The death toll in the Middle East Slave Trade, which lasted from the seventh to the 19th century, was 18 million Africans. In his book, Atrocities, scholar and librarian Matthew White ranks this eighth of the 100 deadliest episodes in human history. The Atlantic Slave Trade, which lasted from 1452 to 1807, cost the lives of 16 million Africans and is ranked tenth in White’s tally.
Slavery existed in Africa long before the arrival of Arab slavers. In a continent with no plantation crops or livestock, a man’s wealth was measured by his slaves. These slaves were often men who had been defeated in wars, but there were many other rationales for slavery—debt, witchcraft, sex with a ruler’s wives, incitement against a ruler and so on. Historian Paul Lovejoy, in his book, Transformations in Slavery, notes in the southern and central Igbo districts, “Parents sold their own children because of debts, laziness and insubordination.”
The sub-Saharan Slave Trade transformed slavery into a commercial activity, with consequently higher death rates. This does not mean indigenous African slavery was much less worse. Far from being benign, slaves existed outside the kinship system which was the foundation of most West and East African societies. When a powerful man died, slaves were often sacrificed at his funeral, as well as on other religious occasions and public events.
Ironically—or perhaps “ignorantly” would be a more appropriate term—Afrocentrists like to claim Afro-Caribbeans are the descendants of kings and queens. But, as Lovejoy notes: “Strongmen, government officials, wealthy merchants, and military leaders controlled large followings of slaves, junior kinsmen, pawns, women and clients. This group of powerful men formed the nucleus of a class society in which relatively few people dominated the instruments of warfare, commercial credit, and the means of production.”
These middlemen controlled the African Slave Trade. By the tenth century, Arabs had established trading posts on the coast that reached as far south as present-day Tanzania. But these posts were mostly on offshore islands. Similarly, European traders who came in the 15th century were barred from the interior by African rulers and by diseases deadly to white people, and so had only coastal ports from which they traded on terms established by African officials. Moreover, even at the height of the slave trade, there were more slaves within Africa than exported.
Many of the African slave traders had incorporated the Islamic perspective on slavery, with the Swahili, for example, being descendants of Muslim merchants in East Africa. Militant Islam held that military conquest and enslavement were acceptable method of conversion to “the religion of peace”, and major slave states such as Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Kanem, Sennar and Adal were all infiltrated by Islam. For the Atlantic Slave Trade, the major supplying nations were Ashanti, Benin, Oyo, Dahomey, Kongo and Lunda.
Of all the slaves who left Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Muslim trade accounted for about 40 per cent. Unlike the Atlantic Slave Trade, Middle East slaves were mostly women and children, and historians estimate a quarter of them died on the trans-Saharan route.
For the Atlantic Slave Trade, around ten to 14 per cent of enslaved Africans died during the inland journey; another six to ten per cent died in the ports; ten to 15 per cent died on the Middle Passage; and about 30 per cent died in the first year after arriving in the Americas. So three slaves died for every two who were transported.
Slavery was abolished in the West in the 19th century. But the practice continued to flourish well into the 20th century in Africa and the Middle East, with governments in those regions being the last to declare slavery illegal.