Monday, 5 March 2012
The ‘Other’ Slavery
There are many uncomfortable subjects that I read about. Wars and their attendant atrocities, politics and power-play, the realities of economics and exploitation, the infliction of cruelties and the suffering borne by the victims – all of the above are, of course, part and parcel of the age-old custom of slavery. Where and when it started can only be conjectured; the powerful have probably always exploited the weak. Our South African heritage also carries a dark stain of institutionalised slavery which the Dutch practised for economic, political and domestic reasons from the earliest years of the establishment of the settlement at the Cape. These unfortunates were imported from West Africa, South East Africa, Madagascar and the Dutch colonies in the East. It may be argued that our homegrown version was more humane than the horrors that were perpetrated in the Americas, but this is not a point I would care to debate in this article.
The Atlantic slave trade lasted only a few hundred years – during which time the labour extracted from the victims enriched the Europeans and their American colonies greatly. Both Atlantic and South African slavery have been extensively researched and written about for a very simple reason – one slave represented one unit of labour. That was his or her sole value, and because of some meticulous bookkeeping that has passed down to us, numbers, sex, age, price and often how they were employed was documented. Those who perished in the holding cells waiting to be shipped, the toll taken by diseases, the numbers that died en route to their destinations, as well as slaves who died under the harsh regimes of field work and maltreatment meted out to them – not to forget those who were put to death for one or other contravention of their masters’ laws – most of these were recorded in the ledgers and accounts of the day because they represented a financial loss.
We can only extrapolate the collateral damage that was done to obtain these units of labour in a productive process which denied their essential humanity. The current reckoning can account for about twelve million people that were forcefully taken from their homes and spread around the world, if they did not die in the process. Many researchers have made estimates of the larger demographic results over the source regions from where these people were extracted, but these vary greatly from six million to as much as another twelve million souls that perished in the tribal wars, slaving raids, ensuing famines and epidemics. The perpetrators were Africans, Arabs and Europeans. The former raided their neighbours, or enemies and took prisoners, originally for their own use, but later to be traded for other goods. The Arabs had a long history of trade and exploitation, into which we’ll go in more detail below, while the Europeans set up a profitable triangular network in which they traded manufactured goods for slaves, whom they used in turn to grow crops that were desirable in Europe.
This foul practice lasted from the start of the 16th century until well past the middle of the 19th – as far as the Atlantic trade went. Let it be acknowledged that in those dark days there were many Europeans who abhorred slavery, people like William Wilberforce and the Quakers, who started campaigns for the abolition by the late 18th century which gained much public support, though there were pockets of stubborn resistance by the owners of colonial properties. By 1833 most of the European powers had capitulated, though remnants of the illegal trade survived in the Americas for another forty-odd years before being stamped out.
I have long been puzzled by the coyness of historians to investigate the role of the Arab nations, no, let’s call the spade a shovel – the role of Islam – in this infamous business. From peripheral remarks in a number of books I have read by and about the explorers, missionaries and administrators of East, North and West Africa, I have frequently come across mentions of slave caravans, Arab slavers and the wars waged against them and the effects on the local populations. Quite apart from David Livingstone’s descriptions of the heartrending conditions he found among survivors of slaving raids in several of his works, I recently read the work Mlozi of Central Africa – Trader, Slaver and self-styled Sultan, by David Stuart-Mogg (Central Africana, 2010) which opened my eyes to the epic depopulation that so-called Arab slavers achieved in Central and East Africa. Recently I obtained a book which gripped my imagination even before I began to read it. This was Ronald Segal’s work Islam’s Black Slaves – a History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora (Atlantic Books, 2001). The author had already written a previous work on the Atlantic slave trade, The Black Diaspora, which I have not read, but his researches led him to question the paucity of material on Islam’s role – which he then pursues with admirable doggedness.
Segal has admirable credentials as a political activist, academic and writer, and in the book I have read, he strives to differentiate between the hideous, dehumanizing form of slavery as practised by Christianity, and the relatively benign form in most Islamic societies where it is to be found, due to the institution being influenced by the letter and spirit of the Koran, which meant that slaves were regarded as people – not simply possessions. Indeed the Koran lays down guidelines for the just and compassionate treatment of slaves, as well as recommending the act of emancipation as a way of acquiring merit. Slave children were not to be separated from their mothers before the age of seven, and those offspring born of the union of masters and their female slaves, could not be the slaves of their own fathers. In pursuit of its essentially humanistic form, Islam also decreed that Moslems should not enslave other Moslems, but it encouraged conversion to the faith. There is a wealth of information in the book on the historical processes at work in the Islamic world during the period of the rise of Islam until the present – fascinating stuff, through which the author has woven the thread of slavery.
