This paper will address the slave trade on the Swahili Coast of Africa from the 7th century until the 20th century CE. This paper will begin by discussing slavery prior to the Arab arrival on the Swahili Coast, then it will discuss slavery as addressed in Islam. Later, it will discuss how Zanzibar became the prominent port on the Swahili Coast. Following that it will discuss the Swahili involvement and what factors influenced the growth and decline by era. Finally, this paper will end with the conditions of slaves both during the trade and after their sale.
Slavery and Slave Trading In Africa Prior to Arrival of Arabs and Westerners
Slavery and the slave trade in Africa before the arrival of the Arabs has been a point of contention among scholars of slavery as well as scholars of sub-Saharan Africa. There are scholars who believe that there was a slave trade that existed in Africa before outside influence and that Arabs and Westerners were integrated into this practice and profited immensely from it. This argues that Arabs and Westerners had no influence in its introduction and that if Africans never had the influence from Arabs or Westerners they would have developed a trade that was on the same scale as what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. Another set of scholars believe that slavery in Africa was strictly the result of western influence.
Through the research conducted for this paper, there has been a serious lack of evidence to support the claims listed above. One of the main faults of the arguments is that they don’t differentiate between slavery and slave trading. Slavery likely existed in Africa prior to the arrival of Arabs or Westerners just as it did in other Asian and European societies. Where these arguments fall short is that they suggest Africans were trading humans on the scale that is recorded by Arabs and Europeans throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, before either had landed on the continent. That argument is troubling because all the evidence that has been presented is that prior to Westerners and Arabs arriving in Africa, the only places that slaves were found was in the homes of the wealthy landowners, similar to other societies of the time (Azumah 2001). This suggests that slavery existed in Africa, but has no implications that there were slaves being exchanged for money on a measurable scale.
Another fault of some of the scholars make is by claiming slavery was a strictly western influence on Africa, which is to deny that any trading of slaves happened by Arab traders in the centuries before the Atlantic trade commenced. This is wrong because there are numerous documents stating the amounts of slaves exchanged per year to different areas in Arabia from Africa. Furthermore, there are records of slave revolts and uprising in modern day Iraq that date back to  which is before Europeans went to Africa to collect slaves.
The final point on slavery before outside influence to be made is that Africans had very marginal uses for slaves. The main reason slaves were traded in the 18th and 19th centuries was for a labor force (Azumah 2001: 113), specifically for agricultural plantations. Africans did not have organized plantations the size and structure of the plantations that would be introduced by the Arabs and Westerners of this time. Therefore it is unlikely that owning slaves served any purpose other than to show off the wealth of an individual or an especially strong kingdom, considering the society didn’t have the option to use slaves in a more productive way than current members of those societies.
Early Arab involvement in Slave Trading
“In the Qur’an the term ‘abd’ meaning slave is used less frequently than, those whom your right hand possess” (Azumah 2001:124). There is mention of slaves as well as concubines throughout the Qur’an. Using concubines was a way around prostitution where one male could have relations with any number of female slaves. Capturing slaves was endorsed during Jihad, as long as the opponents were not Muslim (Azumah 2001:124). One could not make anyone within their homeland a slave. Children born to slave parents remained slaves unless they were released by their master. The master had a duty to convert the slave to Islam so that they could strive for the same paradise that all Muslims aim for.
Slavery in the practice by the Arab Muslims versus what is written in the Qur’an differ to varying degrees. What is written and summarized above is by no means exhaustive of what is mentioned regarding owning people, but is only a brief overview to give background knowledge for the rest of this paper. The actual practice of owning, capturing, buying, selling, and transporting slaves was different than what is contained in the Qur’an. Many of the slaves taken from Africa were Muslim by faith. The evidence for this is in the location of the raids that were carried out. Many of them were in areas that were Muslim.
The second factor that varied from what is written in the Qur’an is that there was a perception, much like the Judeo-Christian perception, that being black meant that you needed to be ‘saved.’ This perception stems from the story of Ham, where his youngest son Caanan was cursed with servitude and slavery (Cooper 1997:23). The evidence for this is in manuscripts from Muslim, Arab, and European writers of this time. The above mentioned writers note that those with dark skin and curly, dark hair are cursed to be in servitude. The mindset that blacks needed saving made moral sense to people who were capturing and dragging them against their will to serve them. It was believed that a favor was being done to the blacks that were ‘saved’ from the savagery and barbarianism of their tribes and continent as a whole (Azumah 2001).
