‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ Slavery in the Indian Ocean ?

By Prof. Abdul Sheriff,

  1. I have been asked to make an intervention in this conference based on my long period of study of the slave trade and slavery in Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. I would like to use the opportunity to provoke a requestioning of some of our assumptions so as to better understand the phenomenon in this region.
    i. This conference has focused entirely on African slaves and on the African heritage of these slaves, but is such a narrow focus justified when dealing with the slave trade and slavery in the IO over its long history and wide expanse?
    ii. Slave trade and slavery in the IO is routinely labelled as ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ in the textbooks, but have we ever asked why the more famous phenomenon in the Atlantic is not called ‘European’ or ‘Christian’? Is there an ideological agenda?
    iii. What is ‘Islamic’ about slavery in the Indian Ocean?

I. Ethnic Origins of Slaves
1. Let me give you two examples of my own personal research experience:
i. When I was just beginning my doctoral research that resulted in my first book on Slaves, Spices & Ivory in Zanzibar, I was anxious to trace the slave trade from East Africa to the Indian Ocean. My eyes popped out when I saw a reference to a 400-page book by D. R. Banaji on Slavery in British India published in 1933. What I found was a carefully documented book on slavery that was estimated in 1841 at about 8-9 million in the then population of India of perhaps 150 million. But almost all of those slaves were Indians enslaved by other Indians. In this sea of slavery the islands of African slaves were hardly visible.
ii. A few years ago I came across a marvellous series of short biographies of slaves emancipated in the Persian Gulf in the 1920s. I was still interested in people of East African origin in the Persian Gulf, but after a day or two I began to notice that for every one biography of an East African slave there were several who were Baluchis, Iranians, and even Hadhrami Sayyids. Initially I passed them over as not relevant to my current interests, but then my conscience as a historian, and as a human being, began to tug at my soul about such a selective approach. Because I had only a month to do my research, I decided to record 100% of the slaves from East Africa and only a selection of the more interesting and varied biographies of the other manumitted people. At the end of the month, I had an almost equal number of African as opposed to enslaved Baluchi.
iii. How many of us know that the Muslim Malays of Cape Town were brought as slaves by the Dutch to in the 18th century, and that the first slaves brought to Reunion by the French to work on the sugar plantations were Indians. These people have not yet entered history books, even as footnotes.

  1. Here is where the question of ethics and history comes in. History includes an appreciation of the humanity of those one is studying. If I had kept one eye closed throughout my research in London, and ignored the Baluchi slaves, where would be my ethics as a historian, or indeed as a human being? I feel it is morally indefensible for historians to continue to ignore the wider tragedy of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, regardless of race, creed or culture. The African tragedy is a huge chapter in this human tragedy, but to focus entirely on that tragedy would be to do injustice to all the other enslaved people of the world.
  2. But this moral dilemma confronts us not only in the Indian Ocean, but even in the Atlantic region. A couple of years ago I attended a conference at McGill where there was a heated debate about the trial, torture and execution of Angelique, a black slave who was accused of burning down part of Montreal in 1734. What was striking to me was that in this passionate debate it came out almost as an irrelevant fact that at that time there were only about 140 black slaves, but more than 2,000 indigenous American slaves in Montreal. Was it irrelevant that native Americans continued to be enslaved into the 18th C? Have these slaves been counted in the grand censuses of slavery in the Americas? If not, why not? How can we justify our blind spot to the suffering of these slaves when we take up the moral question of slavery?

II. ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ Slavery?

  1. The second issue is the character of slave system in the IO. As I said, it is routinely described as Arab or Islamic in a way that the Atlantic is rarely described as European or Christian, rightly so because it is not the race or religion of the slave traders or owners that explains the genesis of this nefarious institution. In the case of the Atlantic, Marx correctly described its genesis at ‘the rosy dawn of the capitalist mode of production.’
    It thus carried certain specific features that characterised that MOP, and took the form of plantation production, and was dominated by male adult slaves – the prevalent formula was about 15 females in every 100 slaves.
  • In the Indian Ocean, slave trade & slavery has existed for more than 2000 years, with a great variety of systems of slavery, and of uses of slaves.
    • The 1st C Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentions the export of slaves from the Somali coast to the Roman world where the classical slave MOP prevailed.
    • By the 8th C a large no. of slaves were being imported into southern Iraq to desalinate the land for agriculture for the Abbasid empire. Slaves were imported not only from Africa but also India and elsewhere – the mother of the leader of the famous Zanj Rebellion of the 9th C was an Indian slave.
    • After the defeat of the Zanj Rebellion the slaves were absorbed in the armies, and they included Circasian, Turkish as well as African slave armies. In some cases they even established slave dynasties, such as the Mamluks of Egypt and the slave dynasties of India.
    • There was a huge domestic sector in which slaves were employed to carry out domestic chores. There was a therefore a greater gender balance with as many as 50% being females, and many were children.
    It is difficult to fit all this variety within the parameters of the Atlantic model, and that the blinds that this model imposes prevent us from analysing the full range of servile relations in human history.