What also emerges, is that the slaves imported (mostly from Africa, but also from Europe and Asia) were female, in a ratio of two to every one male. This is the direct opposite to the Atlantic trade, where men were needed for the backbreaking labour in the fields under tropical conditions and thus the ratio was about two males for every one female. The reason for this is that the Islamic countries had very little need for field labour as they already had large peasant populations. Segal cites some early experiments which actually ended in slave revolts, such as those in present-day Iraq between the 7th and 9th centuries, and these may have acted as warnings to their masters. Slaves were mainly used in urban environments, in factories, transport and mining, as well as craft workshops, but mostly, slaves were acquired as concubines, domestics, personal retainers, soldiers and a host of other tasks which had no real commercial value. The number of slaves a man owned displayed his status in the community; he who could boast with a thousand slaves had his own army of servitors – or even of soldiers and the size of his harem spoke volumes about the lavishness of his household. Slaves, then, were items of conspicuous consumption in a society where religion inhibited the development of Western-style capitalism, which was primarily set on amassing riches. Under Islam those who fostered scholarship, the promotion of the faith and contributions to philanthropy enjoyed greater prestige than those who pursued capital accumulation which was being put to industrial purposes that would in turn transform whole economies. Still, slaves had the opportunity to rise meteorically from their positions of bondage. If concubines bore their masters children, it would be highly unlikely that they would be divorced, which was not the case with wives. They could be married by their masters, or to other Moslems. Those who had special gifts, such as singing or entertaining, very much like Japanese geishas, were valued and occupied respected positions in society. The Koran encouraged the mukataba, a process by which slaves could buy their freedom from their master in instalments, with money that they earned by their own efforts. Male slaves often rose to positions of managerial and great administrative power in civil society – some even became rulers.
So Islam inhibited the system of depersonalization of slave labour and in the process opposed the emergence of institutionalised racism. The manumission of slaves was a frequent and ongoing process and the slaves, who had not been subject to any special discrimination on account of their skin colour, were easily assimilated into Islamic society once freed. This did not mean they automatically escaped the lower scale of society, or poverty, but they were equal under law and religion to their erstwhile masters. A relatively benign bondage then, one would think, though obviously there must have been cases where gross abuse took place and certainly there was no element of choice in entering the state of slavery. However, this status of being a symbol of domestic affluence came with a price for many of the enslaved.
Ancient Arabia had no eunuchs, it would seem; the practice was roundly condemned by early Moslems as mutilation was expressly forbidden by Islamic law – enforced by a hadith of the Prophet himself. However, the early conquests of Islam brought in wealth and captives, so precepts were bent to the needs of the day. A slave owner could not have an establishment full of available women, as well as a horde of testosterone-charged males under one roof. So males had to be castrated. Without going into the grisly details, this was a widespread practice and the mortality rate from shock, loss of blood and infection was probably in the region of half of the unfortunates that underwent it. Soon there was a flourishing trade in eunuchs from as far afield as Europe, Asia, black Africa as well as nominally Moslem countries. The prices these people fetched were in some cases sevenfold that of uncastrated slaves – which reflects their scarcity due to the high fatality rate.
A possible side-effect of the high number of non-breeding male slaves was the low rate of births among slave women. Certainly it meant that ever-increasing numbers of new stock had to be found to replace unsustainable numbers in bondage, as well as replacing the manumitted, who joined Islamic society – often as an underclass. As the West became less of a source for white slaves, and as the Atlantic trade slowly petered out, the quest for black slaves became almost insatiable, involving violence and brutality on a gigantic scale. By that time many of the slavers roaming North, East and Central Africa we Afro-Arab blacks themselves. The 19th century became a terrible period for Africa. The Ottoman Empire reigned over the Middle East. Egypt and Lybia had a voracious appetite for slaves. The Fulani empire rose to conquer and convert a broad band of countries that straddled the whole continent from Senegal in the West to the Sudan in the East. What had started as a jihad, swiftly became a gigantic slave-raid, as bordering tribes were looted of their population or converted to Islam – which did not always guarantee them immunity. Puppet rulers were taxed by their overlords – in slaves, when they had no more produce or treasure to pay with. The expanding armies needed slave soldiers, weapons, as well as horses (another status symbol of the times), and a flourishing growth industry arose as arms were traded for slaves, and horses could fetch as much as twenty souls in exchange. Credit was given by traders in these commodities, which meant that powerful leaders could send out expeditions with the express intention of capturing ‘currency’. Once their target areas had been denuded of population, the rapacious rulers had no scruples in preying on fellow Moslems and even their own populations. Increasingly minor infringements of the law could lead to imprisonment and subsequent slavedom.
