Shackled to serve the East

Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa - Islam's Black Slaves
August 23, 2002

There is by now a considerable literature about the Atlantic slave trade from West Africa and the number of slaves transported is known with reasonable accuracy. Much less is known about the other great movement of African slaves - that controlled mostly by Muslim traders and directed largely to supplying the needs of Near Eastern and North African countries for agricultural and domestic workers - which continued for about a century after the Atlantic trade had ceased. These books by Humphrey Fisher, a scholar of Islamic Africa and an Arabist, and Ronald Segal, a distinguished journalist and writer and well-known fighter against apartheid, both tackle this neglected subject.

The books cover much the same themes but in very different ways. Fisher's is the more scholarly and detailed. It is a newly written and much enlarged version of a book that he and his father published in 1970. Much of it is based on detailed information from their magnificent English translation of the book by the German physician and traveller, Gustav Nachtigal. Nachtigal spent the years from 1862 to 1874 in the Western Sudan and North Africa and saw many of the slave caravans that travelled from east and west of Lake Chad to the Mediterranean coast, on several occasions making the journey with them.

Segal's book is less detailed but gives the historical background to a wider area, relying largely on good secondary sources. For those with little knowledge of the history of Islam, he provides a survey from the time of the Prophet Mohammed to the present, with two final chapters dealing in a polemical manner with the survival of slavery in Mauretania and the Sudan and the "Black Muslim backlash in the United States". This last chapter is interesting and informative but not strictly relevant to the main theme of the book.

Together, the books give a good picture of the non-Atlantic slave trade. Fisher deals almost entirely with the western Sudan, leaning heavily on the writings of Nachtigal in the central Sudan. He has little to say about the equally massive trade from East Africa, from which most of the slaves of Arabia, Iran, India and even China came.

Segal deals in more detail with this eastern trade, showing how in the early days the slaves, known as zanj , were first taken to Iraq and western Iran. There, many were used as agricultural labourers, until in the second half of the 9th century AD, under the leadership of Ali Mohammed, they rose in revolt and for a short time were successful in establishing independence, particularly in the marsh lands of southern Iraq.

Segal also shows how the fates of slaves and their descendants in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and further east varied. Although most were employed in back-breaking toil in the fields, some rose to positions of power. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, African eunuch slaves on several occasions played an important role in imperial intrigues, sometimes being able to determine the succession to the sultanate.

Fisher examines with care the ambivalent Muslim attitude to slavery, in which taking slaves in jihad was not only permitted but encouraged, while taking fellow Muslims was forbidden. This rule was not always strictly obeyed, and there were many cases of taking Muslims as slaves - though on occasion pagan slaves who converted to Islam were freed. There seems to have been much variation in practice, and various economic and practical considerations could determine who was a slave and who was free.

Fisher also goes into detail about the use of slaves in agriculture, as domestic servants, as soldiers and as concubines, relying heavily on Nachtigal. He gives estimates of the number of slaves who made the trans-Saharan journey, and of the large number who died on the way, and also shows that there was a demand for large numbers of slaves in areas close to their homeland and that not all were traded to the Mediterranean coast.

Segal does not have the same command of the details of slavery and of the use and employment of slaves. Much of his text is straightforward historical narrative. This makes the two books complementary - one gives details of the nature of slavery in a limited part of Africa, while the other shows the historical background and the wide geographical area over which slaves of African origin were traded.

The appearance of these two rather different books dealing with broadly the same theme is important in showing that slaves were not only taken from Africa by Europeans and shipped across the Atlantic to the New World but that there was also a similar trade, at times of considerable brutality, providing slave labour to other parts of the world.

The ancient world ran on slave labour derived from many parts of the then-known world, including Europe, and the use by humans of other humans in this way has a long history. Yet the African trade, because of the presence of its progeny in the Americas and the Near East, is especially noticeable. There is no point in attaching blame. Let us hope that the slavery, which still exists in Africa, as Segal shows, will no longer be accepted by the rest of the world.

Peter Shinnie is emeritus professor of archaeology, University of Calgary, Canada.

Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa

Author - Humphrey J. Fisher
ISBN - 1 85065 524 3
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £16.50
Pages - 410

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