Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Destination Magazine
Rattling Chains by Rachel Loveland with further research by Wycliffe Muga
A Dirty Business
Despite evidence to the contrary, it is impossible to ignore the sheer volume of the Arab slave trade. Although records are hard to come by, historians have estimated that between 11 and 18 million Africans were transported east. Horrifyingly, this was reckoned to be only twenty percent of those captured by the slave traders; the estimated death toll of the Arab slave trade (including victims of the Trans Saharan as well as the East African trade) is posited at over 112 million Africans.
There are accounts of shackled slaves being thrown to the sharks when the boats on which they were being transported were pursued by the British abolitionists or if high winds were causing instability in the boat.
Such massive depopulation arguably had a huge demographic impact. Roughly two-thirds of the slaves taken to the Arab world were female, many of whom were enslaved in Arabian harems. Frequently impregnated by their Arab masters, any child born of those unions was born free, heirs to the wealth of their Arab fathers, and assimilated into Arab culture. With the same rights as Arabs, many of these Afro-Arabs attained great power and influence through the station of their fathers. Their enslaved mothers were bestowed with the title of umm walad, “mother of a child,” which heightened their status so they could no longer be sold. The mothers were then freed upon the death of their Sunni masters or, amongst the Shi’a, they were freed if their child was still alive. The value of the umm walad was then deducted from her child’s share of the inheritance.
Young boys sold to Arab traders were usually castrated, “based on the assumption that the blacks had an ungovernable sexual appetite,” thus rendering them infertile. Conducted without the use of an anaesthetic, the process was horrific with a sixty percent mortality rate. Those that did survive the initial disfigurement and the sealing of the wound with hot coals grew up to be revered and lead a life of comfort, bestowed with gifts and luxuries, including silks and race horses to reflect the wealth of their masters. These eunuch slaves were seen as an elite, serving as guards and caretakers of mosques, or working in administration. As a result, they were the most expensive of slaves to buy.
Consequently African culture was quickly absorbed into an Arab one, causing a huge loss of cultural heritage, leaving a vacuum which was filled instead with a culture of racism. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a pre-eminent Islamic historian wrote, “The Negro nations are as a rule submissive to slavery because they have attributes that are quite similar to dumb animals.”
Economically speaking, such loss of numbers severely impacted the labour force, resulting in a long-term effect on growth. Some have suggested that for this reason, Africa has been left perpetually disadvantaged when compared to other economies and that the slave trade is directly attributable to continued poverty in parts of Africa today. Maulana Karenga, Professor of African Studies at California State University, believes the effects of the slave trade were “the morally monstrous destruction of human possibility [involving] redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among people of today.”
Missionary explorer David Livingstone brought to light the all-tooreal, living enactment of this “morally monstrous destruction of human possibility” in his account of the East African slave trade (Missionary Travels and Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi):
“To overdraw its evils is a simple impossibility…We passed a slave woman shot or stabbed through the body and lying on the path. [Onlookers] said an Arab who passed early that morning had done it in anger at losing the price he had given for her, as she was unable to walk any longer…One woman had her infant’s brains knocked out because she could not carry her load and it; and a man was dispatched with an axe because he had broken down with fatigue.” Others documented roads littered with those who had collapsed from sheer exhaustion and were waiting to die, many of whom became lion fodder.
The grandparents of Clotilda Joseph, an elderly resident of Bagamoyo, were captured in the fields of Banda, a small village near Lake Niasa, by Arab traders and subjected to barbaric treatment in the caravan that brought them east. She tells how the slaves were restrained by shackles which were looped through holes drilled into their ankles and how those that held up the caravan had their heads cut off. Happily for Clotilda’s grandparents, they were ransomed and freed by the Roman Catholic Spiritian mission at Bagamoyo and lived in the Freedom Village there, which was set up by Father Anthony Horner in 1868. The infamous slave caves at Shimoni, on Kenya’s southern coast, also pay testament to the inhuman treatment captured Africans faced. After climbing down steep ladders into the dark, dank caves, the ladders were removed to keep the slaves trapped in this “holding pen,” often for two or three weeks at a time. Mr. Herman Kiriama, Head of Coastal Archaeology at National Museums of Kenya, said that the fragments of iron recovered during extensive excavation lend weight to the theory that the slaves were shackled to the walls by their necks, whilst waiting to be transported in boats to the slave markets at Zanzibar.
Yet many did not even survive the voyage from Kenya. There are accounts of shackled slaves being thrown to the sharks when the boats on which they were being transported were pursued by the British abolitionists or if high winds were causing instability in the boat. Many drowned due to the difficulty of trying to swim whilst in shackles.
“Rattling Chains” continues tomorrow…
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Rachel Loveland with further research by Wycliffe Muga.