient central to the ecomonies of many ancient societies. This did not change with the coming of Islam and subsequently the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Slavery as an institution is recognized and thus sanctioned by the Holy Koran. The Koran consuls fair treatment of slaves, but slavery is sanctioned by Sharia Law. Thus approved by both religion and custom, slavery became an important institution in both the Ottoman economy and society. It was not as important as in some societies, but it was important. Slavery was entrenched in the operation of the Ottoman state in both administrative and militiary areas. [Erdem, p. 18.] Slavery was was a central element in the harem system as part of the use of slave domestics and concubines. Slavery was an important aspect of the private lives of individuals in the Muslim areas of the Empire. This was much less true in the Christian areas (primarily the Balkans) where slavery had largely disappeared by the time of the Ottoman conquest. The source of slaves varied over time. Both the Crimean Tartars and the Arabs played an important role in the Ottoman slave trade. The famed Janissary soldiers of the Ottoman Empire were in fact children of Christian parents who were made the Sultan's slaves.


The slave trade in the Sudan has ancient origins. There is until the 19th century, however, only limited information on the dimensions of the slave trade. Geography was an important factor. The Sudan is composed of two different regions. The largely African, equitorial south and a Saharan north. The Blue and White Niles join in Sudan to provide a water route north to the Mediterannean. This is the only watrer route through the vast Sahara Desert. It is importsant because it provided a route through which where African captives taken in the south could be readily marketed. Egypt itself was not a slave society, in part because the peasanty were basically serfs tied to the land. There were slaves in Egypt and other anient civilizations such as Greece and Rome. Unlike Egypt, these weee salave societies. And references to Nubians suggest that they enslaved in the Sudan or through Cushite slave markets. Some believe that Aesop was a Nubian. We certainly knew Nubian slaves. There are many references to Nubians in Roman manucripts. It must be remembered, however, thar slsavery in the ancient world was not a racial matter and thus Nubian did not equate with slave. Another complication is that most Africans in Rome were called Nubians, including those with no connection to Cush. We are not sure just how important Nubian slaves were to Rome. Give the ditance from Rome and the fact that Rome never occupied Cush/Nubia militarily, we suspect that Nubians made up a basically small proportion of the Roman slave population. Perhaps mpdern DNA studies will shed some light on this. The slave trade continued into the Christian era and then into the Muslim era. We know this because of the 652 treaty between the Kushites and Arab invaders under which Kush would pay an annual tribute. This may sound like a small number, but this was just the tribute and does not address the trade between Kush/Nubia and Egypt which was probably many time the number of Africans delivered as tribute. Unfortunately the historical record is very limited until the arrival of the British and efforts to wipe out the slave trade (19th century). The British certsainly sharply reduced the slave trade, but did not end it. Even after independence (1956), the slave trade comtinued. And it became a factor in the civil war following independence. Press reports of the slasve trade in Sudan continue to this day.


There were also Barbary Pirates operating from what is now Tunisua.


Yemen because of its location between the Middle East and Africa and at the juncture between the Arabian Sea abnd Red Sea was an important cog in both ancient trade routes and the Indian Ocean slave trade. We know that trade was well developed in antiquity and Yemen was perfectly positiioned to play an importnt role in that trade. Slavery and the slave trade pre-dated the Islamic era, but little information is available. We know there were African slaves in Ancient Rome, but we are not entirely sure of the source. As they were often called Numbians, the modern Sudan shipped up the Nile was probably the primarily source. More information becomes available, although there is still little is known about the early Islamic period. The earliest available Arab sources report commerce across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The slave trade at this tome seems to have been localized with slaves flowing from Abyssinia (Ethiopia to Yemen and Arabia. It is dificult to quantify the volume. There is not alarge African ethnic presense in Yeman and Aabia, but the castration of males may have been a factor here. And DNA stidies report important African traces. Arab sources report annual caeavans from Mecca. [Mujr] Thios refers to the 7th cehntury, but the Caravans in Mohammed's time would have surely been a contunuation of commerce established in antiquity. Of course one of those Arab traders was Mohammed's grandfather Abdal Muttalib. This trade which included African slaves led to the emergence of Mecca and Medina as well as other places in Araabia as important trading centers and Ethiopian communities. The best known individual to history is Bilal, who was Mohammed's muezzin. It was Bilal who called the first Muslims to prayer. Mohammed called him, 'the first fruit of Abyssinia'. The crossing from Africa to Arabia would have occurred at Yemen. More ingormation becomes available as time progresses. Arab sources report a sizeable trade which included leopard skins, anber, and slaves.


Baer, Gabriel. "Slavery in nineteenth century Egypt," Journal of African History Vol. VIII, No. 3 (1967), pp. 417-41.

Farron, Steven. "Black slavery in the Middle East," American Renaissance website (February 24, 2017).


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Created: 3:43 PM 6/15/2017
Last updated: 3:44 PM 6/15/2017