  • It was not only that the slaves belonged to many ethnic groups than the African, but that the slave traders and owners also belonged to a great variety of ethnic groups.. An honest appraisal of the available evidence shows that all ethnic groups at different times and places participated in this despicable enterprise.
    • One of the earliest stories of slave trading from the EA coast speaks of an African ruler of Sofala selling slaves to Arab traders who took the opportunity to kidnap the king himself and sold him into slavery in Basra.
    • I mentioned Baluchi slaves who were being brought to the PG in the 19-20th C, and in almost all cases they were captured by Baluchi slave traders;
    • In EA in the 19th C a very large proportion of the slaves were captured around L Nyassa region and brought to the coast. The most famous of the slave traders were African chiefs of the Yao tribe, such as Chief Mataka; but the largest number of slaves also belonged to the same tribal confederacy. This is not pleasant for the African elite to admit that the African traders also engaged in the slave trade – it was not an ethnic monopoly.
    • Even in the ownership and use of slaves in Zanzibar, there were not only Arabs but also Indians, Swahili, Shirazi, and even Europeans and Americans who owned or employed slave labour. (It is hypocritical for a former Member of the Revolutionary Council to block people of slave origin in his own village against use of the communal land or from being appointed to senior administrative positions, while brandishing the slave stick against his political opponents.
    It is not fashionable these days to talk of classes, but to describe either slaves or slave traders and owners in racial or ethnic terms is to generalise about these groups a very large proportion of whom may never have had any involvement with slavery. The use of such racial labels merely heighten ethnic and racial tensions that lead to genocides, often of the poorest classes in them, as in Zanzibar.

  • III. What is ‘Islamic’ about slavery in the Indian Ocean?

    1. I have argued that it is not race or religion that explains the genesis of slavery, but the prevailing moral code may have an important influence on the institution in any particular region. All slave societies have had a history of intercourse between slave owners and their female slaves. In the case of the Atlantic, it was largely dominated by Christian morality, and its monogamous restrictions meant that it could not legally recognise the children born of such intercourse. The result was what Ali Mazrui termed ‘descending miscegenation.’ Children, who were racially mixed, nevertheless, remained father-less children of their slave mothers. On the other hand, the slave-owning class could maintain its lily-white racial purity.

    2. In the case of Islamic societies, such unions were recognised and regulated by Islamic law under which:
      i. The status of the slave woman who bore her owner’s child changed to that of a suria who could not thereafter be sold, and automatically became free on the death of her owner/husband.
      ii. Secondly, children born of such unions were considered free children of their free fathers with full inheritance rights, including succession to the throne. All except three of the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad, and all the children of Sd. Said in the 19th C were children of slave mothers, and they acceded to the throne of Zanzibar and Oman. This meant that the slave-owning class could not maintain their racial purity. Most of the Arabs in Zanzibar and eastern Africa are of various shades of the rainbow.

    3. Another aspect of Islam was its in-built manumission of slaves. There are 19 references to slavery in the Qur’an, but 10 of them refer to manumission of slaves. It was decreed as necessary compensation for the murder of a believer, and was considered a meritorious act that facilitated someone’s accession to heaven. Thus, many older people approaching their end, or when going on a pilgrimage, tended to liberate their slaves.
      Many Muslim societies thus tended to have a large class of freed slaves as a regular feature of the society who were differentially integrated into the society.

    4. These features of slavery in Islamic law & practice tended to have significant consequences on the character of slavery in the Indian Ocean that may be different from the Atlantic region. In Africa Kopytoff tried to conceptualise a spectrum of a whole range of social relations between freedom and unfreedom, which exposes a range of possible social relationships and social transformations that are worth considering.

    5. The Atlantic model, derived from a very specific form of slavery, may therefore be very inadequate in analysing the whole range of social relations of slavery in human history. This does not mean that the Atlantic model is irrelevant. As the most studied example, it can lead to a series of questions that we can raise about the others, so long as we keep in mind its unique period and uncommon features.

    About Zanzibar Daima (1471 Articles)
    Zanzibar Daima, Jana, Leo na Kesho

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