The Arab slave trade

The Arab slave trade was the practice of slavery in the Arab world, mainly in Western Asia, North Africa, Southeast Africa, the Horn of Africa and certain parts of Europe (such as Iberia and Sicily). This barter occurred chiefly between the medieval era and the early 21st century. The trade was conducted through slave markets in these areas, with the slaves captured mostly from Africa’s interior.

The Scope of the Trade
The trade of slaves across the Sahara and across the Indian Ocean also has a long history, beginning with the control of sea routes by Muslim Arab and Swahili traders on the Swahili Coast during the ninth century (see Sultanate of Zanzibar). These traders captured Bantu peoples (Zanj) from the interior in present-day Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania and brought them to the littoral. There, the slaves gradually assimilated in the rural areas, particularly on the Unguja and Pemba islands.

The captives were sold throughout the Middle East. This trade accelerated as superior ships led to more trade and greater demand for labor on plantations in the region. Eventually, tens of thousands of captives were being taken every year. The Indian Ocean slave trade was multi-directional and changed over time. To meet the demand for menial labor, Bantu slaves bought by Arab slave traders from southeastern Africa were sold in cumulatively large numbers over the centuries to customers in Egypt, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India, European colonies in the Far East, the Indian Ocean islands, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Slave labor in East Africa was drawn from the Zanj, Bantu peoples that lived along the East African coast. The Zanj were for centuries shipped as slaves by Arab traders to all the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs recruited many Zanj slaves as soldiers and, as early as 696, there were slave revolts of the Zanj against their Arab enslavers in Iraq (see Zanj Rebellion). Ancient Chinese texts also mention ambassadors from Java presenting the Chinese emperor with two Seng Chi (Zanj) slaves as gifts, and Seng Chi slaves reaching China from the Hindu kingdom of Srivijaya in Java.

The Zanj Rebellion, a series of uprisings that took place between 869 and 883 AD near the city of Basra (also known as Basara), situated in present-day Iraq, is believed to have involved enslaved Zanj that had originally been captured from the African Great Lakes region and areas further south in East Africa. It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves and free men who were imported from across the Muslim empire and claimed over “tens of thousands of lives in lower Iraq”. The Zanj who were taken as slaves to the Middle East were often used in strenuous agricultural work. As the plantation economy boomed and the Arabs became richer, agriculture and other manual labor work were thought to be demeaning. The resulting labor shortage led to an increased slave market.

It is certain that large numbers of slaves were exported from eastern Africa; the best evidence for this is the magnitude of the Zanj revolt in Iraq in the 9th century, though not all of the slaves involved were Zanj. There is little evidence of what part of eastern Africa the Zanj came from, for the name is here evidently used in its general sense, rather than to designate the particular stretch of the coast, from about 3°N. to 5°S., to which the name was also applied.

The Zanj were needed to take care of:

the Tigris-Euphrates delta, which had become abandoned marshland as a result of peasant migration and repeated flooding, could be reclaimed through intensive labor. Wealthy proprietors “had received extensive grants of tidal land on the condition that they would make it arable.” Sugar cane was prominent among the products of their plantations, particularly in Khūzestān Province. Zanj also worked the salt mines of Mesopotamia, especially around Basra.

Their jobs were to clear away the nitrous topsoil that made the land arable. The working conditions were also considered to be extremely harsh and miserable. Many other people were imported into the region, besides Zanj.

Muslims also enslaved Europeans. According to Robert Davis, between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured between the 16th and 19th centuries by Barbary corsairs, who were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and sold as slaves. These slaves were captured mainly from seaside villages from Italy, Spain, Portugal and also from more distant places like France or England, the Netherlands, Ireland and even Iceland. They were also taken from ships stopped by the pirates.

The effects of these attacks were devastating: France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships. Long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants, because of frequent pirate attacks. Pirate raids discouraged settlement along the coast until the 19th century.

Periodic Muslim raiding expeditions were sent from Islamic Iberia to ravage the Christian Iberian kingdoms, bringing back booty and slaves. In a raid against Lisbon in 1189, for example, the Almohad Berber Muslim caliph, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, took 3,000 female and child captives, while his governor of Córdoba, in a subsequent attack upon Silves in 1191, took 3,000 Christian slaves.

The Ottoman wars in Europe and Tatar raids (although not Arabic themselves) brought large numbers of European Christian slaves into the Muslim world. In 1769 a last major Tatar raid saw the capture of 20,000 Russian and Polish slaves.

