CHARLES RIVER EDITORS — THE EAST AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE: THE HISTORY AND LEGACY OF THE ARAB SLAVE TRADE AND THE INDIAN OCEAN SLAVE TRADE — 2017
The title bothered me from the very start. But I wanted to see what was inside. If we speak of old slave trade bringing Black African slaves into the vast area covering the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East, or even the Indian Ocean and the Indian subcontinent, and eventually the rest of Asia, we do have a problem. At the level of the world per se we also have the same problem. Slavery developed with the emergence of agriculture and herd husbandry after the Ice Age, between 12,000 and 5,000 BCE. These new economic and productive activities required a new division of labor that made people available when necessary for the crops — cultivation, harvesting and storing. This new division of labor was harsh and the initiative of individuals was no longer necessary. What used to be more or less collective work became slave work when the property of the land and the organization of work was in the hands of a very narrow minority of “free” people. Slavery as such had nothing to do with Islam. In fact, it is clearly present in the Bible (Abraham is given his wife’s slave by his own wife Sara for him to get a son since she, Sara, cannot perform the service. That’s Ishmael. But God being what he is, he grants a son to Sara afterwards. That’s Isaac. Then Sara, the wife, asks Abraham to throw the slave maid of hers and her son Ishmael out into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. But God being what he is, he saves both the slave mother and the slave son Ishmael. We know what will happen later. Isaac is the founding figure of the Jewish and later Christian religions and Ishmael is the founding figure of Islam. Abraham being common to the three religions.
Plato, Socrates and Aristotle all defended a slave society in which the slaves were the majority of the population. In Sparta, one day a year, the free citizens had the right — and duty — to go hunting the slaves normally working the fields of the city. The free citizens could kill these slaves the way they wanted and as many as they could. The big empires in the Middle East, Sumerian, Akkadian, Persian and all other Hittite or Anatolian empires, had a vast number of slaves. One dynasty of Pharaohs in Egypt is known as the Black Pharaohs and are the black slaves used as soldiers in Egypt who managed to seize power for a century or so. The Roman Empire was basically a slave empire. And the arrival of Christianity with Constantine did not change that. In fact, it was changed only when the Germanic tribes arrived because they did not practice that kind of slavery (and the gates of Rome were opened by slaves for the Germanic invaders to come in during the night) and it is Charlemagne who introduced the religious reform of the 9th century that will bring feudalism that rejected slavery by principle, replacing it with serfdom. Black slaves in all these empires were common and the practice of eunuchs was also common. Eunuchs were generally abducted at an early age, before puberty most of the time. They were castrated level to the abdomen and the survivors were entrusted with the numerous harems of these empires. Roman Emperors, like Julius Caesar and all the others had private counselors who were slaves most of the time.
So I was surprised — at least — when I found out that this book de facto starts slavery in this region of the world as being Arab and clearly Muslim. There is one allusion to a very old system but no precision. In fact it sounds as if slavery was started in this region in the 8th or 9th century in Arab countries to be understood as meaning Muslim countries, forgetting that Iran, most of Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. are not Arab but all of them Turkic or Indo-European or Indo-Aryan, not to speak of Turkey itself and vast areas in the Caucasus, around the Caspian Sea and in Central Asia including vast areas of western China that were of course not Arab or Arabic since they spoke Turkic languages.
Yet the book insisted on an element that is essential and without which the slave trade in the Indian Ocean would never have been what it became after the 15th century. The Portuguese controlled the vast section of central and southern Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean: Congo, central African small areas that have become Rwanda, Uganda, and some others, Angola, Mozambique, and many islands in the Indian Ocean, plus India of course, meaning the Indian subcontinent. One of their main activity was transatlantic slave trade to the Americas, though they were joined there by the Spanish, the English, the Dutch, the French and a few others. But in the Indian Ocean the Portuguese were alone for at least three centuries. They used some kind of agreement with the “Arab” traders, meaning of course the Muslim traders who collected slaves along the eastern coast of Africa and took them to the Middle East, Egypt included, the Indian subcontinent and the whole Muslim world. Though a map shows another slave trade from western Africa to the Maghreb, Libya and Egypt, the book does not say a word about this one. The land routes from western Africa (the Mali empire that became officially Muslim in the 13th century) and from eastern Africa ‘what is today Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia were highly frequented across the desert and they were the normal routes for future eunuchs. The boys were operated upon in special stations: survival rate about 50%. No official figures.
