World History 2 40 - 3.3.2 Slavery on the Swahili Coast

Enslaved people were also traded in the markets of East Africa, especially on the island of Zanzibar. East African societies such as the Yao, the Marava, and the Makua regularly made war upon one another and seized captives for sale. People captured in the interior were marched to the Swahili coast and held there until buyers for them could be found, although starvation, exhaustion, and disease killed nearly three-quarters before they could be sold. The primary buyers were Arab Muslims who wanted laborers but were not allowed to enslave fellow Muslims. Most of the enslaved Africans were destined for the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere in the Middle East or North Africa, there to work as domestic servants or perform other types of labor. Some were sold as far away from their homes as India or China. Women and children were preferred for household service, but men might find themselves forced into service as soldiers, sailors, or agricultural workers.

By the seventeenth century, the slave trade on the Swahili coast had assumed enormous proportions, with an influx of traders from Oman on the Arabian Peninsula. This growth was due partly to the rise in power of European states, which prevented Muslims from capturing and enslaving people from Eastern Europe as they had often done in earlier centuries. Between the beginning and the end of the seventeenth century, the number of enslaved people sold on the Swahili coast quadrupled from roughly one thousand to four thousand per year. Some scholars report that twice that number were sold.

The activities of European slave traders, who arrived in the region beginning in the seventeenth century, quickly dwarfed those of the Muslim slavers. The Dutch East India Company purchased approximately half a million enslaved people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to work in Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese purchased enslaved people from the island of Mozambique from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries (Figure 3.16). The French enslaved more than one hundred thousand people in their Indian Ocean colonies of Réunion, Mauritius, and the Mascarene Islands, of which they took control in the eighteenth century. Even after Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and sent its ships to patrol the Indian Ocean to halt other countries’ participation in the trade, the sale of enslaved people continued. People from East Africa were also sold into slavery in the Americas.

A drawing shows ten people walking. Nine of the people walk in a line and are chained together by their necks. They carry baskets on their heads and are dressed in single pieces of cloth. A man with a beard walks next to them. He carries a gun and a sword and is fully clothed and wears a turban on his head. The ground is hard and dry and there are hills in the background.
Figure 3.16 This London News illustration by the British artist William A. Churchill, brother of the British consul in Zanzibar, shows a group of enslaved people in Zanzibar in 1889, a common sight on the Swahili coast where the slave trade flourished from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. (credit: modification of work “‘A Slave Gang in Zanzibar’ by W.A. Churchill” by London News/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax