** African slave trade Saharan routes

Slavery in the Magreb and Sahara: Country Trends

Figure 1.--Photographic evidence of slavery is limited because photograohy did not appear until slavery was disappearing and for the most part masters had no desire to photograph their slaves. In the Islamic world, photography appeared several decades after it was invented and was not nearly as commom as it was in Europe. Moroccan sources believe that this photograph depicts a group of slave women and girls in Morocco, apparently photographed with their owners. Notice that the skaves are not African and seem a little lighter complexioned than the men. The photograph is not dated, but looks like the late-19th century. Islam of course had strict modesty rules for women, but these were often suspended for slaves to mark their low social status. We are guessing though that dressing like this was just in the home. Presumably when appearing in public they covered up more. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

Here we want to survey the history of slavery in the territory of the modern countries of the Magreb and Sahara/Sahel. These countries are modern creations, at least the modern boundaries. The territories they now govern, however, have long and in some cases diverse histories. The modern boundaries mostly date to the the 19th century. Slavery in the region, however date back millenia and the nature of it has changed radically over time under different legal and cultural traditions. Still it is useful to look at the history of slavery in the various areas now encompasing modern states. Some like Egypt and Morocco have a substantial dergree of territorial continuity. Others have largely arbitrary borders created by Europeans, often the French. Egypt is a special case because if its long history dting back to the dawn of civilization and involvement in a combuination of Middle Eastern, Indian Ocean, and Trans-Saharan Slavery. Egypt did not participate in Barbary piracy. In other Saharan countries, slavery was almost totaly dependent on the Trans-Sharan slave trade and Barabry piracy. Slavery continues to esist into modern times, primarily associated with Islamic traditions.



Egypt has a history dating from the dawn of history. Ans slavery seems to have been a part of that history from the earliest historical records. Ancient Egypt was not, however a slave society. Most of the population was the peasantry, nuch of which did not own land. Thus there was a very large work force availavle to the ruling aristocracy without enslaving the peasantry. There were slaves which seem ti have been war captives, criminals, and conquered peoples. Egypt was conquered by Rome. We are unsure to what extent tharRoman lave tradiins ffected Egypt, but it does not seem to have had a major impact. We do not yet have information on the Muzabtune era. Aan armies conquered Egypt (7th century) and gradually Islamcized much of the population. The Nile provided aroute for sub-Saharan Africans to reach Meditwranean markets, Cairo became an important slave market. The Ottoman Empire conquered the abs, including the Egyptains (16th century). Egypt unlike the rest of the Magreb did not participate in Barbary piracy. Egypt entered gthe modern era as an Ottoman province in which slavery had a long tradition and the legal underpinnings of sharia. Egypt on the Mediterranean had a range of modernizing influenes, including European trade routes accross Suez and eventually the Suez Canal which was followed bhy a British protectorate I1181). This was less true in the south, esocially the Sydan which was claind by the Egyptians.




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 evn in the country even legally reoirt bring attacked and called ugly names, including gh phitat'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 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.



(El) Hamel, Chouki. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge and New York, 2013).


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Created: 8:56 PM 10/27/2013
Last updated: 8:56 PM 10/27/2013