Rattling Chains (Part 1)

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Destination Magazine

Rattling Chains by Rachel Loveland with further research by Wycliffe Muga

There’s a hole in the side of Africa, where the walls will speak if you only listen. Walls that tell a tale so sad, that the tears on the cheeks of Africa glisten. Stand and hear a million slaves tell you how they walked so far. That many died in misery, while the rest were sold in Zanzibar Shimoni, oh Shimoni: You have to find the answer and the answer has been written down in Shimoni. Roger Whittaker, “Shimoni” 1983

Traditionally, much has been made of the Atlantic slave trade, which saw the forced translocation of West Africans to the Americas by Europeans. However, the Arab slave trade, the epicentre of which was Zanzibar, tends to fade into insignificance in comparison to the much-debated issue of American slavery.

In January of this year, Tanzanian scientists announced they had discovered evidence that slavery existed as a flourishing trade form in East Africa, from as early as the 13th century.

Yet recent scientific discoveries point to the fact that slavery in East Africa predates the West Coast trade by centuries. Genetic findings have shown that there exists in the Arab world a 2,500-year-old-female mediated gene flow, illustrating that African women existed in the Arab population, especially Yemen, for several thousand years. From this, historians infer that due to the dynamics of gender and conquest (whereby conquering men impregnate conquered women, thus perpetuating the African line overseas) the Arab slave trade must be one of the earliest examples of forced exodus of Africans from Africa. The trade of slaves from East Africa across the Indian Ocean has firm roots in the 9th century control of sea routes by Arab and Persian traders (though as indicated above it may greatly precede this), who made their way to the coast of East Africa, first obtaining slaves from Mogadishu, in Somalia, and Sofala, in Mozambique. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, these Arab and Persian traders established settlements along the East African coast, forming the Swahili culture. Zanzibar, as the gateway to the east, became East Africa’s main slave-trading port, with most routes concluding there, including the route from Ujiji, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, across 1200 kilometres to Bagamoyo, opposite Zanzibar on the coast of mainland Tanzania. Slaves were taken to be auctioned at the Zanzibar markets, where they were stripped naked and inspected by potential buyers, particularly if the buyer intended them for sexual enslavement. Women and girls were frequently taken to secluded locations to be intimately examined. Those that did not sell were killed. Once bought, they were taken oversees to be sold in other slave markets in the Persian Gulf or India. However, there was a colony of Arab merchants in Canton, China, who sold Africans to many well-todo Canton families.

A Forgotten Past

During the 18th and 19th centuries, as plantation agriculture developed, so too did the demand for African slaves. The clove plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba set up by Sultan Seyyid Said required slave labour, as did the French who had started sugar and coffee plantations in Mauritius and Reunion. However, slaves captured in East Africa, were not confined to plantations; they also worked as sailors in Persia, pearl divers in the Gulf, soldiers in the Omani army and on the salt pans in Mesopotamia (Iraq). In January of this year, Tanzanian, scientists announced they had discovered evidence that slavery existed as a flourishing trade form in East Africa, from as early as the 13th Century. Professor Edward Mgema uncovered more than 42 sites along the coast near Tanga that appear to be old slave trading depots, which are likely to have been used for half a millennia. Mgema’s findings, coupled with the genetic evidence above, certainly challenge the Atlantic-centric view of African slavery. It would appear that the trade in Africans began in East Africa and it is likely that over the centuries, this is where the greatest numbers of Africans were captured and sold. It is therefore surprising that, on the international stage, the Arab slave trade of East Africa would seem to have been all but forgotten.

Further questions are raised by the growing numbers of continental Africans and diasporan Africans (those whose ancestors were forcibly removed from the continent) pursuing financial redress for the slave trade. In 2001 Durban hosted the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Delegations from around the world discussed the sensitive issue of the “Provision of effective remedies, recourses, redress, compensatory, and other measures, at the national, regional, and international levels,” in particular as they pertained to the slave trade. Notably, there was much debate about the meaning of “compensatory.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, African nations called for “compensatory” to equate to “financial.” They demanded apologies and reparations from Britain and America for the slave trade. But what of the Arab role in slavery?

Similarly, in 2006, the Pan-African Reparations Forum held a conference in Ghana to demonstrate that “without true reparations and pan-African unity in this contemporary world of heightening imperialist globalisation, there is no viable solution to any problems faced by continental and diasporan Africans in all spheres of life.” The implication is that despite the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, many contemporary Africans blame the slave trade for today’s problems. And yet, neither Panref or the UN delegations in Durban alluded to the East African slave trade and those responsible for it. Was this to say that Africans only feel the scars of West Coast slavery?

“Rattling Chains” continues tomorrow…

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Rachel Loveland with further research by Wycliffe Muga.

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