Missionary or Mercenary [Part 2]: The circus of the Arab Slave Master


David Livingstone famously proclaimed of the East African slave trade,“Satan has his Seat,”.

Here bubbled the sadistic orgy of the Sultans, Arab slave masters, tribal chief accomplices and other adventurers who carved a luxurious life created on the back of spices, fabrics and other commodities but whose main valuable commodity were slaves. Below is a map via filipspagnoli.wordpress.com that shows the main slave routes of the slave trade:-


It is said that the Arabs traded more slaves than the West ever did. That their notoriety transcended color, ethnicity, or religion and affected both Arabs and non-arabs. According to one source, Muslims in Uganda even went as far as forming a political party:

“…Henry Stanley [British explorer and Journalist] wrote a letter to Britain appealing for Christian missionaries to be sent to Buganda. This received an immediate response, with generous financial donations pouring into the coffers of the Anglican missionaries of the Church Missionary Society who arrived in Uganda in 1877 as the first group of Christian missionaries. Two years later they were followed by the Catholic White Fathers lead by Father Lourdel who was called by the Bagandans ‘mapera’. But the separate Protestant and Catholic missionary efforts sadly set the stage for some of the religious conflicts to come. … When Kabaka Mutesa died in 1884, his son Mwanga was a volatile head-strong teenager who took the throne just as the complex religious rivalries in Buganda were building to a climax. Things were getting out of control. The Muslims, Catholics and Protestants had turned themselves into incipient political parties and were competing for political influences around the royal family and the court noblemen. “

According to Bernard Lewis in Race and Slavery in the Middle East, chapter 1 of which is printed here by the Fordham University, when in 1757 a new sultan, Sidi Muhammad Ill, came to the throne in Morocco:-

He decided to disband the black troops and rely instead on Arabs. With a promise of royal favor, he induced the blacks to come to Larache with their families and worldly possessions. There he had them surrounded by Arab tribesmen, to whom he gave their possessions as booty and the black soldiers, their wives, and their children as slaves. “I make you a gift,” he said, “of these ‘abid, of their children, their horses, their weapons, and all they possess. Share them among you.”

Over a hundred years later, and when the reigning Sultan himself happened to be a slave master, different dynamics were at play:

“…The Moors were by no means indifferent spectators  of their Sultan’s friendship with Europeans. They saw that these foreign advisers were likely to do  much harm to himself and his country, and on that account he soon lost the confidence of the natives, who showed their wrath against the Christians by murdering a missionary, Mr. Cooper; …The natives did not object to Christians as such; what they objected to was to see around the Sultan adventurers who were more inclined  to ruin the country than to raise it from its present degradation…”

wrote Donald Mackenzie in THE KHALIFATE OF THE WEST. Mackenzie was the founder of the British Settlement at Cape Judy and Special Commissioner for the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society for Zanzibar, East Africa, and the Red Sea. The latter organisation sprang from efforts of the likes of William Wilberforce  and Thomas Buxton (who himself was a founding member)

In a report (Report on Special Mission to Zanzibar and Pemba) published in the Manchester Guardian on August 3, 1895, Donald Mackenzie chronicles his fact-finding journey across East Africa while on commission by the Anti-slavery Society:

1. He encounters numerous Arab owned prisons of heavily chained slaves at Chaki Chaki, in Pemba. At Shamba, while visiting a plantation belonging to a Mr Cotoni, a Frenchman who had died a few years ago, he finds 100 slaves who were part of a group of 150, 50 of whom have since died
2. At Kishi Kasha, Mr Mackenzie befriends Sheikh Mohamed ben Jema ben Ali who tells him that he owns 500 slaves. Mackenzie thinks the number is more like 1000. In a valley nearby, large numbers of slaves were working in the fields. The women ran away when they saw him coming…he says

we observed them in the distance peeping behind the trees. Probably they had not seen a white man before

The Arab slave owner tells him that some of the slaves live up to the age of 70 and that mortality rate was not high, unless an epidemic striked. He notes that some Slave masters sell their slaves to traders from the Congo who sell them off to the Americas.

3. In another part of the country, he is told that sometimes the slave masters beat the slaves to death to strike terror into the minds of the others [a tactic commonly used both in Australia and Jamaica] – that the punishment of the slaves was to the masters own discretion, with no check of any sort on the part of the authorities..“and as they are all slaveholders, from the authorities downwards, they would play within each others hands.”
4. On the island of Pemba he describes the aboriginals (Wa Pemba) as slave traders who like the Arabs sell slaves and are equally cruel. He suspects that the Arabs give a bad name to Pemba to discourage westerners going there. He concludes that the presence of an English Vice Consul would go some way to keep a check to the trade and the cruelty inflicted on the slaves by their masters.
5. Next, he describes the plight of women in Pemba :

“They mix mortar, carry loads of sand, stone, or any other material, and , if hired out, they have to pay all they receive to their Arab Masters who live luxuriously on the hard earnings of these poor women.”
6 In Zanzibar he met commissioner Johnston, of Nyasaland, who “expressed his horror of the whole business and his determination to use every means in his power to put it down within the sphere of influence.”

The most striking thing though is a statement made by a Mr Pigott, who is described as an administrator of I.B.E.A, who he meets in Mombasa. Mr Pigott tells Mr Mackenzie that he has liberated many slaves but the result was unsatisfactory as they would not work. Mackenzie writes that:

“He (Pigott) was opposed to the abolition of slavery, as the slaves seemed to be perfectly happy, and, in his opinion, they seemed only fit for bondage….Mr Pigott assured me that many missionaries were of his way of thinking, and from what I heard, some of his assertions were correct, as to their (the missionaries) opinion.”

