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Old July 17th, 2013, 08:25 PM   #1

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The myth of a trans-Saharan slave trade


I recently stumbled upon the History Channel special Sahara for a second time. And what is actually a solid documentary still irks me. Because it perpetuates the myth of a perennial trans-Saharan slave trade like almost every other account of ancient and medieval Africa.

In reality, as I've often repeated, nothing of the sort took place.

Snowden made the point that the "blacks" encountered in the classical Mediterranean world were less likely to be slaves and more likely to be merchants and mercenaries.

There was no longstanding desert-traversing system involving slavery. No reliably exploitable populace stretching back millenia.

This is a myth, even if we consider the Garama kingdom of the Fezzan, an ancient Saharan power, who were well-known to the Greco-Romans as slave traders. The slaves acquired by the Garamantes were needed locally to construct their extensive irrigation system. Their trading slaves to Greeks and Romans merely reflected Garama's power over their Berber-nomad rivals.

Kanem and Kanem-Bornu were the only other kingdoms known for trading slaves at least partly across the Sahara desert. And this only occurred as they expanded between the 10th-18th centuries.

None of these succeeding kingdoms (Garama, Kanem and Kanem-Bornu) had slavery-based economies. Garama was reliant on agricultural; Kanem simply controlled the central Saharan routes; Mai Alooma stimulated Kanem-Bornu more so by tribute than slave trading. Slavery was ancillary. Slaves became a kind of luxury extending from greater urbanization.

There is no evidence the more westerly strain of Saharan kingdoms (Ghana, Mali and Songhai) relied on any trans-Saharan slave trading either.

The Sahelian and Savannah kingdoms are falsely associated with slave-trading across the Sahara. Even when, fundamentally, they didn't need to. They relied mostly on gold, salt, ivory and controlling the flow of goods across the Sahara.

The slaves traded in Timbuktu in its golden years were either part of their society or shipped to Arabia, probably following both a Saharan and Sahelian route.

The Black Guards of Ahmad al-Mansur and Mulay Ismail were mostly homegrown.

The massive networks connecting the southern Saharan terminals with Maghrebian and European consumers over the course of the Middle Ages were anything but slave-based.

Why?

Because such a trade was too expensive, only slightly lucrative, and unsustainable.

The only non-African states in a position to purchase a host of slaves of African origins were in Persia, Arabia and India. And it is no coincidence these transactions were based on the periphery of the desert, including many non-Saharan routes.

Still, mention of "black slaves" in the primary sources, in the primary centers of Islam, requires circumspection. For instance, the 40,000 black slaves enlisted by Ibn Tulun when he conquered Egypt were likely not slaves but paid Sudani soldiers.

Neither was the Zanj revolt a slave revolt. One observant modern commentator puts it this way: "All the talk about slaves rising against the wretched conditions of work in the salt marshes of Basra is a figment of the imagination and has no support in the sources. [...] The vast majority of the rebels were Arabs of the Persian Gulf supported by free East Africans who had made their homes in the region [...] If more proof is needed that it was not a slave revolt, it is to be found in the fact that it had a highly organized army and navy which vigorously resisted the whole weight of the central government for almost fifteen years." (M. A. Shaban, 'Regional Economic Conflicts': 101)

The Zanj, who many condemned as feeble-minded, were arguably the most clever traders the entire period.


This is not to deny scores of slaves existed in each of the states/kingdoms/chiefdoms mentioned, or that slaves were not included in the occasional trans-Saharan caravan. But consider, in the case of India, the Africans who arrived there were just as likely to be merchants. And slaves could be nobles and rulers, and slaves to other slaves.

The Middle Ages was clearly the age of the most common slaves of the previous Greco-Roman ecumenon, from central and eastern Europe, from where we get the term slave. Then: "Deprived of most of their sources of white slaves, the Ottomans turned more and more to Africa, which in the course of the nineteenth century came to provide the overwhelming majority of slaves used in Muslim countries from Morocco to Asia” (Lewis, 1990, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, p. 12)

Bathily and Meillassoux (1988) summarize:

"Except for the Zandj (black slaves) from lower Iraq, no large body of blacks historically linked to the trans-Saharan slave trade existed anywhere in the Arab world ... The high costs of slaves, because of the risks inherent in the desert crossing, which would have not permitted such a massive exodus ... In this connection, it is significant that in the Arabic iconography of the period, the slave merchant was often depicted as a man with a hole in his purse. Until the Crusades the Muslim world drew its slaves from two main sources: Eastern and Central Europe (Slavs) and Turkestan. The Sudan only came third. " - Africa from the Seventh to Eleventh Century, UNESCO, 1988

The consequences of this information are not obvious. But hopefully professional writers on African/Saharan societies could drop the fiction of a trans-Saharan slave trade altogether.

