Arab Slave Trade in Africa

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
Africans weren't justy enslaved in the United States. In this lesson, learn about the millions of Africans sold and used as domestic servants, soldiers, agricultural laborers in a vast Arab slave trade in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Centuries of Arab Slave Trade

Modern Africa.

The Arab slave trade involved some of the most horrendous atrocities known against Africans. While slavery in the United States (before 1865) is better known and perhaps more discussed, the Arab slave trade in Africa was just as brutal and dehumanizing.

Slavery has likely existed since the early days of human civilization, but in this lesson we will discuss the Arab slave trade in Africa, beginning in the 7th century on the African continent. Because the people enslaved came from a large number of different tribes, we will refer to them here simply as 'Africans', and 'Arabs' (though also African) as those doing the enslaving.

Bantu slave or servant, 1882-1883, Mogadishu, Somalia.

Islam Spreads

Around the year 633, a year after the death of Muhammad, Muslim armies took much of what today is Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the North African coast, and parts of Iran and Turkey. In 650, under Caliph Uthman, the religious holy book Qur'an (also written as Koran), was codified. Muslims then and now believe it to contain the direct revelations from God through the prophet Muhammad. While Islam eventually forbid taking fellow Muslims as slaves, it did not forbid the taking of non-believers or those who opposed Islam.

Slavery as an organized venture in Africa began in Darfur in 652. To keep to the terms of a peace agreement, the Sudanese leader at the time was obliged to make a payment of several hundred African slaves per year to the Arab invaders. This continued for centuries, reaching up to 6000 slaves sent along the Red Sea route near the end of 18th century, the peak of the Arab slave trade.

African slaves were used for agriculture, labor, household help, or to be concubines or soldiers. It was only later (1870s-1960s) that the white European demand for cash crops (grain, cotton, coffee, sugar and tobacco) and ivory became major contributors to the demand for slaves.

Expansion of the Arab Slave Trade

Around the 9th century, Arab traders began to settle along the East Africa coastline. These people became known as the Swahili, which is now also a language used in parts of Eastern Africa. The Arabs began to develop large agricultural plantations in this area for things like growing spices. Slave labor greatly expedited production and profit to the Muslim states.

The Arab slave trade moved into Ethiopia as well. Eventually, the Arab slave trade expanded to not only Muslim strongholds like Egypt, Arabia and the Persian Gulf, but also to India, the Far East and the Indian Ocean islands. The slaves began to include Europeans and Asians, caught by North African pirates or on Arab raids of Europe. Arab traders were now involved in enslaving and selling slaves in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The Arab slave trade exploded in the late 9th century as the demand for agricultural to reclaim fertile farmland in Iraq grew. The Arab slave trade grew to African slaves from west Africa as well. In the late 18th century, Europeans began to colonize Africa and establish plantations, furthering demand for slaves.

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