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Saeed Ahktar Rizvi

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East African Slave-Trade


Like West Africa, the slave-trade in East Africa became prominent and was
firmly established with the advance and endeavour of the Christian Europe.

Mr. E.A. Alpers writes in African Slave-Trade: "Further
evidence that the slave trade was by no means prominent in East Africa before the
eighteenth century comes from the Portuguese. Surely the Portuguese, as the pioneers of
the Atlantic slave-trade, would have tried to exploit the slave-trade in East Africa had
they found it to be already flourishing. But the early Portuguese chroniclers only mention
the slave-trade in passing. Much more important were the gold and ivory traders to Arabia
and India. It is to these products that the Portuguese invaders turned their attention
throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not only along the coast of Kenya and
Tanzania, but also Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Even wax and ambergris seem to have been more
important than slaves during most of this period. For unlike the colonialist in the
Americas, the Portuguese never developed any sort of plantation economy in India. The
Portuguese slave-trade from Mozambique to India rarely reached as many as one thousand
individuals in any one year, and was usually less than half that number. That to Brazil
was illegal until 1645 and was never seriously pursued until the beginning of the
nineteenth century. As late as 1753, when the foundations of the new slave-trade in East
Africa were being laid, there was grand total of only 4,399 African slaves in the whole of
Portuguese India.

"What were these foundations? Despite the long Arab contact with East
Africa, and their

[page 123 in original publication missing]

could to encourage the slave-trade with the French. According to official
figures, more than 1,000 slaves were being exported each year. French, smuggling to avoid
the taxes which were levied at Mozambique, probably raised the annual figure to at least
1,500. A similar figure was probably taken away from Ibo during this decade. Henceforth
the Portuguese at Mozambique and Ibo (and later at Quelimane, near the mouth of the
Zambezi River) were committed to a policy of slaving from which there was no turning back
until abolition.

"The trade became much brisker in the eighties, especially after the
conclusion of the American war of independence. During the seventies a few adventurous
French slavers had taken cargoes from Mozambique to the West Indies, because they were
finding it increasingly unprofitable to seek their chattels along the Guinea coast. Now,
in peacetime, with greater competition for slaves in West Africa, the way was opened for a
massive expansion of the American slave trade from East Africa. At the same time
Portuguese vessels also began to take an active, though still secondary, part in the trade
to the Mascarene Island. Official figures from Mozambique alone show that from 1781
through 1794 a total of 46,461 slaves were embarked on Portuguese and foreign ships,
nearly all of which were French. Allowing for a minimum amount of smuggling, at least
4,000 slaves annually must have been leaving the Mozambique area during this period."href="#r14" NAME="n14">

It was this juncture that Arabs extended a helping hand to these Christian
Slave-traders. The same author says, "After the Omani Arabs had responded to the call
of some of the Swahili rulers of the coastal towns and with their help had in 1698 evicted
the Portuguese from Mombassa and other outposts, they were themselves too weak to do more
than disturb and rob the very people who had sought their aid. ..But after the Busaid
family overthrew the Yorubi and established their rule in Oman in about 1744, they were
able to begin effective economic exploitation of the people of East Africa. Like all
previous merchants on the coast they were primarily interested in ivory, but from this
point we can also detect a steady increase in the slave-trade.

"There are not, however, any accurate statistics on the volume of the
Arab slave trade in the eighteenth century. The first indication which exists come from a
French slaver named Jean-Vincent Morice, who traded at both Zanzibar and Kilwa, which was
the most important slave port on the coast, in the 1770's. On the 14th September, 1776,
Morice made a treaty with Sultan of Kilwa for the annual purchase of at the least 1,000
slaves. In three trips to Zanzibar and Kilwa before signing this treaty, he had bought
2,325 slaves for export. Morice does not tell us how many slaves the Arabs were taking
away from the coast each year, but he clearly considered it to be a big business by French
standards. It seems reasonable to suggest that at least 2,000 slaves a year were involved
in the Arab trade at this time. So although the French did not dominate the slave-trade
here as they did at Mozambique, they acted as an important stimulus to the demand of
slaves at a period when the Arab trade was still out-growing its infancy. French efforts
continued through the 1780's, but by the end of the century these probably had become much
less important than the Arab trade.

"Several new factors gave rise to the increased demand for slaves
from East Africa during the nineteenth century. In the Portuguese coastal sphere of
influence there was a sharp upswing in the slave-trade to Brazil. This was caused by the
removal of the Portuguese royal family from Lisbon to Brazil during the Napoleonic Wars.
Special concessions were granted to the Brazilians and soon a flourishing trade in slaves
was being carried on around the Cape of Good Hope at Mozambique."NAME="n15">

"It is now an accepted fact among serious historians of East Africa
that long distance trade routes between the interior and the coast were established
exclusively through African initiative. In other words trade routes were forged by
Africans from the interior going to the coast, not by the Arabs, or the Swahili, setting
off from the coast into the unknown, hostile interior. Swahili traders only began to
forsake the security of the coast in the second half of the eighteenth century, and
travelled along well-established routes which had been developed decades before. Only
after the nineteenth century was underway did Arab traders dare follow this lead."'href="#r16" NAME="n16">

"The Yao who were to become the most dedicated African slave-traders
in East Africa, thus had a long tradition of carrying ivory and other legitimate goods to
the coast decades before the combined French and Arab demand for slaves began to come into
play."

"In West Africa these routes were driven inland from the coast by
Africans who were primarily seeking slaves. Slaves dominated the West African trade from
the first. In East Africa neither of these conditions was matched. The slave-trade must be
seen in the context of earlier, well-established, and profitable long distance trade which
was based overwhelmingly on ivory. This is particularly important to remember for the
southern region which was always the main reservoir for the East African
slave-trade."

Mr. Alpers concludes, "It should be clear by now that the old
stereotyped idea that most slaves were seized by marauding bands of Arabs and Swahili
traders is just another one of the myths which have grown up around the East African
slave-trade. But we must not make a mistake by underestimating the role which these
individuals played in this business."

Once again, I should emphasise that my aim is not to ridicule the efforts
of a handful of moralists who were engaged in the propaganda against slavery. What I want
to show is that their efforts did not (and could not) succeed until the economic pressure
forced Britain first to restrict slave-trade and then abolish slavery.

Of course, when Britain set out to abolish slavery it could not proclaim
from the roof-tops that it was abolishing it to compete against French industrialists. It
had to turn it into a moral and ethical issue before it could hope to pressure other
governments to follow suit. And so it did. We know how Britain waged wars not to protect
its economic and political empire, but "to protect the Freedom of People." The
same was the case with its war against slavery. Morality and ethics was an issue for a
handful of impotent moralists only. The real issue, so far as the governments and the
settlers and colonialists were concerned, was economy.


. Alpers, op. cit., pp. 5-6.

. Ibid, pp. 7-8.

. Ibid, p. 13.

. Ibid, p. 14.

. Ibid, p. 15.

. Ibid, p. 24.

/ 17