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Old July 18th, 2013, 02:14 PM   #2

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I've never heard that trans-Sahara slave trade was huge. It certainly existed but majority of slaves in N Africa were from raids into the Mediterranean where whole sections of coasts were abandoned from both captures and populations fleeing the raids.

Do you know how far Timbuktu is from Arabia? There were east-west caravans but in medieval period this route had mostly faded as the water sources were no longer reliable for frequent caravans. Saharan trade routes are separate from Arabia from the most part as trade goods from south of Sahara reached ports in N Africa and then arrived in Alexandria by ship to be sent on to Arabia.

The Zanj rebellion is more complicated story but not sure how it starts in Saharan trade routes. Abbasids and also various Egyptian dynasties often used slave soldiers because they were more reliable than local recruits due to the fragile ethnic/cultural makeup of the ruled lands. Zanj were definitely mostly black slave soldiers with most coming from Horn of Africa or Sudan furthest west but you are correct in that it wasn't a rebellion of only black slaves, the former slaves were majority of the armies which fought for the rebellion though. Work in salt marshes was mostly done by locals and far from wretched conditions it was lucrative trade which the Caliph taxed heavily. The Zanj were the local garrison soldiers which it was believed being foreigners and blacks there would be less likely to have common cause with the locals for exactly what was feared happened- a large scale rebellion.

The Ottomans had access to slave markets on Black Sea through Crimean Khanate there was not a large decline in white slaves until 17th century when the strengthening of Poland-Lithuania and Moscovy caused less frequent raids as well Ottomans being more often on the defensive. As late as 1830s there were still many white slaves in Ottoman lands despite laws ordering their release which had no penalties for disobedience.

Fatimids of Egypt and later briefly under Saladin also had large parts of their armies composed of black slave soldiers but these would mostly be from Africa anywhere from Sudan to Zanzibar- not trans-Saharan trade routes. Saladin broke the power of the black soldiers in Egypt because politically many favored former Fatimids and clashed with Saladin's Turks and Kurds making common cause with Armenians and other minority soldiers Fatimids had used to maintain their rule.

EDIT- interesting subject by the way and it is always good to correct widely seen documentaries or other sources when possible.

Last edited by Ichon; July 18th, 2013 at 03:14 PM.
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Old July 18th, 2013, 02:46 PM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by jehosafats View Post
I recently stumbled upon the History Channel special Sahara for a second time. And what is actually a solid documentary still irks me. Because it perpetuates the myth of a perennial trans-Saharan slave trade like almost every other account of ancient and medieval Africa.

In reality, as I've often repeated, nothing of the sort took place.

Snowden made the point that the "blacks" encountered in the classical Mediterranean world were less likely to be slaves and more likely to be merchants and mercenaries.

There was no longstanding desert-traversing system involving slavery. No reliably exploitable populace stretching back millenia.

This is a myth, even if we consider the Garama kingdom of the Fezzan, an ancient Saharan power, who were well-known to the Greco-Romans as slave traders. The slaves acquired by the Garamantes were needed locally to construct their extensive irrigation system. Their trading slaves to Greeks and Romans merely reflected Garama's power over their Berber-nomad rivals.

Kanem and Kanem-Bornu were the only other kingdoms known for trading slaves at least partly across the Sahara desert. And this only occurred as they expanded between the 10th-18th centuries.

None of these succeeding kingdoms (Garama, Kanem and Kanem-Bornu) had slavery-based economies. Garama was reliant on agricultural; Kanem simply controlled the central Saharan routes; Mai Alooma stimulated Kanem-Bornu more so by tribute than slave trading. Slavery was ancillary. Slaves became a kind of luxury extending from greater urbanization.

There is no evidence the more westerly strain of Saharan kingdoms (Ghana, Mali and Songhai) relied on any trans-Saharan slave trading either.