The Sahara was criss-crossed with routes taken by slave caravans, and salt, gold and spices were the main items traded. In East Africa things were no better. Whole districts were depopulated in Malawi, Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, as noted by European explorers. In simplistic terms, ivory and slaves were the drawcards; the former found ready markets in Europe, and could be carried to the coast by the latter, who were then sold off on the Lybian, Egyptian, Arabian and Turkish slave markets.
The British waged the battle on the high seas against the transporters of the human cargoes, as well as making land forays in the Sudan. It took decades to make an impression on the trade, and at first it seemed that even more people were being carried by slavers to make up for the losses incurred. The French also entered the fray in their West African colonies, and slowly the life was being squeezed out of the institution, though it was still possible to buy slaves in any number of countries well into the 20th century. The problem that now arose was what the liberating powers should do with the emancipated slaves, on which whole economies had come to depend, since both West and East African states had started using slaves as field workers. Various schemes of apprenticeships, and indentured labour were tried, through which freed slaves were to be converted to free peasantry over a number of years. Of course, this made the colonial power themselves complicit with a continuation of the practice – but what were the alternatives? A number of different solutions were found all over the continent, but what they had in common was the creation of an underclass, usually squatting in poverty and resented by their former owners, with whom they would compete for land, resources and opportunities. The slaves in North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, were assimilated or died out.
Or did they? Segal records a number of countries, such as the Saudis, where slaves were being doled out as gifts in the mid 1950s; slaves being sold in the Red Sea ports and in the UAE states in the 1970s, and a Lebanese in Sierra Leone who was supplying his compatriots in Beirut with slaves. The 1980s saw cases reported where pilgrims on Haj were tricked and sold into slavery, and Saudi Arabia probably remained the principal importer of slaves. As the millennium drew to a close, even the most fundamentalist Islamic states bowed to the inevitable and slavery was repudiated – with two exceptions – Mauretania and the Sudan.
In the former state a third of the population, the upper class, consisted of people of Arab-Berber descent; another third of the population were descendants of these and black slaves, who were culturally and politically tied to their former masters, but the remaining segment is composed of blacks from various ethnic groups, which includes an untold number of slaves. Though slavery has been abolished repeatedly in 1961 and 1980 by the government, an Anti-Slavery report from 1993 reports a continued slave-holding numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The laws seem to leave plenty of room for evasion, it would seem. Indeed, a leading imam is cited as being on record, stating that the abolition of slavery was illegal as it was contrary to the texts of the Koran, since an Islamic state had no ‘right to seize a man’s house, wife or slave’.
In the Sudan, the long-lasting civil war between the Islamic north and the animist or Christian south inevitably furthered the continuation of slavery. Incredibly the mid 1990s saw hundreds of street children kidnapped and taken to camps far north of Omdurman. Almost 300 Dinka civilians, adults and children were captured for subsequent sale, and in another auction held at Manyeil, 150 children were sold. A Swiss-based aid organization commenced a repurchase program of slaves in 1995 which resulted in the freeing of some twenty thousand souls at an average price of some $50 each by the year 2000. The evidence cited by Segal is damning. Slavery is alive and well in Darkest Africa, even into the 21st century.
I have only touched on some of the aspects that Segal has written about in great depth. He continues with a chapter focusing on the rise of Black Islamist movements in America, which raise some interesting questions as to why their adherents see Islam as their doctrine of choice – not that Christianity is more deserving of their devotions. The author presents a huge body of evidence about some thirteen centuries of Islam’s practice of slavery, and the numbers cited are certainly equal to, if not vastly in excess of the Atlantic slave trade. Yet African Moslem leaders seem to have conveniently forgotten a part of their countries’ histories; the United Nations’ authority is being blatantly disregarded, and Islam itself is challenged by this blot that survives in these two states who profess to act under its principles.