Scholars focus on the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade

Scholars from universities in and outside Africa gathered in the Nigerian city of Calabar recently to examine the role of Arab merchants in the trans-Saharan slave trade, which lasted for 17 centuries. For various reasons, the trans-Saharan slave trade – unlike trans-Atlantic slavery – is under-studied.

The international seminar was organised by UNESCO and the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation, or CBAAC, a Nigerian government agency.

Papers presented agreed that both slave trades were unprecedented in history and responsible for the deportation of millions of Africans to various parts of the world.

The participants also considered both slave trades to be crimes against humanity as defined by United Nations resolutions flowing from the 2001 Durban conference on racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia.

Nigerian representatives in UNESCO have for decades urged member countries to examine the Atlantic and trans-Saharan slave trades as a key reason for under-development in Africa.

It was major historical works on this issue by historians like Professor Ade Ajayi of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo of the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, that finally convinced UNESCO leaders to wake up to the organisation's historical responsibilities to Africa.

As a response to ongoing pressure from Haiti, Nigeria and other Sub-Saharan countries, and Caribbean and South American representatives, UNESCO’s general conference at its 27th session in 1993 approved the Slave Routes Project.

This is a vast research project whose aim, among other things, is to break the silence over one of humanity’s greatest tragedies and also to promote pluralism and intercultural dialogue among nations on the subject.

Armed with the UNESCO mandate Tunde Babawale, a professor at the University of Lagos and director-general of CBAAC, last year organised an international conference, “Slavery, Slave Trade and its Consequences”, at Iloko-Ijesha in Nigeria.

“Many of the papers presented at that conference focused mainly on the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Babawale said. “Many participants felt that there was need to also focus on the trans-Saharan slave trade. As a scholar I felt that we should also do justice to the other leg of slave routes."

The Nigerian delegation at UNESCO was able to convince the Paris-based UN organisation’s scientific committee on the Slave Route Project to host one of its international conferences in Nigeria. And Calabar, an ancient slave port, was chosen as the location for the event titled “Slave Trade and Slavery in the Arab Islamic World: Untold tragedy and shared heritage”.

In his opening address Toyin Falola, a professor of history at the University of Texas – Austin in the US and vice-chair of the UNESCO committee, affirmed that the seminar was not aimed at casting aspersions on any religion or culture.

“This gathering of researchers is to focus more on promoting research and initiatives on slave trade and slavery in regions insufficiently covered, within Africa and the Arab-Muslim world among others,” he declared.

Common strands

Despite the vast and complex nature of the various papers presented by scholars, there were common strands among them.

Slavery and slave trading are among the oldest economic modes of production in history. Domestic slavery existed in Africa before the advent of externally motivated slave trades by Arabs and Europeans.

The lifespan of slavery varied from one continent to the other.

Africa’s domestic slavery was fuelled by demands for slaves to work in plantations and mines in the Americas, North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and South East Asia including China and Japan. Some African kings became active suppliers of Africans as slaves to international European and Arab slave merchants.

The trans-Saharan slave trade commenced late in the 7th century when Abdallah Ben Said, the King of Islamised Egypt, conquered via Jihad the Sudan – “the land of infidels” – and in 652 imposed on Sudanese King Khalidurat a treaty known as Bakht.

One of the clauses of the treaty was the compulsory annual supply by the Sudanese king of hundreds of African slaves to the Muslim king of Egypt. The European trans-Atlantic slave trade took off 10 centuries later, in 1693.

Some of the seminar participants affirmed that while the trans-Atlantic slave trade lasted for four centuries (1693-1884), the trans-Saharan slave trade continued for 17 centuries (652-1960).

There were similarities between the slave trades. Some Arab scholars, such as Ibn Khaldun, justified the trans-Saharan slave trade by interpreting some sections of the Koran that ‘authorised’ the enslavement of African ‘infidels’ by Arab slave merchants, the ‘chosen race’.

And some European scholars supported the trans-Atlantic slave trade by making copious references to the book of Genesis in the Bible. Consequently, slavery was not the product of racism. However, racism was one consequence of slavery.

The participants agreed that both slave routes were responsible for the migration of millions of Africans to other parts of the world. The statistics of deported Africans remain highly controversial among scholars.

One participant referred to the book Le Genocide Viole, written by the Senegalese historian and anthropologist Tidiane N’Diaye, who, using various sources, estimated that the trans-Atlantic slave trade deported some 20 million people while the trans-Saharan slave trade displaced around 10 million Africans.


Two issues were not given prominence by the participants: women slaves and male castration.

The perpetuation of African slaves was fundamentally assured by women slaves who were indiscriminately coupled to men without their consent.

Castration of numbers of male slaves by Arab merchants was a prominent feature of the trans-Saharan slave trade.

Castrated male slaves were purchased by rich Arab kings and princes and employed as security agents to protect harems where their wives and concubines were caged. The castration process described in Tidiane N’Diaye’s book is inhumane.

Slavery creates permanent violent conflicts between the slave and the master. Salah Trebelsi, a historian at the University of Lyon in France, gave a graphic description of revolts by African slaves in Iraq between the seventh and the ninth centuries.

A common feature across papers was the perpetuation and preservation of modified African cultures, religions, medicine and music by descendants of African slaves in Arab and Muslin countries.

An illustration of this cultural resistance by descendants of African slaves in Iran was captured in a paper by Behnaz Mirzai of Brock University in Canada, “Africans in Baluchistan: Acculturation and healing rituals”.

A major resolution adopted by conference participants was the need to create a network of researchers on the slave trade and slavery in the Arab and Islamic worlds. A similar network has already been created by UNESCO around the trans-Atlantic slave trade.