The book hints at the old practice going back to before Christ, even prehistory, of some tribes establishing themselves as dominant (that will be easy when a Middle East empire or the Roman Legion, etc. will support them, later the various Muslim countries and their traders and the Portuguese not to speak of the French in many islands and the English who take over after the Portuguese in the second half of the 18th century. These dominant tribes (the Swahili and the Yao, and quite a few more) managed to convert to Islam, which protected them since a Muslim cannot be enslaved by another Muslim, and then they raided the inner tribes, seen as less powerful, especially since they are not provided with modern military means and they have suffered from this exploitation for millennia (four or five or more), are systematically kept away from Islam and they provide, at times peacefully with some kind of an agreement with the raiders, the quota of slaves demanded by the raiders. It’s only hinted at not explained.
The consequences are that when the English, like Livingstone arrives with Christian missionary objectives, they will convert these animist populations to Christianity in order to bring them together and make them resist the millennia old practice. It is this minority Muslim tribe versus majority Christian or animist tribes that is at the very basis of today’s tribalism in Africa. The French and the English when they arrived just kept the dominant tribe in power, tolerated the slave trade against the majority tribes and little by little, slowly and painfully, managed in two centuries to bring this trade to something like a halt. The details on the subject are only trying to save the face of the English as being the main liberators, forgetting to say that colonialism took over. It was no longer slave work but colonial work. Not much difference indeed. Let say some very brutal serfdom.
The book is short on one more element. It alludes to the Code Noir (there is a Spanish version of it) of Louis XIV. It does not at all take into account the various practices of the various Christian countries in the Americas. The French and before them the Spanish with the Inquisition and Royal justice impose some strict limitations to the practice of slavery in their American colonies that imposed their Christianization, their marrying in the Catholic Church and the vast practice of manumission (a slave could buy his freedom because he or she had some personal income authorized by his or her master, and anyone could buy the freedom of any slave at any time. That produced the three tier society of the ex-Spanish or ex-French colonies and territories (including Louisiana). On the other hand, the Protestants of the Netherlands or Great Britain refused to recognize the human dimension of slaves, refused to Christianize them and they imposed a brutal over exploitation and the famous theory of the one-drop-of-black blood that supposedly makes you Black. Livingstone was in other words an exception and the book makes one allusion to the Hindu caste system but does not go as far as saying that the Dalits are nothing but slaves.
I think this book seems not to have read the following title that they should read urgently to widen their minds on the subject. “The Indian Ocean From Admiral Zheng He To Hub And Spoke Container Maritime Commerce” by Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU & Ivan Eve, Kindle Book, ASIN: B01AY2H0JC, January 2016. The first part of the book is on the subject of slavery in the Indian Ocean. Commentary, review and presentation at https://www.academia.edu/29122940/A_LONG_JOURNEY_IN_THE_WORLD_IN_THE_MIND_IN_THE_SOUL_OF_MAN
One shortcoming is of course the position of Muhammad on slavery: he found it when he took over the Arab world at first and he limited it to non-Muslims and edicted many rules to make it acceptable though he did not in any way softened the lot of eunuchs or future eunuchs. The book is totally silent on the point. You find the same limitation in the Mandingo Charta instated by the first Muslim Malian Emperor in the 13th century: “In the early thirteenth century, following a major military victory, the founder of the Mandingo Empire and the assembly of his wise men proclaimed in Kurukan Fuga the new Manden Charter, named after the territory situated above the upper Niger River basin, between present-day Guinea and Mali.” They just forget to say the victor is Muslim and imposes Islam to the ruling class of the empire (https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/manden-charter-proclaimed-in-kurukan-fuga-00290). Have a good trip and remember that Admiral Zheng He was a Muslim and a castrated slave of the Chinese Emperor.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU