Occupying the vast intercontinental space between Africa, Europe, Persia, and India, the Arab world came to dominate the primary trade routs between sub-Saharan Africa and the wider world of antiquity. Arabian traders brought many positive advances including writing, technology, religion, and new crops. Africans in turn supplied gold, ivory, salt, hardwood, and unfortunately slaves.

Elikia M’bokolo, wrote in the renown French newspaper Le Monde (diplomatique). “The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic.

He continues writing “Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean”.

In the first part of this look at the Arab presence in Africa, I’ll write about the Arab slave trade, and how it differed from more widely known (in the West) trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought slaves from West Africa to the New World. In a later diary, I’ll look at positive aspects of the Arab presence in Africa.

Already by the 8th century, the African continent was dominated by Arab-Berbers in the north: Islam started to move southwards along the Nile and also along desert trails through the Sahara. Thus began at least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). The Arab trade of Zanj (ethnic-Bantu) slaves in Southeast Africa is one of the oldest slave trades, predating the European transatlantic slave trade by 700 years. Just as a side note in the Arabic world ethnic-Bantu, means black Africans but excluding Ethiopians, Somalis, and North Sudanese (they are considered Cushitic people). I will follow that nomenclature.

The main slave routes in Africa during the Middle Ages.

Male slaves were often forced to work as servants, soldiers, or laborers by their owners, while female slaves, including those from Africa, were long traded to the Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms by Arab and other traders from the orient as concubines and servants. Arab, African, and Middle Eastern traders were involved in the capture and transport of slaves northward across the Sahara desert and the Indian Ocean region into the Middle East, Persia and the Far East.

From the 7th century until around the early 20th, the Arab slave trade continued in one form or another. Historical accounts and references to slave-owning nobility in Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere are frequent into the early 1920s.

The conditions of the enslaved Africans under Islamic Arabs, according to Ronald Segal (Islam’s Black Slaves, Atlantic Books 2003) was very different from the conditions imposed by Europeans Christians. The most fundamental difference between the two being that under Islam enslaved Africans were still considered human beings with some rights. Additionally unlike European Christian based slavery where even people who converted to Christianity were kept in perpetual bondage, the children of slaves who converted to Islam were born free.

The Arab slave trade, across the Sahara desert and across Indian Ocean, began after Muslim Arab and Swahili traders won control of the Swahili Coast (East Africa from the horn to Swaziland) and sea routes during the 9th century, especially from the Sultanate of Zanzibar, located on the island of Zanzibar (off the coast of Tanzania). These traders captured African ethnic Bantu peoples (Zanj) from the interior in present-day Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania and brought them to the coast (William Robert Ochieng. Eastern Kenya and Its Invaders). There, the slaves gradually assimilated in the rural areas, particularly on Zanzibar (Unguja and Pemba islands of the coast of modern Tanzania).

There are large difference in estimated numbers based on what assumptions are made, but some historians assert that as many as 17 million people were sold into slavery on the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa, and approximately 5 million African slaves were bought by Muslim slave traders and taken from Africa across the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara desert between 1500 and 1900 ( “Focus on the slave trade”BBC). The captive slaves were sold in slave markets throughout the Middle East. The trade in human beings accelerated as superior ships led to more trade and greater demand for labor on plantation estates in the region. Eventually, tens of thousands of captives were being taken every year.

A slave market in Cairo. Drawing by David Roberts, circa 1848.

The Indian Ocean’s slave trade was multi-directional and changed over time. To meet the demand for menial labor, Ethnic Bantu slaves bought by Arab slave traders from southeastern Africa were sold in cumulatively large numbers over the centuries to customers on the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and European colonies in the Far East of Asia (Gwyn Campbell, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, 1 edition, (Routledge: 2003).

Slave labor in East Africa was drawn from the Zanj, Bantu peoples that lived along the East African coast ( Bethwell A. OgotZamani: A Survey of East African History).The Zanj were for centuries shipped as slaves by Arab traders to all the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs recruited many Zanj slaves as soldiers and, as early as 696, there were slave revolts of the Zanj against their Arab enslavers in Iraq (see Zanj Rebellion). Ancient Chinese texts also mention ambassadors from Java presenting the Chinese emperor with two Seng Chi (Zanj) slaves as gifts, and Seng Chi slaves reaching China from the Hindu kingdom of Srivijaya in Java Roland Oliver, Africa in the Iron Age: c.500 BC-1400 AD, (Cambridge University Press).