The “Oriental” or “Arab” slave trade is sometimes called the “Islamic” slave trade, but Patrick Manning states that a religious imperative was not the driver of slavery. However, if a non-Muslim population refuses to pay the jizya protection/subjugation tax, that population is considered to be at war with the Muslim “ummah” (nation), and it becomes legal under Islamic law to take slaves from that non-Muslim population. Usage of the terms “Islamic trade” or “Islamic world” has been disputed by some Muslims as it treats Africa as outside Islam, or a negligible portion of the Islamic world. According to European historians, propagators of Islam in Africa often revealed a cautious attitude towards proselytizing because of its effect in reducing the potential reservoir of slaves.

The subject merges with the Oriental slave trade, which followed two main routes in the Middle Ages:


  • Overland routes across the Maghreb and Mashriq deserts (Trans-Saharan route)
  • Sea routes to the east of Africa through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean (Oriental route)


The Arab slave trade originated before Islam and lasted more than a millennium. To meet the demand for plantation labor, these captured Zanj slaves were shipped to the Arabian peninsula and the Near East, among other areas.

The Islamic world

Islamic Sharia law allowed slavery but prohibited slavery involving other preexisting Muslims; as a result, the main target for slavery was the people who lived in the frontier areas of Islam in Africa. The conquests of the Arab armies and the expansion of the Islamic state that followed have always resulted in the capture of war prisoners who were subsequently set free or turned into slaves or Raqeeq (رقيق) and servants rather than taken as prisoners as was the Islamic tradition in wars.

Once taken as slaves, they had to be dealt with in accordance with Islamic law, especially during the Umayyad and Abbasid eras. According to that law, slaves were allowed to earn their living if they opted for that, otherwise, it is the owner’s (master) duty to provide for that. They also could not be forced to earn money for their masters unless with an agreement between the slave and the master.

This concept is called مخارجة (mukhārajah) (Lane: “And خَارَجَهُ He made an agreement with him, namely, his slave that he (the latter) should pay him a certain impost at the expiration of every month; the slave being left at liberty to work: in which case the slave is termed عَبْدٌ مُخَارِجٌ”) in Islamic law. If slaves agree to that and they would like the money they earn to be counted toward their emancipation, then this has to be written in the form of a contract between the slave and the master. This is called مكاتبة (mukātaba) in Islamic jurisprudence which is only, by consensus, a recommendation, and accepting a request for a mukātaba from slaves is thus not obligatory for masters. Although the owner did not have to comply with it, was considered praiseworthy to do so

The framework of Islamic civilization was a well-developed network of towns and oasis trading centers with the market (souq, bazaar) at its heart. These towns were inter-connected by a system of roads crossing semi-arid regions or deserts. The routes were traveled by convoys, and slaves formed part of this caravan traffic.

In contrast to the Atlantic slave trade, where the male-female ratio was 2:1 or 3:1, the Arab slave trade instead usually had a higher female-to-male ratio. This suggests a general preference for female slaves. Concubinage and reproduction served as incentives for importing female slaves (often Caucasian), though many were also imported mainly for performing household tasks.

Arab views on African people

From Arab literature, manifestations of racism and racist discrimination subsequently followed within the Arab world. For example, an Arab poet in the 7th century wrote: “The blacks do not earn their pay by good deeds, and are not of good repute; The children of a stinking Nubian black—God put no light in their complexions!”

Ethnic prejudices developed among Arabs for at least two reasons: 1) their extensive conquests and slave trade; and 2) the influence of Aristotle’s idea of final causes which argues that slaves are slaves by nature. A refinement of Aristotle’s view was put forward by Muslim philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Avicenna, particularly in regards to Turkic and black peoples; and the influence of ideas from the early medieval Geonic academies regarding divisions among mankind between the three sons of Noah.

However, ethnic prejudice among some elite Arabs was not limited to darker-skinned people, but was also directed towards fairer-skinned “ruddy people” (including Persians, Turks, and Europeans), while Arabs referred to themselves as “swarthy people”. The concept of an Arab identity itself did not exist until modern times. According to Arnold J. Toynbee: “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue.”

By the 14th century, an overwhelming number of slaves came from sub-Saharan Africa, leading to prejudice against black people in the works of several Arabic historians and geographers. For example, the Egyptian historian Al-Abshibi (1388–1446) wrote: “It is said that when the [black] slave is sated, he fornicates, when he is hungry, he steals.”

Ibn Battuta who visited the ancient kingdom of Mali in the mid-14th century recounts that the local inhabitants vie with each other in the number of slaves and servants they have and was himself given a slave boy as a “hospitality gift.”