Slave trading on the Swahili Coast
Slave trading on the East coast, sometimes referred to as the Swahili Coast occurred from ~600 CE until the abolition by early 20th century. Trading happened all along the East coast of Africa, from modern day Egypt down to South Africa. The ports we are concerned with in this paper are: Mombasa, Kilwa, and Zanzibar. Some of the many reasons these ports rose to dominance will be addressed shortly. All three ports were well established prior to major slave trading due to the fact that they were major ports for transporting Ivory and spices. Early in the trade, Mombasa, and Kilwa were prominent because of the population and location. Mombasa faded as an East African port once the Omani Arabs took over control from the Portuguese and Kilwa and Zanzibar became the center of the new trade. Later on, Zanzibar took over for a variety of reasons that will be addressed in the following section.
The main reasons Zanzibar took over as the most important port for slave trading on the East coast of Africa were its geographic location, safety, and political control. Zanzibar was noted as one of the safer ports from both the seas and warring nations that were unreliably shifting power both among African peoples and Europeans (Mirzai 2009). The geographic location helped make it as powerful as it became because of the monsoon weather each year brought ships right across Zanzibar (Cooper 1997:41). Lastly, the Omani sultan helped push it to prominence because it was the one he had under the strictest control, therefore the sultans could make the most profits from taxing imports and exports (Mirzai 2009:55-56).
The estimates that are consistently found appear to have the slave population anywhere from half to two-thirds of the islands total population at any given time throughout the 19th century. Earlier dates than that are often measured in slaves being transported when the documenter was there, that makes it difficult to guess the total amount per year due to when the winds were ideal for the voyage and how demand may have shifted each year (Cooper 1997:56).
Slave populations of the Island of Zanzibar are hard to discern. The estimates that are given in the publications that exist are somewhat unreliable. They are unreliable because the accounts are taken from passing visitors who see the Stone Town, or the entire Zanzibar City, but not necessarily the entire Island. We know this because they describe the coast, city and clove plantations but little about the rest of the Island.
Of the three ports that are studied in this paper, Zanzibar is the only island. Having an island as the center for the trade made sense for a variety of reasons. It is an added security measure to keep slaves from escaping. The closest point is 16 miles from the mainland, that is far enough that swimming back would be unlikely even if the slaves would be able to break free of their chains and guard. The next barrier would be that they were malnourished as we will discuss later in this paper, but not having the energy to do more than live would make a 16 mile swim fatal. The safety of the island for traders was yet another reason to push this port to prominence. It would have been easier to defend once you controlled the island because you can control the ports and prevent unwelcome people from entering. The political control of an island as big as Zanzibar is useful because the Sultan could tax anything coming and leaving the Island, which was likely the last stop before ships final destinations in India, Oman, or Indian Ocean Islands.
The Role of the Swahili in the Trade
The role of the Swahili in the trade is an area with little credible research. The validity of many of the documents written about the slave trade prior to the 19th century has been questioned. The ones written from British cartographers and traders are criticized for being too dramatic as an excuse to justify the European involvement later on in the slave trade. Other scholars claim that there was no slave trade prior to the Arab arrival and the influence of their traders. That claim is criticized for being too dismissive and speculative. The common position among historians of the Swahili and the area they inhabit admit that a slave trade existed prior to the 18th century but was on a much smaller scale and didn’t make up a as large a part of trading as ivory.
One of the reasons it is so hard to find evidence of the slave trade earlier than the 18th and 19th centuries is that there was little interest in Swahili history prior to the 1970’s (Mirzai 2009:38). When no historians or researchers cared about an area or people for so long the documents that can be used to validate or invalidate claims are few and far between. Another reason for the failure to further research in the area is that it is a sensitive topic to many Africans. Asking people about their ancestor’s involvement in enslaving and trading people is controversial.
Growth and Decline by Era
Reliable historical documents regarding the number of slaves transported on the Swahili Coast begin around 1600. There are a few recorded from around 1500 but they are few and ambiguous regarding slave trading. Prior to the 19th century (Beachey 1976:38). Slaves taken and sold along the coast were mostly sold as domestic servants, concubines, soldiers, sailors, or craftsmen and women. After the introduction of plantation farming by the Omani Sultan in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, slaves were sold for mostly agricultural purposes and became an integral part of growing the Sugar, Clove, and Coconut plantations on the Swahili Coast.
