The Slave Trade In East Africa

Over several centuries countless East Africans were sold as slaves by Muslim Arabs to the Middle East and other places via the Sahara desert and Indian Ocean.

The island of Zanzibar is today considered one of East Africa's best destinations: white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and hotels offer tourists from all over the world a holiday to remember.

Long forgotten is the dark past that overshadowed this sunny paradise 200 years ago. The archipelago, which today is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, was then regarded as the centre of the East African slave trade.

In addition to valuable raw materials such as ivory and the coveted cloves, one thing stood out above all others in the colourful markets: hundreds of slaves.

In East Africa a slave trade was well established before the Europeans arrived on the scene. It was driven by the sultanates of the Middle East. African slaves ended up as sailors in Persia, pearl divers in the Gulf, soldiers in the Omani army and workers on the salt pans of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Many people were domestic slaves, working in rich households. Women were taken as sex slaves. 

Arab traders began to settle among the Africans of the coast, resulting in the emergence of a people and culture known as Swahili. In the second half of the 18th century, the slave trade expanded and became more organised. There was also a huge demand for ivory, and slaves were used as porters to carry it.

There were three main reasons why more slaves were required:

1. The clove plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba set up by Sultan Seyyid Said, needed labour.

2. Brazilian traders were finding it difficult to operate in West Africa because the British navy was intercepting slave ships. The Brazilians made the journey round the Cape of Good Hope, taking slaves from the Zambezi valley and Mozambique.

3. The French had started up sugar and coffee plantations in Mauritius and Reunion.

Roots of slavery in Africa

According to N'Diaye, slavery has existed in practically all civilizations. This was also the case in Africa before settlers came.

In central East Africa, ethnic groups such as the Yao, Makua and Marava were fighting against each other and entire peoples within the continent traded with people they had captured through wars. "Thus Arab Muslims encountered already existing structures, which facilitated the purchase of slaves for their purposes."

For Abdulazizi Lodhi, Emeritus Professor of Swahili and African Linguistics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, slavery was part of different African cultures "When it came to exports, tribal Africans themselves were the main actors. In many African societies there were no prisons, so people who were captured were sold." 

Zanzibar as East Africa's slave hub

The slave trade in East Africa really took off from the 17th century. More and more merchants from Oman settled in Zanzibar. The island took on an even more important role in the international trade of goods due to the large trade at the Swahili coast and consequently also in the slave trade. This is how the largest slave market in East Africa was created.

Only estimates, some of which vary widely, exist as to how many Africans were sold from East to North Africa. This is also due to the fact that many of the slaves perished. Scientific research concludes that about three out of four slaves died before they reached the market where they were to be sold. The causes were hunger, illness or exhaustion after long journeys.

Other Countries Slaves Were Taken From

In the eastern slave trade enslaved Africans were also taken from Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and the island of Madagascar. They also came from the Savannah area (which includes countries such as Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan) and the Horn of Africa (which covers Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia). Slaves were sold to merchants from North Africa and the Middle East. The women slaves in this trade often married their masters, or had children by them and the children were often freed by their fathers. 

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