According to one professor, Abdelmajid Hannoum at Wesleyan University, the view that Arab scholars and geographers from this time period held racist attitudes are the result of mistranslations, stating that such attitudes were not prevalent until the 18th and 19th century.

Africa: 8th through 19th centuries

In April 1998, Elikia M’bokolo, wrote in Le Monde diplomatique. “The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports, and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth).” He continues: “Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean”

In the 8th century, Africa was dominated by Arab-Berbers in the north: Islam moved southwards along the Nile and along the desert trails.


  • The Sahara was thinly populated. Nevertheless, since antiquity, there had been cities living on a trade in salt, gold, slaves, cloth, and on agriculture enabled by irrigation: Tiaret, Oualata, Sijilmasa, Zaouila, and others.
  • In the Middle Ages, the general Arabic term bilâd as-sûdân (“Land of the Blacks”) was used for the vast Sudan region (an expression denoting West and Central Africa), or sometimes extending from the coast of West Africa to Western Sudan.). It provided a pool of manual labor for North and Saharan Africa. This region was dominated by certain states and people: the Ghana Empire, the Empire of Mali, the Kanem-Bornu Empire, the Fulani, and Hausa.
  • In the Horn of Africa, the coasts of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean were controlled by local Somali and other Muslims, and Yemenis and Omanis had merchant posts along the coasts. The Ethiopian coast, particularly the port of Massawa and Dahlak Archipelago, had long been a hub for the exportation of slaves from the interior by the Kingdom of Aksum and earlier polities. The port and most coastal areas were largely Muslim, and the port itself was home to a number of Arab and Indian merchants. The Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia often exported Nilotic slaves from their western borderland provinces, or from newly conquered southern provinces. The Somali and Afar Muslim sultanates, such as the Adal Sultanate, also exported Nilotic slaves that they captured from the interior, as well as some vanquished foes.
  • In the African Great Lakes region, Omani and Yemeni traders set up slave-trading posts along the southeastern coast of the Indian Ocean; most notably in the archipelago of Zanzibar, along the coast of present-day Tanzania. The Zanj region or Swahili Coast flanking the Indian Ocean continued to be an important area for the Oriental slave trade up until the 19th century. Livingstone and Stanley were then the first Europeans to penetrate to the interior of the Congo Basin and to discover the scale of slavery there. The Arab Tippu Tip extended his influence there and captured many people as slaves. After Europeans had settled in the Gulf of Guinea, the trans-Saharan slave trade became less important. In Zanzibar, slavery was abolished late, in 1897, under Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed.


“Supply” zones

There is historical evidence of North African Muslim slave raids all along the Mediterranean coasts across Christian Europe and beyond to even as far north as the British Isles and Iceland (see the book titled White Gold by Giles Milton). The majority of slaves traded across the Mediterranean region were predominantly of European origin from the 7th to 15th centuries. The Barbary pirates continued to capture slaves from Europe and, to an extent, North America, from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Slaves were also brought into the Arab world via Central Asia, mainly of Turkic or Tartar origin. Many of these slaves later went on to serve in the armies forming an elite rank.


  • At sea, Barbary pirates joined in this traffic when they could capture people by boarding ships or by incursions into coastal areas, mainly in Southern Europe as well as other European coasts.
  • Nubia and Ethiopia were also “exporting” regions: in the 15th century, Ethiopians sold slaves from western borderland areas (usually just outside the realm of the Emperor of Ethiopia) or Ennarea, which often ended up in India, where they worked on ships or as soldiers. They eventually rebelled and took power (dynasty of the Habshi Kings).
  • The Sudan region and Saharan Africa formed another “export” area, but it is impossible to estimate the scale since there is a lack of sources with figures.
  • Finally, the slave traffic affected eastern Africa, but the distance and local hostility slowed down this section of the Oriental trade.



According to professor Ibrahima Baba Kaké there were four main slavery routes to the Arab world, from east to west of Africa, from the Maghreb to Sudan, from Tripolitania to central Sudan and from Egypt to the Middle East. Caravan trails, set up in the 9th century, went past the oasis of the Sahara; travel was difficult and uncomfortable for reasons of climate and distance. Since Roman times, long convoys had transported slaves as well as all sorts of products to be used for barter. To protect against attacks from desert nomads, slaves were used as an escort. Anyone who slowed down the progress of the caravan was killed.

