The Forgotten Slave Trade

The Forgotten Slave Trade

This image demonstrates the main trade routes in the Sahara Desert during the 1200 year long Arab slave trade.[1]
The Arab slave trade is not particularly well known today in the west despite the massive effort that was behind it. Millions of people were moved across vast tracts of the Earth to a new destination they knew nothing about in order to be slaves. No one there supported them or saw them as anything besides slaves. In total, this trade moved 12 to 18 million people and enslaved entire families, including children.[ii] The Arab slave trade is not nearly as eminent as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and deserves far more attention than the topic currently receives as it was an integral part of Islamic life during the time period, involved more people, had similarly brutal practices, and happened for a much longer period of time than the trans-Atlantic slave trade.[iii]  The Arab slave trade operated from the 8th century and lasted until the 20th century, with the main focus being Africans but some Europeans as well. This post hopes to show the Arab slave trade, provide some comparisons to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and ultimately make a case for why it merits further study and attention in the western world.

This is an image of a slave market in Yemen during the 13th century.[iv]
Slavery has existed in Islamic cultures since their beginning. One of the most important distinctions from western slavery, even though it is similar, is the idea of Der el Islam and Der el Harb. The former represents those who have made submission to Islam and the latter encompasses those who have not. Islamic Law expressly forbids the enslavement of those in the former category. This is similar to the trans-Atlantic slave trade since laws forbid the enslavement of white people in many states in the southern United States. Immediately one thinks the former only applies to Muslims but this is incorrect, oftentimes other peoples were spared slavery if they paid their taxes and accepted Sharia Law.[v] This led to the unfortunate situation that Africans on the edge of Islam’s expansion were the most frequently sought after.[vi] One of the easier ways to understand the relationship between master and slave is to think of marriage in Islam. In this, the woman surrenders her sexual self to her husband while the slave surrenders their right to dispose to the master.[vii] Both have abandoned their freedom to another person just in different ways. In this, we can begin to see how this faith and those following it view this peculiar institution. Another major use of slaves was in the armies of African powers like the Ottoman Empire or Mamluk Egypt. One interesting aspect was in the 13th century where slave boys were sold to commanders, joined an elite corps when they grew up, and were later manumitted and given an income appropriate to rank.[viii] Ibn Battuta during his travels to Mali in the 14th century noticed that locals vie with each other in the number of slaves they held.[ix] So it appears as though Islam has a long and rich history with slavery since it has entered seemingly all spheres of some Islamic societies.

der el islam slave trade
Demonstrating the areas of Eastern Africa included in Der el Islam and those not.[x]
The principal location most of the slaves were taken from was Eastern Africa in and around modern day Ethiopia. However, there was a large contingent taken from Europe during the 7th to 15th centuries.[xi] Many of the slaves actually came from a European origin, with one estimate being that 1.25 million European were captured between the 16th and 19th centuries.[xii] Another important factor is that Muslim slave traders were not breaking new ground as many of their trade routes were previously used in the Roman slave trade.[xiii] During the period of Ottoman rule over parts of Africa slavery was an important political component such that a state like Bornu depended on it. Bornu’s slave trade provides an in-depth look into the typical process behind capturing, selling, and owning slaves. Mostly slaves would be captured by horse in dry-season expeditions and then sent northward to Kawar, where the great salt mine of Bilma provided a hub for all trade routes of the Central Sahara and Sudan. After this, a three to four week journey, the most difficult section of the route and required aid of the Tuba people, saw them in Fezzan. This was the destination for the traders who would use this location to rehabilitate, clothe, and finally, sell the slaves to North African merchants.[xiv] What this account demonstrates is how much of an enterprise slavery was, encompassing vast arrays of resources and manpower. In fact, for states like Bornu that lacked ivory or gold slaves became a necessary and valuable currency to procure weapons.[xv]

bornu arab slave trade
This is a map of north-western Africa that shows Bornu, a state that lasted from 1380 to 1883. It also shows the areas included in Der el Islam in 800AD and 1300AD.[xvi]
One might ask how lesser known the Arab slave trade actually is in the western world. Historian Ehud Toledano has argued that the Arab slave trade is not nearly as well researched when compared to the Atlantic one and in fact has never had a comprehensive study done.[xvii] Historian John Willis has echoed these comments and said that the Islamic slave trade has failed to arouse interest compared to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and also that no detailed monograph has emerged.[xviii] Furthermore, he agreed that the topic requires more study and that one cannot fully appreciate the social, economic, or political dimensions of Africa without it.[xix] On the topic of misconceptions it has been said that a number of incorrect assumptions were made about Islamic Slavery by doing nothing more than simply comparing it to Western Slavery.[xx] Historian John Wright has argued that the American slavery is the sole, reprehensible model associated with slavery, thus overshadowing the Arab slave trade.[xxi] This demonstrates that while similar one cannot simply assume the two systems are the same and hope to understand both by doing this.

