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The Arab and East African Slave Trade

Kayla Armstead, Charles Kinney, Jr.
  • Author
    Kayla Armstead

    Kayla has taught history for over 2 years. They have a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and Bachelors in Social Science Education from Florida State University. They also have a 6-12 Social Studies Certification.

  • Instructor
    Charles Kinney, Jr.
Learn about the Arab and East African slave trade. See details about East African and Arab slave trade, such as origins, development, and links to other trades. Updated: 01/14/2022

The Arab Slave Trade and East African Slave Trade: Overview

Before the Europeans began exploiting Africans in the Transatlantic slave trade, the roots of the slave trade began in East Africa. Eastern Africans and Arabs enslaved Africans and sold them across extensive trade networks. This trade existed between the 7th century CE until the 1960's, though by then its influence had majorly decreased. The slave trade created wealth for East Africans, European, and Arabs at the expense of human freedom. Although slavery existed in some form from ancient times onwards, what makes this trade significant is its longevity and extent. It also provided the basis for European involvement in the slave trade, and an African diaspora around the world.

Arab Slave Trade in 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.

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  • 0:04 Arab Slave Trade in Africa
  • 0:44 Spread of Islam
  • 2:07 The Arab Slave Trade Expansion
  • 3:53 The Arab Slave Trade Ending
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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The East African Slave Trade: Numbers and Purpose

The amount of people enslaved by the East African slave trade is difficult to determine, since the trade lasted over a thousand years. Some estimates put the number of enslaved Africans around 12 million, while others estimate the number to be as high as 18 million. These enslaved people were used for to do a variety of different jobs. Some were kept as domestic servants to maintain the home, cook, clean, and raise children. Some were soldiers, laborers, and others were concubines. Others were exploited for agricultural labor. Slaves exported to the New World were especially used to farm labor intensive crops.

The Arab Slave Trade in Africa: Development and History

The Arab Slave trade got its roots during the Roman period. Slaves were used to perform similar duties in the eastern Mediterranean. They were laborers, ad worked in homes as servants. Sometimes they had higher status jobs as tutors. Over time the slave trade grew, as it became increasingly profitable. The Arab slave trade officially began in 652 CE. Slaves were brought to Rome, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and to other areas around North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Origin and the Middle Eastern Slave Trade

The Slave trade existed long before Islam, as it had roots in the Roman empire. Many Muslims believed that, according to the Qur'an, enslaving non- Muslims was okay. However, enslaving practicing Muslims was strictly forbidden. By 652 CE the trade really began to grow. It especially grew in what is now modern-day Sudan. Arab leaders had made a peace treaty with leaders in Sudan, and one of the conditions of it stated that the Sudanese needed to pay the Arabs in hundreds of slaves each year. This continued for many years and allowed the slave trade to grow north of Sudan, and stretch into the Red Sea.


Enslaved Africans were treated horribly.

Enslaved Africans were treated horribly


The Arab Slave Trade in Africa: Southern Expansion

The Arab Slave trade expanded southward, down the East coast of Africa. Merchants were increasingly attracted to the coast to become a part of the trade. However, if they all settled in one area, there would be a lot of competition. Instead, they spread out. This led to the slave trade stretching south towards Zanzibar. By the 18th century, Zanzibar would become a center of slave trade. The culture of the Arabs that settled along the coast around c. 700 mixed with customs of local people, leading to the emergence of the Swahili culture. Today the Swahili are the descendants of the Arabs that settled in Eastern Africa. As the trade grew, traders brought slaves throughout the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The East African Slave Trade and European Colonization

The slave trade in Africa was already extensive and lucrative. The demand grew even more when Portuguese, and later other European traders took an interest in the slave trade. This increased the strength of the trade and the wealth to be made in the slave trade. However, it should be of note that the slavery practiced in the Americas was different than it was in East Africa. Slavery was not an inherited position. If a mother was enslaved her children would not be. In the Americas this was not the case. This strengthened slavery in East Africa even more, as buying one slave meant more profit, as more slaves would be possible in the future. It was a horrible reality.

Spread of Islam

Around the year 633 CE, 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.

The Arab Slave Trade Expansion

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.

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Video Transcript

Arab Slave Trade in 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.

Spread of Islam

Around the year 633 CE, 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.

The Arab Slave Trade Expansion

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who first traded slaves in Africa?

The first people to trade slaves in Africa were East Africans. However, later Arabs and Europeans would become involved in the slave trade as well.

Who started the East African slave trade?

The East African slave trade was stated by Arabs, before Islam began. However, after Islam became popular it continued to grow, because slavery of non-Muslims was permitted.

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