African Slaves in Iraq

The Zanj Rebellion, a series of revolts that took place between 869 and 883 AD near the city of Basra (also known as Basara), situated in present-day Iraq. It is the most largest and most famous African slave revolt in the Middle East. The revolts is believed to have involved enslaved Zanj that had originally been captured from the African Great Lakes region and areas further south in East Africa (Junius P. Rodriguez  Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 2). It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves and free men who were imported from across the  Islamic World and claimed over “tens of thousands of lives in lower Iraq” (Revisiting the Zanj and Re-Visioning Revolt: Complexities of the Zanj Conflict (868-883 AD)). The Zanj who were taken as slaves to the Middle East were often used in strenuous agricultural work. As the slave plantation economy boomed and the Arabs became richer, agriculture and other manual labor work was thought to be demeaning. The resulting labor shortage led to an increased slave market.

It is certain that large numbers of slaves were exported from eastern Africa; the best evidence for this is the magnitude of the Zanj revolt in Iraq in the 9th century, though not all of the slaves involved were Zanj. There is little evidence of what part of eastern Africa the Zanj came from, for the name is here evidently used in its general sense, rather than to designate the particular stretch of the coast, from about 3°N. to 5°S., to which the name was also applied.

The Zanj slaves were needed to work the hot humid marshlands of Southern Iraq:

the Tigris-Euphrates delta, which had become abandoned marshland as a result of peasant migration and repeated flooding, could be reclaimed through intensive labor. Wealthy proprietors “had received extensive grants of tidal land on the condition that they would make it arable.” Sugar cane was prominent among the products of their plantations, particularly in Khuzestan Province. Zanj also worked the salt mines of Mesopotamia, especially around Basra.

The slaves jobs were to turn over the rich topsoil that made the land valuable for agricultural. The working conditions were also considered to be extremely harsh and miserable. Many other slaves from around the Indian Ocean were imported into the region, besides Zanj.

Noted Middle-Eastern historian M. A. Shaban has argued that rebellion was not a slave revolt, but a revolt of blacks (zanj) people. In his research he found that although a few runaway slaves did join the revolt, the majority of the participants were Arabs and free Zanj. If the revolt had been led by slaves, they would have lacked the necessary resources to combat the Abbasid government for as long as they did.

Some descendants of African slaves brought to the Middle East during the slave-trade still live there today, and are aware of their African origins (“A Legacy Hidden in Plain Sight”The Washington Post)

East Africa

In Somalia, the Bantu minorities are descended from Bantu groups that had settled in Southeast Africa after the initial expansion of ethnic Bantus from Lake Chad. To meet the demand for menial labor, Bantus from South-Eastern Africa captured by Somali slave traders were sold in cumulatively large numbers over the centuries to customers in Somalia and the Arab world. People captured locally during wars and raids were also sometimes enslaved by Somalis. However, the perception, capture, treatment and duties of both groups of slaves differed markedly.

A photograph of a slave boy in Zanzibar. ‘An Arab master’s punishment for a slight offence. ‘ c. 1890.

From 1800 to 1890, between 25,000–50,000 Bantu slaves are thought to have been sold from the slave market of Zanzibar to the Somali coast. Most of the slaves were from the Majindo, Makua, Nyasa, Yao, Zalama, Zaramo and Zigua ethnic groups of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. Collectively, these Bantu groups are known as Mushunguli, which is a term taken from Mzigula, the Zigua tribe’s word for “people” (the word holds multiple implied meanings including “worker”, “foreigner”, and “slave”).

Ethiopia also had slaves shipped from there, due to a high demand for non-Muslim slaves in the markets of the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere in the Middle East. Enslaved Ethiopians were mostly domestic servants, though some served as agricultural laborers, or as water carriers, herdsmen, seamen, camel drivers, porters, washerwomen, masons, shop assistants and cooks. The most fortunate of the men worked as the officials or bodyguards of the ruler and emirs, or as business managers for rich merchants  (Gwyn Campbell. Abolition and Its Aftermath in the Indian Ocean Africa and Asia).  Ethiopian slaves enjoyed significant personal freedom and occasionally held slaves of their own. Besides Javanese and Chinese slave girls brought in from the Far East, so called “red” Ethiopian young females were among the most valued concubines. The most beautiful ones often enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle, and became mistresses of the elite or even mothers to rulers. The principal sources of these slaves, all of whom passed through ports on the Red Sea, were the southwestern parts of Ethiopia, in the Oromo and Sidama country.