The Arab slave trade, much like its western counterpart, was a brutal institution that affected millions of people. One of the most infamous and prolific aspects of this slave trade was the castration of men. This was done for many reasons but one of the most common was that men would guard women in a prolific home and hindering their hormonal development was a way to ensure compliance.[xxii] This is a large difference from the trans-Atlantic slave trade since by and large castration did not occur, at least not on this scale. Of course there are isolated incidents but it was not widely done, as it was in the Arab slave trade. It has been estimated that 1 in 4 slaves died due to castration in the Ottoman Empire.[xxiii] This shows that more than just being a brutal practice by modern standards it had a high death rate. Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade which had a higher amount of male slaves, the Arab slave trade generally had higher number of female slaves.[xxiv] These female slaves were commonly used as house servants and concubines. Given the higher number of women one can see how important the position of concubine was in Islamic society during this vast time period. In many respects, like the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Arab slave trade was a harsh institution but one should avoid painting with a single brush, clearly the experience of slaves differed greatly.

This map demonstrates the other slave trade in the Atlantic and also where certain goods were shipped.[xxv]
One of the main differences between the Atlantic and Arab Slave Trade was how the slaves were used once captured. Overwhelmingly in the western world it was for agricultural reasons like working on a plantation.  In contrast, slaves in the Arab World often worked in houses as domestic servants. Mehmet Ali Pasha of Egypt attempted to create an agricultural labour force modelled after European Slavery. It failed and demonstrated the different character the two slave trades had based on factors like geography.[xxvi] As noted before by Ibn Battuta this could have been for a societal reason but one also has to respect the geography of the region. Another huge difference is the previously mentioned fact that slaves were bought to supplement armies. This never occurred in the American context and even during their most desperate times the Confederacy refused to arm slaves. Another major difference is that for several reasons the Arab slave trade lacked large scale internal growth and thus needed to continually import new slaves.[xxvii] This contrasts with the trans-Atlantic slave trade which in the United States had enough internal growth to satisfy the demand. Europeans also appeared to be a major component of the slave population in the Arab slave trade whereas the population was overwhelmingly African-based in the western world. Certainly these few key differences merit different study for the Arab slave trade.

Despite the differences there were a number of similarities between the two slave trades, most obvious being the fact that they were enslaving people. Slaves were typically held for life although manumission was encouraged in Islam and while rare it was not impossible in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.[xxviii] Certain groups of people were exempt from being slaves, whites in one case and those submitting to Islam in the other. Broadly speaking, those involved in both slave trades had negative racial views about sub-Saharan Africans, which helped to justify their enslavement.[xxix] In both cases, most of the legwork involved in capturing Africans to be slaves was carried out by other Africans. Though not as common the trans-Atlantic slave trade produced domestic workers like the Arab slave trade as well as agricultural workers. These similarities demonstrate that there should be enough common ground to allow someone familiar with the trans-Atlantic slave trade to study the Arab slave trade.

In conclusion, the Arab slave trade lasted longer, moved more people, and by some standards was harsher than the western slave trade. Despite this, it has gained little attention in the west and is massively overshadowed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. An expansion in this field could not only bring forward vital historical truths about Islamic culture but also their relationship with slavery. In addition, further research could enhance the west’s general understanding of the practice of slavery, a vital part of history. So while the differences of the two should be enough to elicit interest in another slave trade, the similarities should make for a greater understanding of the better-known trans-Atlantic slave trade.


[ii],. 2001. ‘BBC News | AFRICA | Focus On The Slave Trade’.

[iii] Willis, John Ralph. 1985. Slaves And Slavery In Africa. London, England: F. Cass: 47


[v] Alexander, J. 2001. ‘Islam, Archaeology And Slavery In Africa’. World Archaeology 33 (1): 45

[vi] Ibid, 45

[vii] Willis, Ralph, Slaves and Slavery in Africa, 1

[viii] Oliver, Roland Anthony, Anthony Atmore, and Roland Anthony Oliver. 2001. Medieval Africa, 1250-1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press: 15-16

[ix] Ibn Batuta, Said Hamdun, and Noel Quinton King. 1994. Ibn Battuta In Black Africa. Princeton: M. Wiener Publishers: 54

[x] Alexander, J, Islam, Archaeology And Slavery In Africa, 51

[xi] Zuberi, Tukufu. 1995. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 11

[xii] Davis, Robert C. 2003. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan: 45

[xiii] Alexander, J, Islam, Archaeology And Slavery In Africa, 45

[xiv] Oliver, Roland Anthony, Medieval Africa, 1250-1800, 46-47

[xv] Ibid, 46

[xvi] Alexander, J, Islam, Archaeology And Slavery In Africa, 47

[xvii] Toledano, Ehud R. 1982. The Ottoman Slave Trade And Its Suppression, 1840-1890. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press: xvii

[xviii] Willis, Ralph, Slaves and Slavery in Africa, vii

[xix] Ibid, vii

[xx] Alexander, J, Islam, Archaeology And Slavery In Africa, 44

[xxi] Wright, John. 2007. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Routledge:1-2

[xxii] Alexander, J, Islam, Archaeology And Slavery In Africa, 49

[xxiii] Ayalon, David. 1999. Eunuchs, Caliphs And Sultans. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University: 346

[xxiv] Toledano, Ehud R. 1998. Slavery And Abolition In The Ottoman Middle East. Seattle: University of Washington Press:13 -14


[xxvi] Toledano, Ehud, The Ottoman Slave Trade, 8-9

[xxvii] Lewis, Bernard. 1990. Race And Slavery In The Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press:10

[xxviii] Gordon, Murray. 1989. Slavery In The Arab World. New York: New Amsterdam: 40

[xxix] Ibid, 54


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