July 14, 2009

African Slaves in Islamic Lands: Afropop interview with Eve Trout Powell


B.E: You make an important point about the different kinds of people involved in Islamic slavery. Of course, we are really looking at just one part of the story, how the Arab and Islamic slave trade affected Africa.

E.T.P.: And how the African slave trade affected the Middle East. It is important to make the distinction because people goof all the time on this. By coming out of old Western concept of slavery, it is automatically assumed that slavery bears a certain kind of stigma, and it is really important to differentiate. Sometimes it did, if it was for Africans, but not necessarily the way would for African Americans. If you were Circassian in the Ottoman Empire, it was a wonderful thing in some ways to be a slave, because when you were freed, you could often reach the uppermost levels of power, short of being the Sultan himself. All the great viziers in the Ottoman Empire were trained as part of an elite institution. This was true within the Mamluk Empire as well, which was earlier. So you basically have different classes of slaves going on. And there were black slaves who could achieve those levels as well, so it is important to keep that in mind. You can't just exclude the Circassian slaves out of the picture, because there's a whole racial gradation that comes out. It is very complex, and we don't like to talk about how complex it is because we have a very black and white interpretation of slavery in this country, which just doesn't work in the context of the Middle East or East Africa.

Within the Islamic world, within the Middle East, there all kinds of racial gradations of slavery. They were whites. There were Abyssinians (Ethiopians). There were Sudanese. There were Nubians. There were Circassians. There was a whole complicated racial gradient going on which is very difficult for Westerners to wrap their minds around because slavery in the West, particularly African American slavery was black-white. Either you were black and you are enslaved, or you were white and you owned. This is something very difficult it seems for us, to intellectually divorce ourselves from our own racial constructions.
B.E: At a high level, what are the important things that distinguish the Western, European slave trade, from what was going on in the Middle East?

E.T.P.: I'm going to start my answer from the 19th century. I'm a specialist in 19th-century history, and I think it also the height of the African American slavery institution that is so iconographic for us, and then the Middle Eastern one that we’re talking about, is the 19th century. So here are some of the differences. In the United States, of course, and the Caribbean, you had agricultural slavery. You had plantation slavery. In the Middle East, this was very rare. You did not see this certainly in the 18th and 19th century. So African slaves in Egypt would work in people's households, would be part of people’s families, would live in the household, would not have a huge community of other slaves around them, but really would be surrounded by the family of their owners. This is very different from what you have in the United States south, where you have large numbers of slaves on many plantations. The slave-owning family could often be the minority in many cases. The slavery that we’re talking about in the Middle East is much more domestic.

Now there was also a military slavery, which you do not find all in the west. There was a military institution along the Nile Valley in the 19th century. This was known as the jihadiyya, in which you had particularly Dinka tribes conscripted into the Egyptian army as slave soldiers. And this is an old tradition in the Islamic Middle East. It goes way back: having slaves be soldiers loyal only to the ruler. Of course, in the United States, the idea of putting guns into the hands of slaves would have been just totally anathema to the whole institution. It is exactly the opposite in the Middle East. And finally, again, you don't have slavery as an inherited status. It just doesn't carry that same weight through the generations.

2 comments:

janice July 15, 2009 at 1:02 PM  

I came across an example of the military slavery (mentioned in your post)in the the movie "Guimba" based in the Kingdom of Mali. It's worth watching it.

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