By LENNOX FARRELL
Many of us know about the European Triangular slave trade: from West Africa to the West Indies, then to Europe and back to West Africa. The Middle Passage it was, synonymous with the kidnapping of Africans to be traded, bred, sold and enslaved on genocidal plantations of cotton and sugar, or in diseased, alligator-infested swamps harvesting rice. We are familiar with the perfidy of the British, the French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish. And of the centuries-long conflicts for “European overseas empires”; conflicts climaxing in the 20th century’s two World Wars; conflicts blasting off in 21st century space grabs for lunar and Martian real estate.
Relatively speaking, however, little is known of the other enslavement of Africans; in this case, particularly of East Africans; enslavement that was controlled in Arabia – like the word, “Canada”, this described a region, more than a race – and either traded slaves south overland down the Hyena Trail to the Indian Ocean, or north via the Sahara across the Mediterranean Sea.
What are some of the features, generally of this slave trade? For one, it spanned centuries between A.D. 650-2007. Initially too, the regions from where slaves were traded included Western Asia, North and Southeast Africa and the European Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and coastal towns all the way between Ireland and Iceland.
This nonetheless means that in different centuries, while most of the slaves captured were Africans from the interior of Africa, by contrast, between the 8thand 9th centuries, most of those enslaved were Europeans, or Saqaliba. Among the Europeans once-enslaved was Cervantes, the Spanish novelist and writer of Don Quixote. However, the majority of those enslaved were, and are, Africans.
How vast were these numbers? One African scholar, commenting in Le Monde Diplomatique (1998) on these is Elikoa M’bokolo: “The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. (Some were taken) across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, (and) from the Indian Ocean ports (to the east). (Others were taken) across the Atlantic (to the west). (The former) lasted at least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of Arab countries from the 9th to the 19th century (approximately). The number of African slaves (traded east) included four million exported via the Red Sea; four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, and perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route.”
The survivors were those who’d been force-marched across the overland routes toting babies, timber, ivory and other products; into the slave corrals and auctions.
Another scholar, Dr. John Alembellah Azumah’s The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa (2001) further estimates that over 80 million Black slaves died en route. These would be captives who, in transit, had perished from carnivores, starvation, beatings, suicides and disease.
Why despite these millions of Black slaves traded east, there are relatively so few living there today? Answering this question is central to understanding what slavery of Africans meant in these regions skirting the Mediterranean. In other words, if the numbers quoted above (one hundred million) are evidence-based, why is the current number of Black peoples living in the Near East (Saudi Arabia), the Far East (India, China etc.), almost invisible, non-existent?
What practices could so deplete these numbers, when compared with their visible presence – formerly enslaved – elsewhere? For example, in Brazil, the Caribbean, Central, South and North America? What were the primary demands and practices driving this Eastern slave trade? Among these demands were those for women to be used in harems and as domestics. For the men, it was primarily for slave labour in quarries, on plantations, as galley-slaves, and for military – Janisaary slave-soldier – duties. Also, what practices prevented these Black slaves from reproducing and maintaining their numbers? Routine castration. Unneutered, male slaves were not allowed to enter these regions. It is estimated that nine in every 10 castrated males bled to death. However, so necessary was this eunuch commodity that such death-rates were tolerable. To be precise, all eunuchs were not Black; one Sultan possessing 7,000 Black and 4,000 White.
In Turkey today, a surviving descendant of these Black slaves is Mustafa Olpak, an Afro-Turk. He founded in “Ayvalik, the first officially recognized organization of Afro-Turks, the Afrikalılar Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği – the Africans’ Culture and Solidarity Society.” He claims that – not counting the recently-arrived refugees – only about 2,000 descendants of African slaves survive there.
Toward the 18th and 19th centuries, as the numbers of European slaves declined, the number of Zanj or Bantu slaves from Southeast Africa increased; especially, too, with the rise of the Omani Sultanate. This was based in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. Reputed to have been the largest slave market anywhere, there too, are found large growths of (mahogany?); each tree growing now where the head of a slave was once buried; punished for “looking at a concubine”. Of interest, too, is that the longest slave revolt in history (AD 869-883) occurred in what is today’s Basra in Iraq. These Zanj launched an insurrection of more than 500,000 slaves, ending the plantation system of slavery there.
Two final, significant questions are: what impact did this slave trade have on Europe then and now; and how did it weaken Africa’s ability to defend itself against European incursions? To answer the latter, initially, “the Arab slave trade supplemented a much more profitable commerce in precious metals like gold, and in rare, exotic products like ivory and hardwoods”. However, between 1100-1500 A.D. internal conflicts, in addition to invasions, and the seizure of strategic regions led in turn to the fall of the last remaining African states: Ghana, Mali and Songhai. Their defeats later facilitated the European debasements of the continent.
And what was Europe’s impact on Arabia? Europe before the Atlantic slave trade, was no match militarily, intellectually, technologically nor otherwise for them. In fact, at this time, Europe was still in the period called the Dark Ages. Then, epochal plagues and starvation led to widespread death and clerical domination. Relief came with the Renaissance, a period kick-started by knowledge gleaned, for example, from universities like that of Salamanca in Moor-controlled Spain; and Timbuktu in African-ruled Mali.
Europe would now benefit thereby, from revolutionary concepts such as that of “Zero”; foundation of modern mathematics. One European, Columbus (1492) would use Arab-improved sailing skills and geo-magnetic instruments like the compass – independently invented by the far-East Chinese and the new-World Olmecs – to plunder the “New World”. In fact, Arabia’s influence on Europe was so profound, that in the English language today, words which begin with “al”, as in always, although, alright etc., reflect this impact on a pre-literate Europe. In addition to acquiring this new knowledge, the revenues earned by “Christian” Europe from the Atlantic slave trade, financed the military muscle used to encompass and outmaneuver “Moslem” Arabia.
Ironically, before the European enslavement of Africa, there was no Europe, only the anarchic, warring, backward and impoverished remnants of a failed Roman empire. However, the same slavery used to degrade and unmake Africa; was used to upgrade and remake Europe; a Europe still ascendant in this 21st century, not only over Africa, but also across Arabia…and the Cosmos.
To be continued: The European Atlantic Slave Trade, primarily in African men.