Slavery, sadly, is probably as old as mankind. Certainly there are plenty of historical and traditional references to the practice, from the Bible and Egyptian hieroglyphics to Roman burial records and emancipation documents. In the United States, slavery almost inevitably refers to the practice of bringing Africans to America to exist in lifelong bondage. Many of the slavers were white Europeans who participated in the “molasses to rum to slaves” cycle that helped create the history of slavery in America (reference). However, even as slave ships were brining cargos of Africans to America, there was another slave trade going on that had many similarities as well as some major differences. This was the Arab slave trade, which co-existed and outlasted its European counterpart.
The first record of Africans being brought America and sold occurred in 1619 and “when 20-and-odd) Africans were unloaded from a British ship and sold in Virginia, their arrival chronicled by John Rolfe, an early settler who was the husband of Pocahontas. He noted in a letter that a Dutch ship had “brought not any thing but 20 and odd Negroes, wch the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victuale . . . at the best and easyest rate they could (Rein, 2006).” These 20 souls, who lived and died in America without leaving any trace, were the first trickle in what eventually became a flood of Africans, both male and female, brought directly from their homeland or from points in the Caribbean and sold into lifelong bondage.

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The Europeans who ran what was called the Atlantic slave trade had a very particular pattern of operations. Ships from Britain, The Netherlands, Portugal, and other countries regularly made trips from European ports to Africa, usually sailing towards ports on the western coast of the continent. Once they docked, the ships’ crews usually did not have to journey inland for a cargo of slaves. Most had connections with “brokers” who in turn had contacts with tribal leaders from the interior. These individuals raided enemy villages and captured young, strong people, mostly males at first but later some women as well, and sold them to the brokers who in turn sold them on to the Europeans for the manufactured trade goods, including cloth, arms and ammo, and rum. Some tribal chiefs even sold their own people into slavery if the need for goods or European gold was strong enough (British Library, 2013). Crammed into ships under horrible conditions, the captives suffered through what was known as the middle passage, being transported to the West Indies and various Caribbean islands, often sold again for cargos of rum, tobacco, sugar, and other locally-produced goods. Some were sold there, while others were transported to their final destination, the United States (British Library, 2013). Most were destined for a short life of hard labor and often brutal treatment.

In the European lave trade, slaves were black. Negros were believed to be somehow less than human, so selling them as one would livestock as considered perfectly proper. However, the Arab slave trade was far more wide-ranging. Just as with the Europeans, Arab slave traders bought and sold Africans—but they bought and sold Europeans as well. The Arab masters were Muslim, and in their tradition, anyone who was an “infidel”—in other words, a Christian or a Jew—was liable to be captured and sold (Besteman, 1999. pp. 58-60).

As was the case with the Europeans, Arab slave traders worked with local tribal chiefs to obtain large number of Africans. The men were used as labor on plantations, as builders and road-makers, and as rowers on Ottoman and Turkish ships. The Ottomans, rulers of a large empire that stretched from Turkey into Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and parts of Africa, also used slaves as janissaries, elite solders and guards. Christian youths were recruited into the corps and required to become Muslims (Ohio State University, 2004).

In addition, a significant aspect of the Arab slave trade focused on women, specifically white European women, who were prized as trophies for rich men to have in their harems. While romantic literature has perhaps exaggerated the issue, the fact remains that thousands of young girls were captured and sold into sexual slavery. As woman and “infidels,” they were considered the lowest class of persons—yet ironically, some of them became very powerful, as a series of European slave women became the mothers of future Ottoman sultans. The Valide Sultan, the mother of the reigning sultan, was by tradition the ruler of all the empire’s women. Perhaps the most famous was Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Suleiman I, who himself was almost certainly the son of a European concubine. Hürrem Sultan, who was a Russian captive originally named Roxelana, was a powerful and widely feared figure, often viewed as the power behind the throne, which remained true after Suleiman died and Hürrem’s son became Sultan Selim II (Peirce, 1993, pp 231-34). No free woman in Europe had more power than Hürrem Sultan, who started her career as a seamstress in Suleiman’s house (Peirce, 1993, p. 17).

In the end, slavery was outlawed in Europe, the United States, and the Arabs countries. However, slave trafficking still continues today, and slaves, whatever their status and whoever their masters, faced terror, pain, and often death. While one could argue that there were more opportunities for slaves in the Arab world, in the end, the chains were heavy and the suffering was great. Both Europeans and Arabs bought and sold flesh for their own advantage, and anyone unlucky enough to be captured was nothing more than merchandise.

  • Catherine Lowe Besteman, C. (1999). Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery, (University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • The British Library (2013). “The Slave Trade: A Historical Background.” The British Library.
  • Ohio State University (2004). “When Europeans Were Slaves: Research Suggests that White Slavery was Much More Common than Previously Believed.”
  • Peirce, L. (1993). The Imperial Harem: Woman and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press US, 1993
  • Rein, L. (2006). “Mystery of Virginia’s First Slaves is Unlocked 400 Years Later.” The Washington Post.