Millions of Africans were sold as slaves by Arab Muslims to the Middle East and other places via the Sahara Desert and Indian Ocean in a now almost-forgotten dark past of the slave trade driven by the sultanates of the Middle East.
In his book, “Slaves and Slavery,” Duncan Clarke defines slavery as “the reduction of fellow human beings to the legal status of chattels, allowing them to be bought and sold as goods”. That is exactly what Arabs and Europeans did to Africans.
“The African slave trade, (is) surely one of the most tragic and disturbing episodes in the history of mankind,” Clarke wrote. “Africa became a source of slaves for the cultures of the Mediterranean world many centuries before the discovery of the Americas, but it was that discovery and the resulting shift in focus towards the Atlantic that prompted the culminating explosive growth in slavery with such tragic effect.”
Records of the past 400 years of the history of slavery are dominated by Christian-led traders, mainly from Europe, who traded more than 12.5 million African slaves with the Americas and other parts of the world. However, the Muslim Arab slave trade is much older and involved tens of millions more enslaved Africans.
Historians estimate that starting around the year 650 — some seven centuries before European Christians explored Africa and 10 centuries before West Africans were sold across the Atlantic to America — more than 18 million people from the East Africa region were enslaved by Arab slave traders and taken across the Sahara Desert, Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
Due to the nature of the Arab slave trade, it is impossible to be precise about actual numbers but some African historians say it could be more than 50 million people.
The word “Arab,” when used in historical documents, often represented an ethnic term, as many of the “Arab” slave traders, such as Tippu Tip, were physically indistinguishable from the “Africans” whom they enslaved and sold. Tippu Tip was an Afro-Arab slave trader, ivory trader, explorer, plantation owner and governor who worked for several sultans of Zanzibar. He died on June 14, 1905 at the age of 73. He is said to have acquired 10,000 slaves, according to Abdul Sheriff, a Tanzanian professor emeritus of history at the University of Dar es Salaam and author of “Slaves, Spices & Ivory in Zanzibar”.
“Initially, the Arab Muslims in Eastern and Central Europe took white slaves to sell them to Arabia,” Senegalese author Tidiane N’Diaye told DW in an interview. “But the growing military power of Europe put an end to Islamic expansion and now that there was a shortage of slaves, Arab Muslims were looking massively to black Africa.”
Disunity among African tribes made it easier for the Arabs to infiltrate the hinterlands and buy slaves from local tribal chiefs who captured fellow Africans during inter-tribal conflicts, according to Abdulazizi Lodhi, professor emeritus of Swahili and African linguistics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.
In East Africa, Zanzibar played a critical role as the largest slave market where merchants from Oman settled and collected their stock of goods including ivory and slaves. There were other holding points on the Swahili coast such a Bagamoyo in modern-day Tanzania.
One difference between Arab slave traders and Europeans was the preference for female slaves over males. While the New World European slave traders viewed male slaves as much more profitable than female because of the labor they could provide, the Arabs saw profit in sexual satisfaction and reproductive potential of female slaves.
In the Americas, children who were born to enslaved Black women raped by white masters were born into slavery. In the Arab world, offspring of the union between Islamic masters and female slaves were born free out of respect for the children’s Islamic paternity.
Islamic laws provided little comfort to the Africans shipped across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean as they were still slaves subject to the cruelty of their Arab masters. The number of descendants was limited as men were castrated by their Arab masters to be eunuchs in domestic service
The brutal conditions endured by slaves during capture and transport meant that most of them perished from hunger, illness or exhaustion after the long journey. Scientific research concludes that about three out of four slaves died before they reached the market where they were to be sold.
The East African slave trade came to an end mainly as a result of three factors. A raid by Portuguese forces against slave traders in Mozambique in 1902, the development of new sources of slave labor from Baluchistan, and the collapse of Arabian date and pearl markets as a result of globalization and global depression.