Depending on which nation controlled Mombasa seemed to have a significant impact on the slave trade all throughout the coast. When the Portuguese controlled the city, the taxes were high for buyers of slaves so traders went further south. When the Omanis controlled the city, they brought many more slaves into the city and its plantations as well as buying and selling more slaves to send to the Arabian Peninsula. The problem with this time period of varying control of Mombasa was a lack of documentation. In 1698 when the Omani Arabs threw out the Portuguese many documents regarding trade were lost or destroyed. Then when the Portuguese retook Mombasa in 1728, they found an alarming amount of slaves to them. The next year they were driven out again and then from 1729-1770 there are no sources regarding he slave trade (Mirzai 2009:54-57).
Conditions of Slaves during Transportation
There are scholars who believe that depending who carried out slavery and trade of slaves mattered pertaining to how slaves were treated. Scholars on both ends of the spectrum exist, ones who believe that the slave trade carried out by the Arabs was gentler than the European trade and vis-versa. For scholars to believe that it mattered is a severe oversight. This paper argues that trading slaves requires a worldview that slaves were subhuman or animals and with that justification they were morally able to carry out these deeds. It is estimated that 4/5 of the slaves that were destined for Zanzibar to be traded died along the journey, that number is before they were sold and sent to either: India, Arabia, Europe, Island Nations, or elsewhere in Africa. Conservative estimates put the amount of slaves at 11-14 million to Arabia alone from Africa from 7th century CE-20th century CE (Azumah 2001). That number is including the trans-Saharan trade, which is not discussed in this paper. The next section will have firsthand accounts of the conditions of East African slave caravans.
The account below was written by A.J. Swan in the late 19th century about a Tippu-Tib caravan.
As they filed past we noticed many chained together by the neck… The women, who were as numerous as the men, carried babies on their backs in addition to a tusk of Ivory or other burden on their heads… It is difficult to adequately describe the filthy state of their bodies; in many instances, not only scarred by the cut of a ‘chikote’ (a piece of hide used to enforce obedience), but feet and shoulders were a mass of open sores… half-starved, ill-treated creatures, who weary and friendless, must have longed for death (Azumah 2001:142).
Swan was told by one of the headsmen that most of the slaves died and that if a woman became too tired they would spear the baby before making someone else carry the ivory.
“50 out of the 300 slaves we left with made it to the coast,” Syeb-bin-Habib. Slave trader in 1882 (Azumah 2001:143).
Livingstone estimated that, “if the slaughter committed during the raids is taken into account in addition to the deaths along the routes, then the price of every single slave who arrived at Zanzibar would be about ten lives” (Azumah 2009:143).
Conditions of Slaves Once Sold
Naturally, depending upon what the slave was sold for decided the type of life the slaves had. The other contributing factor as to the type of life a slave had was where they were taken to after being bought. Slaves sent to the modern day Middle East were generally civil servants. The slaves bought and sent elsewhere in Africa or the Islands in the Indian Ocean were destined for agricultural work. The worst example of job for a male slave that I have found documentation of is pearl diving, which is best described by an anonymous 19th century observer stated:
And before they dive for the pearl oysters a clip is put on their nose to prevent their breathing. They then jump out of the boat, armed with a hammer and a light basket, and on coming to surface pass the oysters into the boat, and after a whiff of air are sent down again. If they don’t succeed in sending up a certain number of oysters they get severely beaten. Before long their lungs begin to gibe way, and then it is soon all over with them (Azumah 2001:163).
Males sent to the Middle East had the best shot at a life of ease by being or becoming eunuchs. The type of surgery practiced was described as flush with the abdomen, and many slaves died of blood loss or infection. Females on the other hand had the best shot for bettering her life by becoming a concubine and eventually mother of her master’s child and hope that the master liked the child. Slaves that were no longer deemed useful were either let go and sent to fend for themselves with nothing or just killed (Azumah 2001:159). In 1970 when the Sultan of Oman was overthrown, some of the 500 slaves discovered were mute from not being allowed to speak for so long and others were paralyzed in the neck from being stooped for so long (Azumah 2001:164).
The main aim for this paper was to expand on the knowledge regarding the slave trade on the Swahili Coast. A second aim for this paper was to combine knowledge from existing sources into a more concise document for anyone that is hoping to learn more about slavery and slave trading as it occurred on the Swahili Coast from the 7th century until the 20th century CE. It discussed the areas in which the slave trade existed and where it reached its peak, the different factors that contributed to the growth and decline, as well as the conditions the slaves had to endure for centuries.
Azumah, John. 2001. The legacy of Arab-Islam In Africa. London: Oneworld
Beachey, R.W. 1976. The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa. London: Rex Collings
Cooper, Frederick. 1997. Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa. Portsmouth: Heinemann
Mirzai, Behnaz A., Montana, Ismael Musah., Lovejoy, Paul E. 2009. Slavery, Islam and Diaspora. Trenton: Africa World Press