** Enslaved Africans: Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean Slaves

Enslaved Africans: Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean Slaves

Figure 1.--One fascinatging aspect of slavery in Muslim countries, ids that many leaders had more trust in well-tredated African slaves than their own people. Many leaders in Muslim countries and South India had not only Afrucan slave body guards, but African slave military units. There is nothing American slave owners feared more than armed blacks. Accoording to Iranian-born anthropolgist Pedram Khosronejad, "Slaves who were not eunuchs were sometimes assigned to the armies of the [Persian] Qajar elites. The 14 pictured here belonged to Qajar prince Zell-e-Soltan, Ghameshlou, Isfahan, 1904." A factor here was Kornic uthorization. Photograph: Zell-e-Soltan/Kimia Foundation

The Indian Ocean area is a vast region extenduing from Africa to the Far East, Malaysia and the East Indies. Iur primary focus is the western Indian Ocean meaning the area between India aand Africa or the Aranian Sea. Thus was for nearly a mellinium after the Islamizatioin of of the Arabs, a virtuall Arab lake (7th-16th century). Unlike the Atlantic Save Trade, the Europeans had omly a minor role. Their primary involvement was thesupression of the slave trade. Arab slave traders sold large numbers of Africans in markets located in North Africa, the Arab Middle East, and Persia. There were also sales to markets in the Ottoman Empire and even India before the British Raj. Africans were not the only people sold as slaves. European Christians captured in the Mediterranean or on raids in Europe were also sold. Also slaves taken by the Ottomans in the Balkans and what is now the Ukraine and southern Russia appeared in these markets. The composition varied over time. There were also war captives. There were many important slave markets. Here we are just beginning to collect informtion. Zanzibar, Muscat, and Cairo were three of the most important. There were several other important markets (Ceuta) and many smaller ones. Muslim buyers (usually men) would inspect the human merchandise. Their inspection depended on how the slkaves were to beused which was entirely up to the buyer. African women and young girls were proved in a demeaning fashion by male buyers to determine the sexual worth of their potential purchases. Muslim women also had slaves. We believe the actual purchases, however, were usualy done by her husbands or other male representative. But here we still have very limited information. A slave who did not sell were killed to avoid expenses on unwanted merchandise. African slaves by the 19th century were being sold in large numbers in African markets (especially Zanzibar and Mombassa) as agricultural labor. This shift was the result of the development of plantations along the coast of what is now modern southern Somalia and Kenya and on Zanzibar and slave labor was needed for these plantations.


Barbary States

The Sahara Desert was a huge barrier to the movement or transport of Africans north. This changed with the advebt of the cammel making caravan traffic more feasible. This occurred about tghe same tgime that Rome began to decline and Christianity ewhich friened in slavery becoming widespread. As a result, the flow of caotive Afrucans into the Roman Empire was limited. This changed with the Arab conquest and the Islamizatiion of North Africa (7th cenyury AD).



China was not a slave society. For the nostpart the largely landless peasantry privided the work force required, even fir major construction projects. A few Afrucan skaves are known to hve nade theurvway to China. Itwas apparently ba status symbol in Canton to have at least one African household slave.

East Indies


Slavery existed for much of the 19th century in Egypt. Slavery in the Khedivate was not unlike slavery in Ancient Egypt. The great bulk of the labor force was the landless peasantry. Slaves were a small part of the labor force and concentrated in a few specific activities. Slavery followed the pattern set during earlier historical periods, most recently Egypt's position as a province of the Ottoman Empire. Slavery was similar in Egyopt to that of the wider Arab world. The Mamuluks were destinctive to Egypt. Egypt had access to as well as access to African slaves and until the early-19th century had access to the European catives of the Barbary pirates. There were both white and black slaves as well as male and female slaves. Slavery gradually disappeared in Egypt during the 19th century. Formal abolition was just part of this transition. Although defeated by the Ottomans and Napoleon, the Mamluks still had considerable influence in Egypt and important positions. They were annililated in a great massacre conducted by Muhammed Ali (1811). This ended their rule as a ruling aristocracy. They continued to play an important role in the military and government administration. Many Mamluks and other white make slaves were owned by Turks (non-Arab Ottomans) and increasingly wealthy Egyptians. [Baer, p. 147.] The slave population of Egypt during the 19th century was an estimasted 20,000-30,000, although there is no precise accounting. Certainly they were a small fraction out of out of the overall populstion of about 5 million people. About half of Egyptian slaves were concentrated in Egyot. The number of slaves in Cairo has been estimated at 12,000-15,000 in a city of about 350,000 people. Female slaves might be kept in harems. Wealthy Turks preferred Circassian females (white women who were primarily obtained in the Caucasus). More humble Egyptain harems were more commonly Abyssinians (Africans). While male and female Negro slaves were commonly used as domestic servants. Black slaves were used as soldiers as well as the decling number of Mamluks. African slaves were also used as agricultural labor, although this was a very small part of the largely peasant labor force. The estates of the Muhammed Ali family were worked by African slaves. [Baer] The supression of the slave trade was largely brought about by the British. The first major step was the First Anglo-Egyptian Convention (1877). One focus of the effort was the Sudan. Sudan was seen by Egyptian officials as a part of Egypt. The Sudan was more traditional than Egypt itself and a more austere form of Islam widely followed. And the slave trade was an important part of the economy whoch was not the case in Egypt. British governors were appointed in the Sudan. The most notable was Charles 'Chinese' Girdon. Special missions were dispatched to supress the slave trade. The Mahdist revolution delayed the effort in the Sudan (1881). More aggressive steps were taken after the establishment of the British Protectorate (1882).


