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August 17, 2006

Slavery in the Islamic World - A Forgotten Horror Story

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The history of slavery in the Islamic world is too often ignored. William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution - argues that the story of slavery in the Islamic world should be better known.

The pattern by which Western commentators, especially Western leftists, consistently whitewash the barbarisms committed by the peoples of the Third World, and not least of all by the Islamic world, is well illustrated by the appalling history of slavery in the Islamic world. This is a subject of which most people know nothing whatever, although some people may be dimly aware that slavery existed, and may continue to exist, in the Islamic world.

Slavery in the Islamic world existed far longer than did the African-based slave trade and slavery of the Christian West, which began around 1450 and reached its peak between 1750 and 1850. Some historians have estimated that during the centuries in which the slave trade existed in the West, about one-quarter of all captured African slaves were transported to the Muslim world. All of these were pagans at the time of their enslavement, as no Muslim is (theoretically) allowed to enslave another Muslim.

The slave trade in the Islamic world entailed bringing captives from black Africa across the Sahara to the Ottoman realms. It is estimated that about 1.5 million of these slaves perished while crossing the Sahara, although their number might have been far higher. The rate at which slaves captured for enslavement in the Muslim world perished might well have been higher than the death rate on the dreaded "Middle Passage" from Africa to the Americas, which is usually estimated at about fifteen per cent of those transported. Slavery into British America was a business, and slavetraders had every vested interest in trying to keep their captives alive.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the Muslim slave trade is the fact that European Christians were frequently captured as slaves in large numbers, especially by the pirates of the much-feared Barbary coast of North Africa. According to one recent historian:

between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly and quite possibly a million and a quarter white, European Christians [enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast].
Between 1530 and 1730, remarkably [Robert C. Davis, "Counting European Slaves on the Barbary Coast", Past and Present (172), August 2001]:
nearly as many Europeans were taken forcibly to Barbary and were worked as slaves as were West Africans hauled off to labour on plantations in the America.
The real possibility of enslavement became dreaded throughout the European world and continued until Western navies became strong enough to forcibly end this barbarity.

Just before the end of Barbary slavery, some Americans were captured and enslaved. America's first overseas war was in fact fought in 1804-5 with Tripoli (now Libya) over the enslavement and holding for ransom of its citizens, a conflict which will be surprising to many. The well-known American slogan, "Millions for defence - not one cent for tribute", was coined at the time of this war. In 1815 an American squadron of eight ships killed the last great Barbary corsair leader, Rais Hamidon, freeing many Americans held in slavery. Christian slaves could be ransomed, but ransomers were compelled to pay a fortune to free the enslaved.

Although some accounts of Muslim slavery stress that it was milder than the plantation slavery known in the New World, its slaves were subjected to hazards unknown in the West. As late as the early twentieth century, eunuchs (deliberately castrated males) still presided over the harems of sultans and other local rulers. The death rate in the castration process was extraordinarily high, with some British observers claiming that 199 out of every 200 selected for castration died in the process. One British consul of the 1880s, A. B. Wylde, reported that in the mid-1880s there were 500 eunuchs in Cairo alone, which, according to him, represented "100,000 Soudanese" done to death.

Slavery in the Islamic world continued in east Africa long after it had been abolished in the West. Slavery was still legal in Saudi Arabia and Yemen until 1962, and was not legally abolished by presidential decree in Mauritania until 1980. Reportedly, slavery still exists in the Islamic world, unremarked upon by the left-wing activists who criticise America and the West without cessation.

Slavery ended in the West for a number of reasons, including the lack of economic productivity among slaves compared to free labour after industrialisation. However, the most important reason that slavery ended in the West was because ever-increasing numbers of influential people thought it morally evil and repugnant. In the British Empire, of course slavery was ended by Parliament, thanks to the activism of William Wilberforce and others. In America, slavery was ended because of a Civil War in which 600,000 men were killed. The American Civil War turned into a struggle to abolish slavery, a moral crusade possibly without equal up till that time. Slavery persisted, apparently in a milder form, in Brazil until 1889, the last major Western state to abolish it.

In complete contrast, the Islamic world has had no local abolitionists or evangelicals who struggled to abolish slavery, which is permitted by the Koran. This is, of course, a common pattern: Western liberalism and religious or secular liberal radicalism are virtually unknown under Islam.

One wonders, too, what today's Islamists think of slavery, given that it is permitted by the Koran (the Prophet Mohammed apparently owned slaves - in fairness, it must be said that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also owned slaves, and many centuries later). One wonders, even more, why the facts of slavery in the Islamic world are so little known today.

For those wishing to read more on this appalling subject, there are several relevant works, including: Ronald Segal, Islam's Black Slaves: The History of Africa's Other Black Diaspora (Atlantic Books, London, 2001); Humphrey J. Fisher, Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa (Hurst & Co., London, 2001); and Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2003).

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. The Social Affairs Unit is publishing a fully updated and revised edition of Prof. Rubinstein's seminal Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.


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I read Denis Healey's autobiography 'The Time Of My Life' a while back. As Shadow Foreign Secretary, he tours South Africa (Steve Biko takes him round Zululand) and notes the injustices of the apartheid state. All well and good.

But earlier in the book, Healey is in Abu Dhabi.

"When I visited Prince Sultan in his palace, I sat on a low cushion and was served with fragrant tea by a negro slave. Then the Prince leaned forward and asked for the latest news of Nye Bevan's illness."

At that time, slavery had been unlawful in the UK and her colonies for some 130 years. Healey makes no comment at all on the fact of slavery existing in the Gulf in 1960. It's different for "them".

Posted by: Laban at August 17, 2006 06:24 PM
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Indeed: and it would be no surprise if some kind of slave trade continues in Muslim lands.
The role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, especially off East Africa, where many hundreds of Arab dhows were boarded and their 'caargoes' freed, is also a little-commented upon story, it being necessary always to maintain the image of the British Empire as a slave-based Empire, when it was the first one to do without such squalor.

Posted by: jon gower davies at August 18, 2006 02:12 PM
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England was first to abolish domestic slavery in 1772 in the Somerset case as noted by Jeremy Black on this site:

http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000997.php

However the first legislative action to prohibit slavery may have been the American Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was limited to the future midwestern states of the USA. For the text see:

http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/nworder.htm

Posted by: rich at August 26, 2006 06:57 PM
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This is unreal! Im a college student taking World History II right now and one of my exam questions is: How did slavery in the americas differ from slavery practiced in Africa and in Muslim world?
Ive read the slave trade and muslim parts of my book repeatedly and couldnt find the answer, atleast not this straight forward. I think if this horiffic action was taken place as described on here that it would be considred History! And well honestly, i believe everyone deserves to know the truth about our history in this world. It is what in some way has shaped us to be who we are today. Thank you for this info, it defitnately wont be forgotten by me. Sadly, I dont think I can write what ive just learned for my answer because its not directly from our textbooks! =(

Posted by: dre at May 5, 2009 01:34 AM
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