Contact between the peoples who live north and south of the Sahara Desert dates back to approximately 1000BCE. Tentative at the beginning, trade between these peoples became systematic and sophisticated over the centuries, especially following the introduction of the camel by the Romans in the first century. This animal, so well suited physiologically and physically to the inclement Saharan environment, revolutionized the trade. By the eleventh century, a network of caravan trade routes across the desert had emerged. In general, the importance of the routes shifted from west to east according to political changes in the Sahara and the western Sudan.
During the Carthagenian and Roman eras in North Africa, the main exports from the western Sudan were precious stones, elephant tusks, and ostrich feathers. The Romans had other sources of gold and slaves, such as Britain and the Balkan countries. In the seventh century, the Arabs emerged as the dominant power in North Africa and spearheaded the spread of militant Islam. The trade across the Sahara entered a new period of sustained growth characterized by swelling demand for slaves in the Muslim cities of North Africa and the Levant, where slaves were used as domestic help, laborers, and soldiers in state armies.
One of the earliest sources of direct evidence of slave export from the western Sudan across the Sahara comes from al-Yakub, a ninth-century Arab writer who observed that Berber traders from Kawar brought back black slaves from Kanem to Zawila, the capital of Fezzan. In the twelve century, Ibn Battuta witnessed a trans-Saharan caravan of 600 black women slaves. Although Ghana’s foreign trade was dominated by gold, many merchants from the Maghrib still went there to buy slaves. Kumbi had a famous market kept fully supplied through raids on its southern neighbors. On his much publicized pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, Mansa Musa’s entourage included about 500 slaves. He returned to Mali with 30 Turks to serve as royal slaves. Leo Africanus described how Muslim traders from North Africa traversed the Sahara to Borno kingdom to trade horses for slaves. Their arrival sent the Borno king raiding neighboring kingdoms for slaves to exchange for the horses. On that occasion, the traders had to wait for a year until the king procured a sufficient number of slaves to exchange for their horses. Slaves continued to serve as the single most important export of Borno across the Sahara well into the nineteenth century.
From the seventh century on, raids between Christians and Muslims became characteristic of cross-Mediterranean warfare. These produced slave harvests, and became a favorable source for the Muslims of southern Spain. Black slave soldiers in the army of Almoravid Seville were noted for their bravery. Christian recrudescence in the Mediterranean in the twelfth century led to the capture of a growing number of blacks of western Sudanese origins. In the wake of the Crusade, Italian merchants of Venice and Genoa established sugar plantations on a number of Mediterranean islands. Initially the plantations were supplied with labor, especially slaves, from central Europe, the steppes of Asia, and Africa. From the eleventh century on, the European and Asian sources all but dried up, as the Slavic peoples became Christianized and no longer sold to Muslims, and as the Turkish peoples embraced Islam and were thereby exempted from enslavement. As was to be the case in the Americas, Africa became the main source of labor for the plantations. North African trans-Saharan merchants intensified their drive for Sudanese slaves.
Due to a lack of firm statistical data, it is difficult to provide a satisfactory assessment of the number of slaves siphoned across the Sahara from the Sudan, and also the impact of the population hemorrhage on the communities involved. It has been estimated that, during the Middle Ages, a total of 2 million slaves were exported across the Sahara. Lewicki has guestimated that between 12 and 15 million slaves passed through Cairo in the sixteenth century. Since a substantial proportion of these passed through Tripoli and Algiers, they were probably brought across the Sahara.
Given their conjectural nature, it is best not to make much out of these numbers. A few million slaves were likely transported from the Sudan across the Sahara to North Africa and the Levant by the end of the eighteenth century. The absence of black populations in North Africa and the Levant may well underscore the relatively small scale of the trans-Saharan slave trade. But it should be borne in mind that, unlike in America and the Caribbeans, the African slaves were denied the power and the opportunity to reproduce.