The Sahelian and Savannah kingdoms are falsely associated with slave-trading across the Sahara. Even when, fundamentally, they didn't need to. They relied mostly on gold, salt, ivory and controlling the flow of goods across the Sahara.

The slaves traded in Timbuktu in its golden years were either part of their society or shipped to Arabia, probably following both a Saharan and Sahelian route.

The Black Guards of Ahmad al-Mansur and Mulay Ismail were mostly homegrown.

The massive networks connecting the southern Saharan terminals with Maghrebian and European consumers over the course of the Middle Ages were anything but slave-based.

Why?

Because such a trade was too expensive, only slightly lucrative, and unsustainable.

The only non-African states in a position to purchase a host of slaves of African origins were in Persia, Arabia and India. And it is no coincidence these transactions were based on the periphery of the desert, including many non-Saharan routes.

Still, mention of "black slaves" in the primary sources, in the primary centers of Islam, requires circumspection. For instance, the 40,000 black slaves enlisted by Ibn Tulun when he conquered Egypt were likely not slaves but paid Sudani soldiers.

Neither was the Zanj revolt a slave revolt. One observant modern commentator puts it this way: "All the talk about slaves rising against the wretched conditions of work in the salt marshes of Basra is a figment of the imagination and has no support in the sources. [...] The vast majority of the rebels were Arabs of the Persian Gulf supported by free East Africans who had made their homes in the region [...] If more proof is needed that it was not a slave revolt, it is to be found in the fact that it had a highly organized army and navy which vigorously resisted the whole weight of the central government for almost fifteen years." (M. A. Shaban, 'Regional Economic Conflicts': 101)

The Zanj, who many condemned as feeble-minded, were arguably the most clever traders the entire period.


This is not to deny scores of slaves existed in each of the states/kingdoms/chiefdoms mentioned, or that slaves were not included in the occasional trans-Saharan caravan. But consider, in the case of India, the Africans who arrived there were just as likely to be merchants. And slaves could be nobles and rulers, and slaves to other slaves.

The Middle Ages was clearly the age of the most common slaves of the previous Greco-Roman ecumenon, from central and eastern Europe, from where we get the term slave. Then: "Deprived of most of their sources of white slaves, the Ottomans turned more and more to Africa, which in the course of the nineteenth century came to provide the overwhelming majority of slaves used in Muslim countries from Morocco to Asia (Lewis, 1990, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, p. 12)

Bathily and Meillassoux (1988) summarize:

"Except for the Zandj (black slaves) from lower Iraq, no large body of blacks historically linked to the trans-Saharan slave trade existed anywhere in the Arab world ... The high costs of slaves, because of the risks inherent in the desert crossing, which would have not permitted such a massive exodus ... In this connection, it is significant that in the Arabic iconography of the period, the slave merchant was often depicted as a man with a hole in his purse. Until the Crusades the Muslim world drew its slaves from two main sources: Eastern and Central Europe (Slavs) and Turkestan. The Sudan only came third. " - Africa from the Seventh to Eleventh Century, UNESCO, 1988

The consequences of this information are not obvious. But hopefully professional writers on African/Saharan societies could drop the fiction of a trans-Saharan slave trade altogether.
Very informative and enlightening op, Jehosafats.
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Old July 18th, 2013, 04:31 PM   #4

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Originally Posted by Ichon View Post
I've never heard that trans-Sahara slave trade was huge. It certainly existed but majority of slaves in N Africa were from raids into the Mediterranean where whole sections of coasts were abandoned from both captures and populations fleeing the raids.

Do you know how far Timbuktu is from Arabia? There were east-west caravans but in medieval period this route had mostly faded as the water sources were no longer reliable for frequent caravans. Saharan trade routes are separate from Arabia from the most part as trade goods from south of Sahara reached ports in N Africa and then arrived in Alexandria by ship to be sent on to Arabia.

The Zanj rebellion is more complicated story but not sure how it starts in Saharan trade routes. Abbasids and also various Egyptian dynasties often used slave soldiers because they were more reliable than local recruits due to the fragile ethnic/cultural makeup of the ruled lands. Zanj were definitely mostly black slave soldiers with most coming from Horn of Africa or Sudan furthest west but you are correct in that it wasn't a rebellion of only black slaves, the former slaves were majority of the armies which fought for the rebellion though. Work in salt marshes was mostly done by locals and far from wretched conditions it was lucrative trade which the Caliph taxed heavily. The Zanj were the local garrison soldiers which it was believed being foreigners and blacks there would be less likely to have common cause with the locals for exactly what was feared happened- a large scale rebellion.

The Ottomans had access to slave markets on Black Sea through Crimean Khanate there was not a large decline in white slaves until 17th century when the strengthening of Poland-Lithuania and Moscovy caused less frequent raids as well Ottomans being more often on the defensive. As late as 1830s there were still many white slaves in Ottoman lands despite laws ordering their release which had no penalties for disobedience.

Fatimids of Egypt and later briefly under Saladin also had large parts of their armies composed of black slave soldiers but these would mostly be from Africa anywhere from Sudan to Zanzibar- not trans-Saharan trade routes. Saladin broke the power of the black soldiers in Egypt because politically many favored former Fatimids and clashed with Saladin's Turks and Kurds making common cause with Armenians and other minority soldiers Fatimids had used to maintain their rule.

EDIT- interesting subject by the way and it is always good to correct widely seen documentaries or other sources when possible.
Some scholars in the past have estimated something like 10-22 million slaves over the course of the Middle Ages were exported via the Sahara desert to ports in the Maghreb, Egypt and beyond. Those who presume there was a trans-Saharan slave trade tend to view it as lucrative. It could be argued that, prior to the 15-16th centuries, Berber, Arab and Turkish/European slaves were just as likely to be shipped to Saharan (Sahelian or savannah) destinations just as frequently as black slaves were exported northward, which could not have been that frequent.

And thank you for mentioning the Fatimid. The black regiments of the Fatimid army were comprised mainly of central African and Zanj derived infantry. While it is often claimed they were purchased from slave markets, there is no proof they were slaves (even if the central African 'slaves' were named after the market), nor is there any reason to believe they purchased 15-30,000 slaves from two different markets, only to pay them like soldiers. The same slave narrative was applied to Ibn Tulun's utilization of Sudani infantry, but in all likelihood the "black slaves" of the Fatimid were conscripted and paid.

The fact is most of the slave-trading transactions did not involve the Sahara at all.
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Old July 18th, 2013, 05:00 PM   #5

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Excellent thread.
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Old July 18th, 2013, 07:37 PM   #6

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Quote:
Originally Posted by jehosafats View Post
Some scholars in the past have estimated something like 10-22 million slaves over the course of the Middle Ages were exported via the Sahara desert to ports in the Maghreb, Egypt and beyond. Those who presume there was a trans-Saharan slave trade tend to view it as lucrative. It could be argued that, prior to the 15-16th centuries, Berber, Arab and Turkish/European slaves were just as likely to be shipped to Saharan (Sahelian or savannah) destinations just as frequently as black slaves were exported northward, which could not have been that frequent. ......
The fact is most of the slave-trading transactions did not involve the Sahara at all.
Angus Madison claims 4 million in total or 5000 a year before 1500, including East Africa. Would he be correct?

Amazon.com: Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD:Essays in Macro-Economic History eBook: Angus Maddison: Books
Amazon.com: Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD:Essays in Macro-Economic History eBook: Angus Maddison: Books


Last edited by mansamusa; July 18th, 2013 at 07:42 PM.
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Old July 18th, 2013, 07:39 PM   #7

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Quote:
Originally Posted by jehosafats View Post
Some scholars in the past have estimated something like 10-22 million slaves over the course of the Middle Ages were exported via the Sahara desert to ports in the Maghreb, Egypt and beyond. Those who presume there was a trans-Saharan slave trade tend to view it as lucrative. It could be argued that, prior to the 15-16th centuries, Berber, Arab and Turkish/European slaves were just as likely to be shipped to Saharan (Sahelian or savannah) destinations just as frequently as black slaves were exported northward, which could not have been that frequent.

And thank you for mentioning the Fatimid. The black regiments of the Fatimid army were comprised mainly of central African and Zanj derived infantry. While it is often claimed they were purchased from slave markets, there is no proof they were slaves (even if the central African 'slaves' were named after the market), nor is there any reason to believe they purchased 15-30,000 slaves from two different markets, only to pay them like soldiers. The same slave narrative was applied to Ibn Tulun's utilization of Sudani infantry, but in all likelihood the "black slaves" of the Fatimid were conscripted and paid.

