The same number of slaves were taken from sub-Saharan Africa to the Islamic world as crossed the Atlantic. But they were a luxury, not a means of productionby Robin Blackburn / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Islam’s black slaves
(Atlantic Books ?20)
Ronald Segal, author of a history of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences, here surveys the older traffic in slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to north Africa and the middle east, and the role of African slaves in Islamic society from the 7th century to the present. Segal has read widely in English and French but does not use sources in Arabic, Pharsee or Turkish. It may be that scholarly research in these languages on slavery is not yet substantial but then there is not much on Islamic slavery in western languages either. There are no equivalents to the “slave narratives” or to the plantation records of the Americas, or if there are no one has brought them to light. So the story has to be pieced together from general studies of Islamic society and civilisation.
For centuries several thousand slaves a year were brought across the Sahara, or up the east African coast, for sale in the lands of Islam. Over a period of 12 or 13 centuries the total number of captives involved in the Islamic slave traffic could have approached the number-about 12m-taken from Africa in four centuries by Christian Europeans. Slavery was a ubiquitous institution in Islam without ever comprising the sort of developed slave system seen in the Americas or in Ancient Rome. And while there are clearly identifiable Afro-American populations, with distinctive cultures, the same could not be said about the middle east.
In one of his early chapters Segal recounts the sustained slave uprising of the Zanj in lower Mesopotamia, in the ninth century. This revolt destroyed what seems to have been the beginnings of a plantation regime in that area. Islam incorporated large numbers of slaves but did not subject them to large-scale agricultural toil and gang labour. The reason for this may have been that there simply was not a vigorous enough market for plantation produce in contrast to early modern Europe, with its capitalist farmers, wage labourers, landlords and merchants, all with some money in their pocket. Accounts of al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain, stress opulence but the luxury consumption of the court could be met through artisanal production, employing a few dozen slaves, rather than plantations incarcerating hundreds of thousands.