The Other African Diaspora: Islam's Black Slaves

From the New York Times, "Human Cargo: A study of the little-known slave trade in the Islamic world," by Adam Hochschild, on 4 March 2001 -- Early on in ''Islam's Black Slaves,'' his history of slavery in the Muslim world, Ronald Segal cites some estimates. One scholar puts the rough total at 11.5 million slaves during more than a dozen centuries, and another at 14 million. We will never know the precise number, of course, but it is striking that these two figures neatly bracket many scholars' estimates for the much-better-documented Atlantic slave trade. So why in the West today do we generally pay so little attention to Islamic slavery? One reason, suggests Segal, a South African-born editor and the author of ''The Black Diaspora,'' is that in the Muslim world slavery never became the publicly fought moral and political issue that it did in the United States and Europe.

Islamic slavery began long before the Atlantic slave trade, and its purposes were largely different. Although some slaves were put to work in the fields, they were more valued as items of conspicuous consumption. The Muslim elite wanted them as guards and soldiers, as concubines, as cooks, as musicians and simply to show how rich they were: a 10th-century caliph of Baghdad had 11,000 slaves at his palace.

The boundary between slavery and freedom, or at least between slavery and power, was much more fluid than in the West. The Ottoman sultan commonly married off his daughters and sisters to slaves, and in this and many other Islamic regimes, slaves or former slaves reached astonishingly high positions. Baybars, a former Turkish slave, led an army that defeated a Mongol invasion of Egypt in 1260; there were other slave generals as well. An Ethiopian slave became vizier to the sultan of Delhi and later governor of a province. A caliph who ruled in Egypt for most of the 11th century was the son of a black slave concubine. A Slavic slave -- not all slaves were Africans -- was governor of Valencia in Islamic Spain.

ISLAM'S BLACK SLAVES: The Other Black Diaspora, By Ronald Segal.

All this will seem strange to many American eyes. Apparently the reason monarchs made so many slaves high officials was that they were dependably loyal -- more so than members of rival clans or leaders with local constituencies. But how can you be loyal to someone who has deprived you of your freedom? This is a mystery Segal does not explore.

Indeed, freedom was not the only thing slaves lost. Many of the males were eunuchs. A still larger number, in the long centuries before modern surgery, did not survive the slash of the knife. Eunuchs' jobs included, among other things, guarding harems. But much more mystifying is the honor accorded to senior eunuchs. Many were among those governors and generals, and under the Ottomans, one black eunuch was chief administrator of Mecca and Medina. In the late 19th century, an observer noticed that ''when any eunuch . . . enters one of the tramcars in Stamboul, all the Turks who may happen to be in the vehicle immediately rise, salaam profoundly and remain standing till the great man has chosen a seat.'' Did the fact that the ''great man's'' owner was the sultan outweigh his status as a slave? Or did his being a eunuch contribute to his status, as celibacy, in a way, does to the status of a Roman Catholic priest? Segal again leaves us in the dark here.

The last two chapters of the book bring the story up to the present, and appropriately so. One is about how slavery continues in some Islamic countries today, especially Sudan and Mauritania. In the case of Mauritania, some of the fault lies with its former colonizers, the French: Segal points out how they reached a quiet accommodation with slaveholders, rather than risk rebellions from the local power structure. His final chapter looks at the rise of the Nation of Islam in the United States, some of whose members might be disillusioned if they read this book. Their attraction to Islam is easy enough to understand: it seemed an alternative to Christianity, under whose auspices Atlantic slavery and then segregation flourished. But the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend is no better a principle in religion than in politics.

A Chief Eunuch to the Sultan

In the end, neither Christianity nor Islam is that different from most other major religions, which usually remain major because they sanctify whatever is the social structure of the day. And for centuries that structure was one of slavery. As Seymour Drescher, one of the finest historians of abolition, puts it, just 200 years ago ''personal bondage was the prevailing form of labor in most of the world. . . . Freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.'' Servitude stretched from serfdom in Russia to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean to the indigenous slave systems in Africa that supplied both the Arabian and Atlantic trades. The surprise is less that major religions justified these horrors than that, after historically so short a time, they officially do so no longer.

Segal deserves great credit for putting the history of Islamic slavery on the record in a carefully documented way. Sadly, the significance of the story is not matched by the skill of the telling. ''Islam's Black Slaves'' reads like a string of encyclopedia entries. Names of caliphs, emirs, sultans and slaves flow by in a relentless torrent. None emerge as memorable characters. There is an equally confusing blizzard of place names; Segal mentions the Fezzan several times, for example, before saying it is in southern Libya. We reach Page 133 before encountering a full-fledged eyewitness description that brings a scene alive -- a British officer's vivid picture of an 1819 slave caravan making the long, perilous trek across the Sahara. Segal quotes only a few such accounts, which is surprising because 19th-century Europeans wrote dozens of them. Explorers justified Europe's great colonial land grab in Africa by a flood of indignant firsthand exposés of the slave trade to the Arab world.

A Chief Eunuch, 1875

Segal never bothers with even the most basic storytelling devices, like following a typical African from capture to transport across the desert to sale as a slave. And finally, he quotes barely a word from any of these millions of Islamic slaves. This seems puzzling, because it appears that they were more likely to be literate than their counterparts in the Americas. Did not a single one of all these slave governors, viziers and generals write his memoirs, send a personal letter or talk to a biographer? If not, that in itself calls for explanation. Otherwise it leaves too big a silence at the heart of such an important story. (source: New York Times)


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