The fact is most of the slave-trading transactions did not involve the Sahara at all.
Well if we divide 10 million by 500 years it is only 20,000 a year which for the slave trade from N African ports is reasonable but certainly not for Saharan trade routes that would be a huge number. Even when caravans were regularly occurring (which did not happen for most of those 500 years) that would be a large number.

Arab slaves would be very unlikely if not outright impossible as there weren't many Arabs in N Africa before Islamic invasions and Islam forbid taking other Muslims as slaves which was generally followed especially in this era. There might have existed some Turkish slaves but not many- the majority of slaves were likely Mediterranean peoples followed by people from around Mali (who were captured from other regions whichever kingdom that controlled southern part of the trade routes happened to be fighting with). Berbers may have been slaves when captured in wars but rarely would Berbers keep other Berbers as slaves and most of the trade routes were controlled by Berber tribes. The trade itself was certainly lucrative but the slave trade part of it was more a minor aspect outside of the slaves purchases to mine rock salt in Niger which due to brutal conditions did require constant supply of slaves.

Slaves in armies of various Islamic dynasties are a complicated concept for modern concept of salvery I think. Certainly the majority of men were purchased in slave markets and treated brutally during training but once trained they attained higher status and usually converted to Islam. Even if not converting they received pay which some have taken to mean they were not slaves but that isn't quite right. The pay was to maintain their combat readiness and for higher ranks to have some status and recognition of the power they represented as significant part of the military.

Fatimids hold on power required to play different groups they ruled against each other and that condition permeated into the military as well where Arab and Berber tribes, Turkish, european, and black slaves, Armenian mercenaries, and even more groups were played against each other. The result eventually being several civil wars which weakened Fatimids to the point of paying tribute to Kingdom of Jerusalem and when Saladin took over he had to purge this old system of rule which meant not only getting rid of the Berbers, black slave soldiers and most of the european slaves and all the Armenians. Caucasian/Turkish ghulams, Arab tribesmen, Kurds, Persian, and Kurds formed majority of Saladin's forces in Egypt. Later Mameluk dynasties were mostly Turkish but had some other groups at various times.

There were certainly times some groups of warriors from Sudan or other near Egypt locales might have been paid mercenaries free to go after services were complete but inviting in any large groups of warriors not directly controlled by central government would have been too dangerous so the idea of paid conscript soldiers in mass is not supported by any evidence I've seen.

Quote:
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Angus Madison claims 4 million a year before 1500, including East Africa. Would he be correct?
Amazon.com: Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD:Essays in Macro-Economic History eBook: Angus Maddison: Books
4 million a year prior to 1500? That would be incredible and has to be a misquote or he is talking about total slave trade around Mediterranean not just N Africa, or maybe it meant the total numbers from fall of Roman empire to 1500? 4 million per year would depopulated the continent in a decade. http://uaps2007.princeton.edu/papers/70296

Last edited by Ichon; July 18th, 2013 at 08:00 PM.
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Old July 18th, 2013, 07:51 PM   #8

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Sorry about the 4 million quote. Already made the correction.
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Old July 18th, 2013, 08:08 PM   #9

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Angus Madison claims 4 million in total or 5000 a year before 1500, including East Africa. Would he be correct?
Amazon.com: Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD:Essays in Macro-Economic History eBook: Angus Maddison: Books
Figured a new quote reflecting the edit would make more sense than editing mine a 2nd time.

That seems reasonable for the lower end of the estimates and would start his count roughly in 700 CE so depending on the definition of middle ages would be about 1/4 of jehosafats estimate of 10-22 million. I'd go somewhere between 4-10 million but exact number is impossible to verify however 22 million certainly seems too high. Also the range is so wide because I am not sure what is included in that number... Saharan trade routes are usually considered the 3 main western and central routes but some add in the eastern route closer to Egypt which was active in Roman eras but much less important by medieval era though still used.

Last edited by Ichon; July 18th, 2013 at 08:24 PM.
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Old July 19th, 2013, 12:39 AM   #10

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Great post. This single post of yours is probably worth more than anything truth27 posted together.
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