Fettered by Enlightenment: Muslim and European Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade is known as one of the main sins of western civilization, a fact frequently mentioned by its critics, above all in the Muslim world. However, as anti-Islamic circles recently began to argue, the Arabs traded African slaves long before (and after) the Europeans. Was the Muslim slave trade truly similar to the European one, and if not- what were the differences between the two? As we shall see, western enlightenment made the European slave trade much crueler, but also brought it to a relatively early end. And what does it have to do with the way we sweeten our tea, and with counting of calories?


Two weeks ago, on Sunday, I opted for a short respite from my dissertation research at the National Archives, London, and ventured into the infamous “speakers’ corner” at Hyde Park. Always keen to hear the latest news from the clowns and eccentrics congregating there, I was moving between the different speakers, gathering anecdotes and curiosities. This time, the preacher who used to blame all difficulties in the world on free masons (and Jews) was absent, and the stage was left for Islamic and anti-Islamic demagogues happily clashing with one another.

Most interesting of them all was a black Christian preacher, who spoke with a shining blue-white Israeli flag behind him. He did not only blame Muslims for their usual sins (for example, not believing in Jesus), but also added an interesting accusation: Muslim invented black slavery, only to be imitated belatedly, and shortly, by the whites. The speech, as one may expect, aroused quite angry reactions from Muslim apologetics in the audience. As usual in Hyde Park, “yell and be yelled upon” was the norm, and the debate soon deteriorated into senseless chaos. Most of the apologetics were even less impressive than the preacher. The noisiest of them, a bald youth with blazing eyes, denied (in unimaginable ignorance) that Muslims ever traded slaves. Another soon made an escape, saying that “his child is bored”, and yet a third one- a black Muslim from Ghana, only mumbled incomprehensible Quranic verses.

An anti-Muslim preacher in Hyde Park, London: Did the Muslims “invent” black slavery?

Islamic and anti-Islamic demagoguery aside, the question raised by this Christian African preacher is far from being an uninteresting one. What were the differences, and similarities, between the western and Muslim slave trades? The answer, as usual, is complex. Both forms of slavery were of course similar, in the sense of treating human beings as goods, both were degrading, and each one had certain points of cruelty in which it “excelled” over the other. However, and this is the bitterest irony of all, western slave trade turned to be crueler and much more destructive, not in spite of western enlightenment, but vice versa, because of western enlightenment.

Undoubtedly, the Muslim slave trade was an old institution, much older than the western one. Its roots are in the Middle Ages, in the thriving slave markets of Baghdad, Cairo and North Africa. The human merchandize to be sold there came not only from black Africa, but from all over the world. A slave in the Muslim world could be anyone who happened to be born non-Muslim: Caucasians and central Asians, European whites (including Englishmen and Irish), Armenians, Balkan people and so forth.

The number of black slaves kidnapped from Africa is controversial among scholars, from a “few” millions throughout 1200 years, from the eighth to the twentieth centuries, to 25 million. It is important to note that due to scarce evidence, most of these assessments are mere assumptions rather than fact-bound, provable statistics. It is clear, though, that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the number of kidnapped blacks rose, due to the extensive slave trade of the Ottomans and their vassals in the Horn of Africa. In some Muslim countries the slave trade was banned by western colonial powers, and in others it survived deep into the twentieth century. Qatari notables who were invited to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, for example, came there with their retinue of slaves. Slavery in Saudi Arabia persisted into the 1960s, and in other countries, such as Mauritania and Sudan, informal trade in human beings has been going on ever since.

representation of a Middle Eastern slave market


Just like the western slave trade (a point often denied by Muslim apologetics), the Arab slave trade utilized racist notions for ideological legitimation. Blacks, according to this point of view, were inherently inferior to Arabs. This is well present in Arab folk tales, always a good way to capture cultural moods. In One Thousands and One Nights, numerous tales make the point of black inferiority and Arab superiority. In the “Tale of the Enchanted Youth“, for example, the black slave is yelling at his beautiful, rich mistress, treating her as his slave in all by name:

 “Thou liest, O accursed one!” said the black, “and I swear by the valour of the blacks (else may our manhood be as that of the whites!) that if thou tarry again till this hour, I will no longer keep thee company nor join my body to thine! O accursed one, wilt thou play fast and loose with us at thy pleasure, O stinkard, O bitch, O vilest of whites?”

In this legend, like elsewhere in the collection, the blacks are presented as sexually attractive, but dangerous: cruel and ruthless savages, inferior but full of hate, lurking in the darkness, dreaming to enslave their Arab masters. As usual, reality was diametrically opposite. The Muslim slave markets were cruel places. A western visitor to Zanzibar,  for example, described such a market in 1811. In his chilling account, he relates how potential buyers examined the physique of the slaves as they were horses and cows, prompting the buyers to anoint their arms and legs in coconut oil to make their skin shinier. All of them, of course, were bound with chains and handcuffs.

Still, the despise shown by Arabs and Ottoman Turks to blacks was not a scientific one. Race theories were all but nonexistent. Black slaves could, if fortunate, be sold to the army, advance in its ranks and become generals, maybe even rulers. At times, given a kind and well-intentioned master, they may have fared better than many “free” subjects. Quaranic law endowed slaves with some rights, including the right to redeem themselves through labor. Many other slaves, however, languished in abject conditions. Worst of all was, of course, the danger of castration – a phenomenon which (to the best of my knowledge) did not exist in the western slave trade even at its apogee. Muslim slave trade was therefore chaotic and wild: the fate of a slave was widely dependent in the specific circumstances of his or her capture and purchase.

