April 27, 2013

Slavery in the Swahili City-States

I've been reading through some old notes from my  general field exams on slavery and the slave trade in Africa. The question of Swahili and Arab complicity in the slave trade is a sensitive issue that continues to rankle Arab and Swahili intellectuals, who feel that Western attacks on "Arab slavery" unfairly essentialize and racialize Arabs as slave traders. They point out, often correctly, that abolitionist attacks on the "Arab slave trade" in the 19th century were closely linked to the establishment of colonial rule in East Africa. The issue is rather more complicated than I can address here, but suffice to say that Arabs were not the only participants in the trade. Nevertheless the charge that "coastal people" or "the Swahili" were active participants in the trade is a line one still finds quite frequently in scholarly articles. Such charges are often little substantiated with data. When the volume of the East African trade are tabulated, as in Ralph Austen's work the results are less than satisfactory, and at any rate do not address slavery and the slave trade in the more distant past of the "Swahili Golden Age." Recent scholarship by Thomas Vernet has the potential to change the paradigm of how we view the Swahili city-states and their relationship to slavery and the slave trade. Butch Ware, summarizing Vernet's work, writes:

"Though they were deeply involved in trading, the Swahili seem to have done little slaving. Vernet argues that between 1500 and 1750 Swahili city-states were militarily fragile; mainland groups attacked the coastal polities more frequently than the coast attacked the mainland. Moreover, even these conflicts were exceptional as the Swahili city-states had strong patron-client ties with mainland societies, including arrangements for military defense. Only at the southern end of the Swahili world, in Kilwa and its southern hinterland, were continental Africans traded in substantial numbers. Vernet concludes that on the Swahili coast north of Cape Delgado, there was little mainland slave-trading at all between 1500 and 1800 with the exception of a trade in Somali and Oromo women destined for use as concubines. At the same time, Portuguese documents make reference to a voluminous mainland trade in ivory, foodstuffs, and, at least in the south, gold."

The volume of the slave trade would of course grow exponentially in the 18th and 19th century; this is in part attributable to the intensification of plantation agriculture in Omani-ruled Zanzibar and along the coast (as well as the French plantation sector in Reunion) But the myth of the Swahili as inveterate slave traders needs to be seriously revised and historicized.

 Here is a brief bibliography of Thomas Vernet's published work, most of it in French:
  • 2006 “Slave trade and slavery on the Swahili coast (1500-1750)”, in Paul Lovejoy, Behnaz A. Mirzai and Ismael M. Montana (ed.), Slavery, Islam and Diaspora, Trenton, Africa World Press. Revised and expanded version of 2003 article.
  • 2004 “Le territoire hors les murs des cités-Etats swahili de l’archipel de Lamu, 1600-1800,” Journal des Africanistes, 74 (1-2), pp. 381-411.
  • 2004 “La splendeur des cités Swahili,” L’Histoire, 284, pp. 62-67.
  • 2003 “Le commerce des esclaves sur la côte swahili, 1500-1750,” Azania, 38, pp. 69-97.
  • 2002 “Les cités-Etats swahili et la puissance omanaise (1650-1720),” Journal des Africanistes, 72 (2), pp. 89-110.


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