So, it seems there were quite a considerable number of missionaries who thought the natives were only good for bondage. Which probably suggests that there was in fact a well documented unwillingness to work or ‘laziness’ amongst the natives??

7. He suggests that if former “treaties and decrees [I assume this means between Imperial subjects and the Arab slave traders or tribal chiefs] had been carried out slavery would not be found in Pemba or Zanzibar“. Mackenzie categorises the slaves into 3 main groups:

(i) domestic slaves

(ii) plantation or field slaves

(iii) labourers in port towns

“The various occupations of all these different kinds of slaves is called ‘free labour’ – quite a misleading name made to suit European ears, – the only difference being that all British subjects deal with slaves direct, and not with their master [the Arab Slave masters], or they may hire from a contractor [Gosh, there were even contractors!!!] who need not necessarily be a slave-holder, but who knows where to get them. Payment is made to the slaves direct, who in turn hand to their masters half the earnings; with the other half they have to buy their own food and clothes…they have to march 12 miles a day … these slave porters are the only means of transport for our government, for missionaries and merchants between the interior of Africa and the coast. If any of them are taken ill they are left by the pathside to die, their loads are distributed among the others, and the caravan proceeds on its march without any further notice being taken of those who drop by the way. The mortality amongst them was given to me on the very highest authority at 30 percent – a terrible loss of human life. One traveller went into the interior [of Africa] a few years ago with 450 men, and he came back with only 190..

8. On the importation of slaves he says : “I am of the opinion that some 6000 slaves are imported yearly into Zanzibar and Pemba from the mainland of Africa…” he notes that “according to the report of the Select Committee on the East African Slave Trade presented to Parliament  in 1871, the export from the main land into Zanzibar and the Arabian coast amounted to upwards of 20,000 slaves per annum….The sultan is the biggest slave owner with 30,000 slaves”

Among the trading partners of the Arabs were the Ajawa (Yawo/ Yao). So unscrupulous were they that at one time, it is said that they even attacked David Livingstone.


According to this source by Shirley Madany ,

“many Africans may be unaware of the fact that Islamic traders carried on a steady slave trade from East African ports for many centuries.”

and that according to an early ninth century geographer Ibn Kurradadhbeh, there were Jewish merchants from the south of France ‘who speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish, and Slavonic. They travel from west to east and east to west, by land and sea. From the west they bring eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, sable and other furs, and swords’. However, more interestingly, she poses an interesting question: If the Arabs were active participants of the slave trade, why does the Arab world have no corresponding Black population as is found in the New World?:

‘One reason is obviously the high population of eunuchs among Black males entering the Islamic lands. Another is the high death rate and low birth rate among Black slaves in North Africa and the Middle East. In about 1810, Louis Frank observed in Tunisia that most Black children died in infancy and that infinitesimally few reached the age of manhood. A British observer in Egypt, some thirty years later, found conditions even worse. He said, ‘I have heard it estimated that five or six years are sufficient to carry off a generation of slaves, at the end of which time the whole has to be replenished’.

Looking at some of the materials I have been ruffling through, I can’t help thinking that in the late 19th century and early 20th century (which was hundreds of years into the Slave Trade – and by then the British public’s view on it had changed), actually it may be the case that Britain HAD to colonise Southern Africa to have any chance of freeing it from Slavery most perpetrated by the Arabs (and others) because even after the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 within the British Empire, slavery itself lingered in most parts of Africa. The British even went as far as appointing a Special Anti-Slavery Commissioner for East Africa.

This view is largely confirmed by Wallace G Mills, who in Christian Missions and their Impact writes about the situation in South Africa:

“.. many of the early missionaries were prepared to take political action on behalf of indigenous people they believed to be treated unjustly. This became a matter of debate among missionaries even in the same mission society as some felt that certain missionaries became too involved politically …on the first, they tried to remonstrate with and affect policies of the colonial government in Cape Town. When that failed, they took their appeals and activities to Britain, enlisting the so-called ‘philanthropic’ pressure groups (anti-slavery groups, aborigines protection societies and mission societies) on their side…on the second, they tried to reduce conflict and disunity within indigenous society as mediators and advisors; also, they assisted African leaders in negotiations with gov’t in Cape Town (especially to get the latter to restrain and control the whites who were pressing in search of new land)….later, after the Great Trek, missionaries began to switch in their goals. Threatened by trekboer pressures, missionaries felt that control by the imperial gov’t was the least evil option

What is more disturbing though are reports that Arab led slavery still persists up to this day. According to an article by Samuel Cotton titled “Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery “:

…In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, black Africans continue to be enslaved by their Arab-Berber masters. Although slavery was declared abolished three times since Mauritania’s independence in 1960, it persists. Slaves are given as wedding gifts, traded for camels, guns or trucks, and inherited. The children of slaves belong to the master and slaves who displease their masters or attempt escapes are tortured in the most brutal manner imaginable.

In Sudan, Africa’s largest country, the Islamic Republic of the Sudan, as a result of an Islamic-vs.-Christian civil war, black women and children (mostly Christian) are captured in raids on their villages and sold as chattel slaves, sometimes, according to the UN in “modern-day slave markets.”

He goes on to quote  an executive of American Anti-slavery Group who says:
“Black Africans in Mauritania were converted to Islam more than 100 years ago,”  [and]. . .”the Koran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, but in this country race outranks religious doctrine. . . Though they are Muslims, these people are chattel: used for labor, sex and breeding.”

Obviously, exploring such a diverse and somewhat multi-faceted subject can be tricky without heading off in tangents in terms of providing a sober + concise summary from the haystack of references. But somehow, after browsing through all these sources, I’m beginning to realise why I’m not entirely surprised with what is currently happening in Mali.

Other references:

The Arab Muslim Slave Trade of Africans



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