Western slave trade was an altogether different story. Just like the Muslim slave trade, it was underlined by notions of racial, cultural and religious superiority, but unlike in the Middle East, these notions gradually became more biological and “scientific”. Under these conditions, even Christian-born black slaves were just as inferior in their masters’ eyes. This dramatic transition in the western slave trade was intimately tied to social and economic developments. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europe became hungrier for sugar – one of the main sources of calories at the time. Contemporaries did not only sweeten their tea with sugar, as we do today, but used to eat enormous chunks of this white, sweet substance.

Sugar mainly came from the new world, hailing from Caribbean plantations in which work conditions were not only abject, but often lethal. The labor was so backbreaking, and the diseases so rampant that (almost) no free man consented to work in these places. To meet the enormous demand for sugar, the plantation owners were motivated to purchase slaves in gargantuan quantities. Supply had to be constant, due to the high death rate of slaves in these plantations.  Obviously, the laws of supply and demand encouraged European entrepreneurs to enhance their kidnapping operations (often using African sub-contractors). The result was disastrous, in a scale unmatched by the Muslim slave trade: entire areas in Africa were emptied from healthy, productive inhabitants, most of which were shipped to the Caribbean. The western taste for sugar was the bane of Western Africa.

Exploited to death: African slaves in the sugar plantations.

The scientific, rational worldview promoted by European enlightenment, did not only reinforce the ideological basis of slavery, but also changed the character of the trade itself. European traders used precise geometrical models, calculating the maximum number of heads which could be packed into one ship. Captains were even advised to tie the slaves in certain angles in order to save precious space. The result is easy to imagine: fully packed, unsanitary slave ships, devoid of air and light, floating coffins in all but name. Sick and wounded slaves were, naturally, a burden, and were therefore thrown unceremoniously overboard. Consequently, many if not most of those shipped did not survive. The supply of slaves were however so high, as to make the traders indifferent to the death of the weak among them.

“rational to the core”: model of a European slaver

A cruel irony it is, but the difference between the western, Atlantic slave trade, underlined by notions of “rationality” and “enlightenment”, and the chaotic Muslim slave trade, significantly contributed to the durability of the latter. Indeed, the Western slave trade was mostly banned in the nineteenth century, while the Muslim slave trade went on into the twentieth. Economic transitions in Europe reduced the demand for Caribbean sugar, and the economic rational for slavery was weakened. The flux of sugar calories significantly improved European life span and life style, enhancing the development of a civil society with mass communication. The new means of communication enabled the European opponents of slavery to propagate their ideas in a scale unimagined in the past. Their political pressure (among other things) led Britain to ban slavery all throughout the empire in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The British navy rades a slaver

Moreover, as noted by Niall Ferguson, the British navy enforced abolition on other European powers as well. With the weakening of slavery’s economic rational, the humane side of European enlightenment rose in prominence, and led this inhuman institution to its demise. Slavery’s last relic was the “peculiar institution” in the American south, a living anachronism made possible only by developments in cotton manufacturing which (yet again) created a demand for slave labor. The American Civil War brought an end to this last form of slavery, as well. Such developments, needless to say, did not take place in the Muslim world. The Muslim slave trade was usually not as cruel as the western one, as it was not based on notions of rationality and enlightenment. But just from that reason, it persisted for far longer.

“Am I not a man and brother?” Abolition propaganda in 19th Century Britain

Enlightenment. This so called noble world is mentioned nowadays by both critics and apologetics of Islam. Former Muslims such as Wafa Sultan, still holding the naïve, romantic view of enlightenment, portray a black and white picture of an enlightened west fighting a backward, barbaric Muslim world. For the Muslim critics of the western world, “enlightenment” is all but non-existent – merely a lame excuse for exploitation, imperialism and naked greed. The truth, however, is much more complex and interesting. Without doubt, western enlightenment had numerous achievements, but also dark shadows haunting its past. The Atlantic slave trade, as we have seen, is one of them. Its horrifying cruelty was not a relic of the middle ages, but rather an integral (though not exclusive) part of European enlightenment itself.


About דני אורבך

רוכים הבאים לינשוף! אני דני אורבך, היסטוריון צבאי מהחוגים להיסטוריה ולימודי אסיה באוניברסיטה העברית, וחוקר הפיכות, התנקשויות פוליטיות, התנגדות צבאית ושאר אירועים עקובים מדם ביפן, סין, גרמניה ושאר העולם. מי מכם שמתעניין במלחמת העולם השנייה, אולי נתקל בספר שלי, ואלקירי- ההתנגדות הגרמנית להיטלר שיצא לאור בהוצאת ידיעות אחרונות. מחקר חדש, מעודכן ומורחב בנושא, The Plots against Hitler, יצא לאור השנה באנגלית ובאיטלקית, בנוסף לעדכון של של הספר העברי הקיים. מהדורות קינדל והארד-קופי של כל הספרים ניתן לקנות באמזון. כדי לראות את הפרופיל האקדמי שלי – מחקרים, מאמרים ועוד, לחצו כאן.

Posted on September 29, 2012, in Historical Owl and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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