Slave Trade in Africa

There is a moral obligation to assume responsibility for one of the most inhuman trades in modern history

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

The commemoration of the abolition of slavery is a day of remembrance of people forcefully taken away from Africa and sold as slaves to toil for the early settlers in the colonies. Apparently, the first slaves in Mauritius were Tamilians from South India and Africans brought here by Dutch settlers. The biggest chunk of the slave population was purchased by the French East India Company and sold to French settlers in the island.

The scale of African slave trade is unparalleled in the history of slavery. Photo – worldfuturefund.org

Yearly commemoration in the US, Brazil, the West Indian islands – Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, Guyana, the Bahamas, Martinique, Guadeloupe -, and the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion began in the late 20th century, when colonial history and slavery were serious topics of research work and study after the Second World War opened the way for decolonization and independence movements in countries ruled by European administration. Academics and descendants of slaves finally obtained a public holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery in various countries.

The topic of slavery was analyzed and put in the light of historical context of a period of European exploration, economic competition and expansion in far-flung areas of the globe. The purchase of captives in Africa, the conditions of transportation in slave ships, their sale in the colonies, the working conditions, cruel punishment meted out to runaways, their status as commodities to be used at the free will of slave masters, and the intellectual construct to justify slavery on the grounds of racial superiority have been widely documented, published and shown in films.

Continuous research carried out in academic circles constantly supplies much valuable information which lifts the veil and sheds light on dark areas of the infamous trade across the Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean. Memorials and statues remind today’s generations of slave history. Slavery is no longer a taboo subject since 40 years; it is openly debated in western nations and due tribute is paid to African slaves on the commemoration day of its abolition. It is widely known that the use of war prisoners as slaves was common practice in ancient Greece and Rome, and other places in the classical era. However, the scale of African slave trade is unparalleled in the history of slavery.

Zanzibar slave market

Apparently, there is not much information on the native lands of former slaves in Mauritius. Judging from linguistic similarities with the Kreol spoken in Guadeloupe and Haiti, part of the slave population must have also originated from the West African coast. What is better known is the slave central market on the island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, of slaves brought in from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Arab merchants from Oman settled in Zanzibar where they developed clove plantations and turned Zanzibar into a centre of East African slave trade in the 17th century. Arab merchants and middlemen gathered in Zanzibar to trade raw materials, cloves and ivory. Oman settlers imported slaves to work in clove plantations in Zanzibar; captives from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia were shipped through the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and worked in Oman, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Europeans bought slaves from Oman merchants to work in Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion, besides captives purchased in Mozambique.

The longest slave trade

Military conquests and expansion to North Africa, the Persian Gulf, Central and Eastern Europe created more demand for slaves. Arab merchants in Morocco went on expeditions to the European coast and kidnapped white males they encountered on the coast. Torture chambers in Morocco are testimony to the cruel punishment European males were subjected to when they rebelled against enslavement. Arabs in Eastern and Central Europe sold white slaves, including women, to the Arabian Peninsula. The growing military power of Europe put an end to expansion and white slavery. A shortage of slaves led Arabs to turn to black Africa.

Senegalese historian Tidiane N’Diaye writes about the humiliating and near-death experience slaves were subjected to. An estimated 50% died along the way owing to inhuman conditions, hunger and thirst. The brutal operation caused loss of lives, and many survivors committed suicide in despair. The trade stripped Africa of its population, altered the entire social, reproductive and economic life of black people in a way that made it more brutal and painful than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, historian Tidiane N’Diaye writes.

Abolition of slavery

Slave revolts and new discourses in Europe gradually made the slave trade and slavery illegal in the 19th century: 1835 in Mauritius by the British even though the French plantocracy tried to sneak slaves into Port-Louis harbour; much later in the French colonies, and 1865 in America.

Arab countries protested against abolition of slavery. It was outlawed and suppressed in Arab lands largely due to pressure by the West, mainly Britain and France. The Sultan of Zanzibar signed the treaty in 1871, but did not enforce it until 1905. The Ottoman empire led by Turkey outlawed slavery in 1924, Iran in 1929, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962 under pressure by Britain, Oman in 1970. The African state of Mauritania was the last state to abolish it – resuming it after a first abolition in 1905, then in 1981, and ended it in 2007.

For the past decades up to now, it has been customary and convenient to blame the West. Historian Tidiane N’Diaye opines that it also is high time to talk about the past crimes of Arabs slave traders. Muammar Gaddafi, the late Libyan leader, was the only Arab statesman to have asked for forgiveness for crimes committed against Africans. Truth is a liberating factor. In brains full of make-believe narrative of a peace-and-love history, there must be room for reality and facts. There is a moral obligation to assume responsibility for one of the most inhuman trades in modern history.


* Published in print edition on 29 January 2021

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