The popular tendency to assess the impact of the slave trade with an emphasis on numbers tends to ignore and underplay the miseries and the indignities to which the victims were subjected, as well as the societal dislocations the slave-induced raids and wars caused. Many Sudanese Muslim states raided nonMuslim or nominally Muslim communities at will for slaves, inevitably causing devastation and the disruption of normal life. The sale of consumer—often perishable and meretricious—goods in exchange for virile labor could not have brought any tangible benefits to the slave-exporting communities. And no meaningful economic progress could be made when the most virile segment of the population was constantly skimmed off. Moreover, the capture and sale of slaves created a climate of fear and nurtured a culture of violence, as stronger states preyed upon weaker ones. The system not only brutalized and dehumanized the enslaved, it robbed the slavers themselves of sensitivity to human suffering.
Two features of the trans-Saharan trade appear more repulsive than those of the transatlantic. First, the overwhelming majority of the slaves were young women, the most reproductive segment of society. A large proportion of the remainder were male children under 15 years of age. Second, a large number of the male slaves were made eunuchs through gelding. In North Africa and the Levant, the keeping of large harems by the higher classes in the society provided a steady demand for males who could be trusted with nubile women. The main centers of demand were Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Mecca, Medina, Jeddah, and Smyrna. At first these centers were supplied from the Balkans, Asia, and then the western Sudan. But from the eleventh century until the end of trade in the nineteenth, the western Sudan became the main source of supply. Thus by the seventeenth century, the most famous of all the harems in the Near and Middle East, the Ottoman Sultan’s Seraglio at Constantinople, was staffed entirely by gelded Africans. Castration centers existed in the Mossi country, in Damagaram (Niger Republic), in Borno (Northeast Nigeria), and, especially Baghirmi (Chad Republic).
In comparison with their counterparts in the Americas and the Caribbean, much ado has been made of the relative leniency of slave owners in North Africa and the Near East. Greatly trusted because they could not produce progeny, slave eunuchs rose to high positions of state authority. However, it must be remembered that castration was an excruciatingly painful operation. Extensive hemorrhage which could not be stopped by traditional cauterization was rampant, and produced high mortality rates.
The journeys across the Sahara were one of the most hazardous enterprises in the world. All the travelers, both free and enslaved, faced severe privations and physical dangers. Sandstorms were a common occurrence and sometimes built up pyramids of sand that could bury alive an entire caravan. They could also obliterate caravan routes, causing travelers to lose their way. Whirling sand particles sometimes covered valuable oases, smote the eyes, and blistered the skin. The temperatures fluctuated wildly: in the day they could get up to 110°F, occasioning acute thirst and asphyxiation; at night they could drop to as low as 20oF. Not surprisingly, many caravan routes were found to be strewn with hundreds of human and animal skeletons. To these problems posed by nature were added those caused by marauding bands. The desert-dwelling nomads, especially the Berbers, often lived off the pillage of travelers crossing the Sahara.
In addition to these general perils, there were others to which slaves alone were exposed. While the traders were clothed and mounted on camels and horses, the slaves traveled naked and barefoot, and were chained around their necks and burdened with heavy loads on their heads. The hot sand and rugged tracks blistered their bare feet, while the severe heat in the day and the cold in the night took heavy tolls on them. Naturally, the slaves were the first to suffer from exhaustion and fatigue. Those who became too incapacitated to continue the trek were abandoned after whipping had failed to get them to their feet. When a caravan ran short of food and water, the slaves were the first to be excluded fom such rations. Not surprisingly, the mortality rate among them was quite high, estimates varying widely from 20 to 90 per cent.
Onwuka N. Njoku
See also: Africanus, Leo; Berbers: Ancient North Africa; Borno (Bornu), Sultanate of: Saifawa Dynasty: Horses, Slaves, Warfare; Carthage; Ibn Battuta, Mali Empire and; Kanem: Slavery and Trans-Saharan Trade; Mansa Musa, Mali Empire and; North Africa: Roman Occupation, Empire; Sahara: Trans-Saharan Trade; Sijilmasa, Zawila: Trans-Saharan Trade; Tuareg: Takedda and TransSaharan Trade.
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