Historians know less about the sea routes. From the evidence of illustrated documents, and travelers’ tales, it seems that people traveled on dhows or jalbas, Arab ships which were used as transport in the Red Sea. Crossing the Indian Ocean required better organization and more resources than overland transport. Ships coming from Zanzibar made stops on Socotra or at Aden before heading to the Persian Gulf or to India. Slaves were sold as far away as India, or even China: there was a colony of Arab merchants in Canton. Serge Bilé cites a 12th-century text which tells us that most well-to-do families in Canton had black slaves whom they regarded as savages and demons because of their physical appearance. Although Chinese slave traders bought slaves (Seng Chi i.e. the Zanj) from Arab intermediaries and “stocked up” directly in coastal areas of present-day Somalia, the local Somalis—referred to as Baribah and Barbaroi (Berbers) by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively (see Periplus of the Erythraean Sea), and no strangers to capturing, owning and trading slaves themselves—were not among them:

One important commodity being transported by the Arab dhows to Somalia was slaves from other parts of East Africa. During the nineteenth century, the East African slave trade grew enormously due to demands by Arabs, Portuguese, and French. Slave traders and raiders moved throughout eastern and central Africa to meet the rising demand for enslaved men, women, and children. Somalia did not supply slaves — as part of the Islamic world Somalis were at least nominally protected by the religious tenet that free Muslims cannot be enslaved — but Arab dhows loaded with human cargo continually visited Somali ports.


Slaves were often bartered for objects of various kinds: in Sudan, they were exchanged for cloth, trinkets and so on. In the Maghreb, they were swapped for horses. In the desert cities, lengths of cloth, pottery, Venetian glass slave beads, dyestuffs, and jewels were used as payment. The trade in black slaves was part of a diverse commercial network. Alongside gold coins, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic (Canaries, Luanda) were used as money throughout sub-Saharan Africa (merchandise was paid for with sacks of cowries).

Slave markets and fairs

Enslaved Africans were sold in the towns of the Arab World. In 1416, al-Maqrizi told how pilgrims coming from Takrur (near the Senegal River) had brought 1,700 slaves with them to Mecca. In North Africa, the main slave markets were in Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Cairo. Sales were held in public places or in souks.

Potential buyers made a careful examination of the “merchandise”: they checked the state of health of a person who was often standing naked with wrists bound together. In Cairo, transactions involving eunuchs and concubines happened in private houses. Prices varied according to the slave’s quality. Thomas Smee, the commander of the British research ship Ternate, visited such a market in Zanzibar in 1811 and gave a detailed description:

‘The show’ commences about four o’clock in the afternoon. The slaves, set off to the best advantage by having their skins cleaned and burnished with cocoa-nut oil, their faces painted with red and white stripes and the hands, noses, ears, and feet ornamented with a profusion of bracelets of gold and silver and jewels, are ranged in a line, commencing with the youngest, and increasing to the rear according to their size and age. At the head of this file, which is composed of all sexes and ages from 6 to 60, walks the person who owns them; behind and at each side, two or three of his domestic slaves, armed with swords and spears, serve as guard.

Thus ordered the procession begins and passes through the market-place and the principle streets… when any of them strikes a spectator’s fancy the line immediately stops, and a process of examination ensues, which, for minuteness, is unequaled in any cattle market in Europe. The intending purchaser having ascertained there is no defect in the faculties of speech, hearing, etc., that there is no disease present, next proceeds to examine the person; the mouth and the teeth are first inspected and afterward every part of the body in succession, not even excepting the breasts, etc., of the girls, many of whom I have seen handled in the most indecent manner in the public market by their purchasers; indeed there are every reason to believe that the slave-dealers almost universally force the young girls to submit to their lust previous to their being disposed of. From such scenes, one turns away with pity and indignation.


The history of the slave trade has given rise to numerous debates amongst historians. For one thing, specialists are undecided on the number of Africans taken from their homes; this is difficult to resolve because of a lack of reliable statistics: there was no census system in medieval Africa. Archival material for the transatlantic trade in the 16th to 18th centuries may seem useful as a source, yet these record books were often falsified. Historians have to use imprecise narrative documents to make estimates which must be treated with caution: Luiz Felipe de Alencastro states that there were 8 million slaves taken from Africa between the 8th and 19th centuries along the Oriental and the Trans-Saharan routes.

Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau has put forward a figure of 17 million African people enslaved (in the same period and from the same area) on the basis of Ralph Austen’s work. Ronald Segal estimates between 11.5 and 14 million were enslaved by the Arab slave trade.

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