The Portuguese And The Rise Of Zanzibar

By around the 10th century, Arabs had established commercial settlements on the Swahili Coast, and continued to trade there for several centuries. Then In 1497 the Portuguese exploded onto the scene in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese conquered these trading centers after the discovery of the Cape Road (around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa).

Stone Town, Zanzibar

The Portuguese arrived in East Africa found a series of independent towns on the coast, with Muslim Arabic-speaking elites. While the Portuguese travelers describe them as ‘black’ they made a clear distinction between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Regardless of their appearant race, their relations with these leaders were mostly hostile.

The Portuguese came first as explorers and stayed as conquerors. In a whirlwind campaign, they gained control of the sea-lanes and many onshore possessions along the East African coast, in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf and the Spice Islands. The campaign was well executed. It is highlighted by naval battles against tremendous odds, sieges won against strong walls, and captured cities held by the Portuguese against large and well equipped armies. And it is a campaign that is undeservedly ignored by most historians.

One of the main participants, Afonso d’Albuquerque, was probably the first modern European to fully understand naval strategy. He emphasized controlling sea lanes through the use of fortified bases in or near key straits such as the Straits of Hormuz (the entrance to the Persian Gulf) and Bab el Mandeb. He reasoned that the Portuguese, being so small in number, could not hope to dominate the area through sheer military force. But, by controlling the entrances and exits to and from the area, Portugal could dominate the area economically and control the spice trade.

As the British Empire began to restrict the trans-Atlantic slave trade from West Africa, the Portuguese who still supported the slave trade began to purchase slaves from East Africa’s Swahili coast.  The Portuguese presence was relatively limited, leaving administration in the hands of preexisting local leaders and power structures.

This system lasted until 1631, when the Sultan of Mombasa massacred the European inhabitants. Muslim forces from Oman (Sultanate of Muscat) reseized these market towns, especially on the islands of Pemba and Zanzibar. In these territories, the Oman Arabs mingled with the local “negro” populations, thereby establishing Afro-Arab communities. The Swahili language and culture largely evolved through these intermarriages between Arab men and native Bantu women. Zanzibar became

The strangling of trade and diminished local power had led the Swahili patrician elites in Mombasa and Zanzibar to invite Omani aristocrats to assist them in driving the Europeans out. By 1698, Zanzibar came under the influence of the Sultanate of Oman, although there was a brief revolt against Omani rule in 1784.

Rather than a form of colonization in the modern sense, this was an invited sphere of influence. Wealthy patricians Zanzibarese invited Omani merchant princes to settle on Zanzibar, rather than the former conquering the latter. In the first half of the nineteenth-century, locals saw the Busaidi sultans as powerful merchant princes whose patronage would benefit their island. Many locals today continue to emphasize that indigenous Zanzibaris had invited Seyyid Said, the first Busaidi sultan, to their island. Cultivating a patron-client relationship with powerful families was a strategy used by many Swahili coast towns since at least the fifteenth century.

Between 1832 and 1840 (the date varies among sources), one the Arabs world’s major royal families Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town Zanzibar. This meant one of the Arab’s world’s major royalties was ruling from East Africa. After Said’s death in June 1856, two of his sons, Thuwaini bin Said and Majid bin Said, struggled over the succession.Rather than a form of colonization in the modern sense, this was an invited sphere of influence. Wealthy patricians Zanzibarese invited Omani merchant princes to settle on Zanzibar, rather than the former conquering the latter. In the first half of the nineteenth-century, locals saw the Busaidi sultans as powerful merchant princes whose patronage would benefit their island. Many locals today continue to emphasize that indigenous Zanzibaris had invited Seyyid Said, the first Busaidi sultan, to their island. Cultivating a patron-client relationship with powerful families was a strategy used by many Swahili coast towns since at least the fifteenth century.

Said’s will divided his dominions into two separate principalities , with Thuwaini to become the Sultan of Oman and Majid to become the first Sultan of Zanzibar.


