The Tragic History of the East African Arab Slave Trade

What the longest-running routes of the African slave trade looked like on the other side of the continent.

In American and European schools, the history of slavery is largely taught from the perspective of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which stole millions of Africans from their homelands in North and Central Africa to the Americas and Europe to work on plantations and in the homes of the wealthy.

This isn’t the entire story, however; there was another chapter of the slave trade in Africa that has devastating effects on the continent’s Eastern region to this day.

Here’s the history of the Eat African Arab slave trade that you’ve probably never heard about, from the continent before to the arrival of slavers and the effects of the slave trade on modern life in Africa and around the globe.

Slave Market in Zanzibar, East Africa

Africa Before The Slave Trade

Though often insensitively talked about as a whole, Africa is a strikingly diverse and incredibly large continent consisting of 54 independent countries.

For the sake of historical discussion, the continent is often subdivided into five regions: Northern Africa (covering Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara), Central Africa (also called Middle Africa, covering the center of the continent and the Western central coast), Southern Africa (covering Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa the country, and Swaziland), East Africa (covering 19 countries including Madagascar and the majority of the Eastern coast of the continent), and Western Africa (covering 17 countries in the Northwest of the continent and the northern edge of the West coast).

Before the rise of slavery from both the Arab slave trade and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the continent was already a thriving ecosystem of unique cultures and civilizations; it’s in fact considered to be the birthplace of humanity, with modern research indicating the consistent presence of humans in North Africa by about 100,000 BC.

By 5,000 BC, early humanity had settled into agriculture, established civilization in the Sahara Desert, and spread across the continent. Egyptians are credited with the invention of writing around 3,200 BC and are known to have had a massive, thriving empire that covered much of North Africa for centuries.

According to scholars, ancient Ghana was a major kingdom from around 500 CE until 1250 CE (the slave trade effectively destroyed it, but it was later re-established as an independent country); it was also a matrilineal society with an extremely effective judicial system. The kingdoms of Nubia and Kush grew in power, as did the kingdoms of Mali, Benin, and Kongo.

Though largely kingdoms and empires, these countries had diverse and complex political systems that spawned excellent international commerce and thriving economies that allowed the arts and sciences to flourish.

Astronomy was a major industry in Western Africa, as were mathematics and medicine, though largely for innovation rather than profit. The continent, rich in resources, produced fantastic works of gold, bronze, ivory, and terracotta, practically for domestic goods and fine luxury items like jewelry. Many countries also offered impressive arrays of spices – pepper, for example, was a major export.

Unfortunately, our knowledge about pre-slavery Africa is greatly diminished due to the destruction of records by slavers and the massive multi-century disruption to the political and cultural landscape of the continent.

Conquest in Northern Africa and the Role of Islam

It is a sad fact that slavery has existed in some form or other in nearly every human society. In Africa, this is no different; when Arab Muslims, coming onto the Northern part of the continent from the Middle East with the quickly rising power of Muslim empires in the region, arrived, they encountered existing slave trades between the Yao, Makua, Marava, and other ethnic groups in central East Africa.

These slaves were largely prisoners of war and others who had been captured for various crimes – slavery was often used as a replacement for imprisonment.

As more and more Middle Eastern merchants arrived in East Africa, though, the demand for slaves quickly outgrew the existing market.

As such many Arab merchants began capturing East and North Africans who were not part of any war and had committed no crimes; they were sent in massive convoys back to hubs like Zanzibar – which itself became a massive plantation hub exporting cloves and other high-demand spices – to be shipped like cattle back to the Middle East. Roughly 75% of the slaves captured died in transit from hunger, illness, injury, or exhaustion.

It’s estimated that more than 17 million people were sold into slavery via the East African trade system; roughly eight million people from East Africa were traded along the Trans-Saharan route into Morocco or Egypt, and another nine million were captured and sent via the Red Sea or Indian Ocean to be enslaved abroad in the Middle East and Southern Asia.

These statistics are only estimates. It’s impossible to know exactly how many people were traded when the system was large without record, and the individuals were treated as little more than property.

The conditions in which the enslaved people were kept were horrific; they were often corralled with little personal space and forced to endure intense weather conditions, including extreme heat and dangerous storms.

Illnesses and injuries were not given proper medical attention (in some cases, they were given no medical attention at all). Crimes against enslaved people were common and disgusting; for example, women were seen as more valuable slaves than men due to the high demands from slavers for concubines and harem members.

These women – and often young girls as well – were subjected to continuous sexual abuse. Additionally, many enslaved men assigned to act as guards for these women were subject to castration to prevent the chance of intimate relationships between them.

The Fight Against Slavery and the Modern World

The East African Arab slave trade finally began to ebb in the late 1700s, when enslaved people revolts against their enslavers occurred in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These revolts sparked abolition movements worldwide, in the Americas and Europe, and the Middle East.

These movements grew in power as more and more people were exposed to the reality of slavery, until in 1873, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Barghash, was forced through public pressure from Britain and other territories, to sign a treaty officially outlawing the practice of slavery and the slave trade in his territories.

Sadly, this treaty was not honored for more than 30 years, when, in 1909, slavery was finally officially abolished in East Africa.

This isn’t the end of the story, however. Though it goes by different names now – martial law, work camps, indentured servitude, etc. – slavery is still very much an issue in East Africa and other regions of the continent.

According to researchers and activists, the human trafficking world still holds more than 40 million people hostage, globally, with the issues of sexual exploitation still being central in many trafficking rings in North and Eastern Africa.

Libyan activists report recent cases of organized slave markets across the nation as recently as 2017, and an officially charged case of slavery was brought to courts in Tanzania regarding a group of 50-60 men and boys forced to work in a remote mine with no pay and armed guards at all times.

Still, the topic of the East African Arab Slave trade is considered by many to be a case of religious taboo – with the significant uptick in Islamophobic terrorism and prejudice in the world post-2001, many see discussion of this branch of history as inappropriate or insensitive to the issues faced by modern Muslims in Africa.

While it is true that modern Muslims are not to blame for the actions of their ancestors and that people of any religion can be capable of heinous crimes, it’s still important to recognize and discuss the atrocities of our pasts so that we can both rectify the damage done where possible (for instance, recognizing the names, stories, and humanity of enslaved victims) and prevent further harm from occurring through vigilant activism and education.


Though difficult to discuss, it’s important to recognize the history of slavery as part of the development of many African nations. Africans and those with African heritage worldwide still struggle against the lasting effects of slavery, from the loss of family histories and cultural records and practices to daily applications of racism in their societies.

To recognize only half of the history of the global slave trade on the continent – the Trans-Atlantic trade that involved the Americas and Europe – would be a disservice to those whose culture and families were directly impacted by the East African trade and whose histories now extend in the Middle East and Asia.

If we can acknowledge the entire history of slavery – including its extension into the modern world – we can promote more effective activism and efforts to resolve this heinous practice once and for all.


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