Indian Ocean Islands


There is a long history of slavery in Persia, covering ancient, medieval, and modern periods. all of which, however, are poorly documnted. Persia is one of the earliest civilizations in the world and oine of the great powers of the ancient workd. It was on the fringe of Mesopotamia where the Sumerians, one of the great River Valley civilizations launched agriculture and civilization. One of the peoples the Sumerians and Babylonians had to contend with were the Elamites, a non-Persian people who inhabited modern southwestern Iran--including the ancient cities of Anshan and Susa. The Elamites, perhaps because of their location adjacent to the Sumerians left a writtem record, one of the few pre-Achaemenid civilizations of what we now know as Persia/Iran to do so. And in that record, as was standard for ancient peoople, slaves are mentioned. As a result we know that slavery was an accepted istitution in Persia even before the arrival of ethnic Persians. And this did not change when Persians established themselves in what is now Iran. The arival of African slaves is difficult to date with any certainty, but appears to date primarily from the Islamic era. Small numbrs of African slaves may have existed earier, especially when Persian armies conquered Egypt (525 BC). The Persian conquest of Egypt was planned planned by Cyrus, but became the major achievement of Cambyses' reign. The Persians riled Egypt for a century until defeated by Alexander. During that time, some African slaves must have appeared in Pesia. Much later Arabia includung Arabia Felix/Yemen was briefly aquired by Persia (575 AD). These extensions of Persian empires were for relatively short periods. We believe that African captives were a relatively small proportion of slaves in ancient Persia which did not have a huge slave population to begin with, although admittedly actual data is virtually nonexistant. This changed with the Arab conquest of Persia (633-54 AD) whuch led to collapse of the Sassanid Empire. This meant the inevitable decline of the Zoroastrian religion and the Islamization of Persia. It also meant the beginning of the flow of enslaved Africans into Persia on a sustained basis. At the time, Arab merchants were establishimg trading posts along the developing Swahili coast of eastern Africa looking for gold, ivory, spices, and other luxury itemns (7th centurty). Capturing and enslaving Africans became one of their most imprtant commodities. In this effort, Islamicized Swahili chiefs became an important part of the Arab Indian Ocean slave trade. One of the two maritime corridors for the Indian Ocean slave trade was the Persian Gulf leading to Persian ports and Basra--a major slave market funneling captive Africans into the Middle East, including Persia. The Arab traders also landed csptyive Africans along the Makran (Gulf of Oman) coast.

Persian Gulf Emirates

Unil the discovery of oil, the Oersian Gulf emorates in modern times were among the poorest regioins in earth. An important economic activity in the Persian Gulf was pearl diving. This is an arddous and dangerous effort. We note enslkaved Africans being ysed ijnto the 20tyh century.



Somalia was for much of its history a source od captive Africans. With the rise of plantation agriculture (19th century), it became an imprtant destination for caotive Afrucans, supplyingh the needed labor force.

South Asia

The Indian sub-continent comporises several nstates most of them are modern countries in which Arab traders sold captive Africans as part of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade. That includes Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka/Maldives and Bangladesh. As mihght be expected fir geogrphic and relkigious reasonsd, Pakistan has the largest population with African descent in the sub-continent. They mostly live along the Makran (Gulf of Oman) coast . Indians called Africans Siddis and we know more about them than the other africans in the region. This is largely because several became imprtant indiviuduals--primarily as military leaders. This is interesting because the Hindu caste system has a color component. High caste Hindus tend to be light-complexiioned and seal to marry light-complexioned women. Intouchables tend to be dark complexioned. Thus you might have thought that Africans would have dome better in Muslim society. Ivory was an especially prised commodity in Indua, creating a connectioin with Africa, the world's primary source of ivory. Ivory was carried to Indian primrily on dhows followeing the coast with gold, spices, other commoidities and African captives. Mich of those products wouls take the Red Sea and Persian Gulf route north, but some arrived in Indian ports. As a result of the caste system, many jobs eere assigned to specific groups. Many African males were assigned to a range of security functions (soldiers, palace guards, or personal bodyguards). For some reason They were seen as more trustworthy than many indigenous Indian people. This was true on both coasts, including Benga or moder Baanledesh, at ghe time one of the richest provinces of India. An incident there resulted in the epulsion of Sidi commanders and soldiers (late-15th century). Many were emplolyed in the Deccan or Gujarat to fight Akbar's forces. This gsve rise to one vf the most notable India commander, a Siddi--was. One of the most notable non-Mugal commandr was a Siddi--Etiopian born Malik Ambar. He would play a major role in prevnting Akbar from complting his conquest of India. The first Africans to reach Sri Lanka were Ethiopians whom ee beliece came as traders (5th century D). Some arrived as sklaves during the Islamic era and as in India were involved in security and military duties. We note references to Absynians. We suspect that this was a generalized term for Afrians and not all Ethiopians. The Portuguese reached Sri nLanka pobly a fw years after Da Gama reached India. They fuirsr came as traders, but seiuzed control (1597). The Portuguese began taking African slaves as they moved south along the western coast of Africa (15th century). Portugal is a small country, but for their imperial project they needed men. This the many battles fought on Sri Lanka included African soldiers. In addition, Africans served on Portuguese sailing vessels.

Turkic Empires


Burton, Sir Richard. (1851).

Khosronejad, Pedram. Khosronejad is an Iranuian-born anthroplogist now working in the United States.


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Created: 7:54 PM 8/23/2011
Last updated: 1:07 AM 10/3/2021