Afro-Arab communities were similarly founded in the Nile Valley, as Arabs intermarried with indigenous ethnic-Nilotic women. Other Afro-Arabs in the Sudans had little biological connection to Arab peoples, but were instead essentially of ethnic-Nilotic and Bantu origins, albeit influenced by the old Arabian civilization in language and culture.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, Arab traders began to move into the interior, in pursuance of the ivory trade in central Africa. Unlike many cases of racial intermixing in the Western World, Arabs generally did not view Afro-Arabs as half-caste or lesser people. Afro-Arabs instead enjoyed similar statuses in their societies as long as the father was Arab] Thus, after the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, many of the Afro-Arabs that left Zanzibar and settled in Oman were able to attain high political and diplomatic positions and be accepted as Arabs. Racial assimilation of Afro-Arabs with non-Arab Africans also aided Muslim missionaries in the spread of Islam throughout Africa.

Afro-Arab man of the Congo (ca. 1942).

In the Central African Republic, during the 16th and 17th centuries Muslim slave traders began to raid the region as part of the expansion of the Saharan and Nile River slave routes. Their captives were slaved and shipped to the Mediterranean coast, Europe, Arabia, the Western Hemisphere, or to the slave ports and factories along the West and North Africa or South the Ubanqui and Congo rivers.

Historian Walter Rodney argues that the term Arab Slave Trade is a historical misnomer since bilateral trade agreements between a myriad of ethnic groups across the proposed ‘Zanj trade network’ characterized much of the acquisition process of chattel, and more often than not indentured servants.

Historian Patrick Manning writes that although the “Oriental” or “Arab” slave trade is sometimes called the “Islamic” slave trade, a religious imperative was not the driver of the slavery. He further argues such use of the terms “Islamic trade” or “Islamic world” erroneously treats Africa as being outside Islam, or a negligible portion of the Islamic world. According to European historians, propagators of Islam in Africa often revealed a cautious attitude towards proselytizing because of its effect in reducing the potential reservoir of slaves.

British explorers under Stanley Livingston were then the first Europeans to penetrate to the interior of the Congo Basin and to discover the scale of slavery there. The Arab Tippu Tip extended his influence there and captured many people as slaves. After Europeans had settled in West Africa (Gulf of Guinea) the trans-Saharan slave trade became less important. In Zanzibar, slavery was abolished late, in 1897, under Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed.

Today In the Arab states countries of the Persian Gulf, descendants of people from the Swahili Coast perform traditional Liwa and Fann At-Tanbura music and dance of East African origon. The mizmar is also performed by Afro-Arabs in Eastern Saudi Arabia. In addition the music known as  Stambali in Tunisia and the Gnawa music of Morocco are both ritual music and dances, which in part trace their origins to West African musical styles.

ISIS And Modern Slavery

Earlier this year a video of men appearing to be sold at auction in Libya for $400 has shocked the world and focused international attention on the exploitation of migrants and refugees the north African country.


“Eight hundred,” says the auctioneer. “900 … 1,000 … 1,100 …” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars — the equivalent of $800.

Not a used car, a piece of land, or an item of furniture. Not “merchandise” at all, but two human beings.

One of the unidentified men being sold in the grainy cell phone video obtained by CNN is Nigerian. He appears to be in his twenties and is wearing a pale shirt and sweatpants.

He has been offered up for sale as one of a group of “big strong boys for farm work,” according to the auctioneer, who remains off camera. Only his hand — resting proprietorially on the man’s shoulder — is visible in the brief clip.

After seeing footage of this slave auction, CNN worked to verify its authenticity and traveled to Libya to investigate further.

Libya is the main transit point for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. In each of the last three years, 150,000 people have made the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. For four years in a row, 3,000 refugees have died while attempting the journey, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the U.N.’s migration agency.

The combination of chaos in Libya and a militant debased form of Islam that wants to turn the world back to the 8th century has lead to an underground slave trade. Luckily the world is watching and switch action from the international community including several African nations are working to swiftly shutdown the human rights crisis. In the 21st century the Arab slave trade in Africa is finally, after 13 centuries, ending.

via Daily Kos

One Comment to: A History Of The Arab Slave Trade In Africa

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    billy bobbbb

    November 21st, 2022

    too long buddy shorten it and people will read it


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