Where did the black Africans come from?

Slave trade in East Africa - a secret chapter

Today, Zanzibar is considered the preferred travel destination in East Africa: white sandy beaches, crystal clear water and hotels that give tourists from all over the world a dream vacation. The dark past that overshadowed paradise 200 years ago has long been forgotten. At that time, the archipelago, which is now a semi-autonomous state of Tanzania, was the center of the East African slave trade. In addition to valuable raw materials such as ivory and coveted cloves, there was one thing above all in the colorful markets: hundreds of slaves.

From Eastern Europe to North Africa

The sale of African slaves can be traced back to antiquity. It became routine in the seventh century CE, when Islam gained strength in North Africa - seven centuries before Europeans explored the continent, ten centuries before West Africans were sold across the Atlantic to America. Even then, Arab Muslims in North and East Africa were selling Africans captured to the Near and Middle East. There they worked as field workers, teachers or harem guards, which is why the castration of male slaves was common. Muslims, on the other hand - including African ones - were not allowed to be enslaved according to Islamic legal conceptions.

Africans captured in East Africa were sold to the east as slaves

"First the Arab Muslims in Eastern and Central Europe got white slaves to sell to Arabia," explains Senegalese-born author Tidiane N'Diaye in an interview with DW. "But the growing military power of Europe ended the Islamic expansion, and since there was now a deficit of slaves, the Arab Muslims looked massively to sub-Saharan Africa."

Slavery - not a new concept in Africa

"Slavery existed in virtually all civilizations," explains N'Diaye. This was also the case in Africa, before settlers came from outside: In central East Africa, ethnic groups such as the Yao, Makua and Marava were at war with one another, and entire peoples in the interior of the continent traded with people they had captured in wars. Arab Muslims encountered existing structures that made it easier to buy slaves for their own purposes.

"Slavery was part of various African cultures," explains Abdulazizi Lodhi, professor emeritus of Swahili and African linguistics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. "When it came to exports, tribal Africans themselves were the main players. In many African societies there were no prisons, so people who were caught were sold."

On Prison Island, Zanzibar, slaves were held captive before they were shipped

Zanzibar slave stronghold

From the 17th century, the slave trade really picked up speed in East Africa. More and more traders from Oman settled on Zanzibar, and because of the large trade on the Swahili coast, the islands played an increasingly important role in the international movement of goods - and consequently also in the slave trade. This created the largest slave market in East Africa at the time.

How many Africans were sold to the East and North Africa - there are only rough estimates, some of which vary widely. This is also related to the high losses: Scientific research comes to the conclusion that around three out of four slaves died before they even got to the market where they were supposed to be sold. The causes were hunger, illness or exhaustion after long journeys. Author N'Diaye assumes 17 million Africans: "Most people still have the so-called transatlantic trade of the Europeans in the New World in mind. But in reality the Arab-Muslim slavery was much greater: eight million Africans were made from East Africa brought to Morocco or Egypt via the Trans-Sahara route. Another nine million were deported to regions on the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. "

A slave market in Zanzibar, on an illustration from 1878

The spice of the slaves

A number that Lodhi cannot understand. "17 million? How is that supposed to work when the total population of Africa may not even have been 40 million at the time? These statistics were not collected then." And old reports are sometimes methodologically dubious: David Livingston, a Scottish missionary and Africa researcher, calculated that 50,000 slaves were made annually in the markets of Zanzibar. "Even today 50,000 people couldn't live in Zanzibar. The numbers have neither hand nor foot," said the Tanzanian professor.

Not all slaves were brought to Egypt or Saudi Arabia. From 1820, Omani settlers on Zanzibar cultivated cloves to meet the growing demand on the world market. Large plantations quickly emerged, and slaves could be bought cheaply on the nearby slave market. From 1839 to 1860, the amount of cloves exported rose from 565 to 12,600 kilograms, according to the American historian Frederick Cooper. Zanzibar's character changed: from a center of the slave trade to a center of slavery that spawned notorious figures like the fabled slave trader Tippu-Tip.

The end of slavery?

At the end of August 1791, a slave revolt began in what is now Haiti and what is now the Dominican Republic, which played a decisive role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the slave trade and colonialism in Africa. But it was not until 1873, under pressure from Great Britain, that Sultan Seyyid Barghash of Zanzibar signed a treaty that finally made the slave trade illegal in his rulers - although this was initially not effectively enforced. It was not until 1909 that slavery was finally abolished in East Africa.

In December 2017, diaspora and organizations protested in Pretoria against the slave and human trafficking in Libya

However, according to the author N'Diaye, there could be no question of an actual end: "It is estimated that almost 40 million people worldwide are still living in slavery." In Africa there are hundreds of thousands. "In Mauritania they say they have abolished slavery, but in reality the situation in North Africa has not changed much. Young people are enslaved against their will, forced to work and sexually exploited." There are reports from Libya about organized slave markets, and a case of slavery was also uncovered in Tanzania a few years ago, said Lodhi: "A mine was found in a remote area where 50 to 60 boys were forced to work. They were not paid and lived in a camp that was guarded by gunmen. "

The effects of slavery that existed in East Africa cannot be seen today as strongly as the severe economic consequences of the colonization of Africa by the West, according to N'Diaye. "The economies of many of these countries are still dominated by the West, and this is what African intellectuals are discussing." But N'Diaye demands that we also speak openly about what has happened in East Africa over the centuries. "Most of the African authors have so far not published a book on the Arab-Muslim slave trade out of religious solidarity. There are 500 million Muslims in Africa, and it is better to blame the West than to talk about the past crimes of Arab Muslims ", criticized N'Diaye.