on 13 April 2014
The book is a little bit old and does not integrate what was discovered since its first publication in Paris (in French) or in the USA. The printed paper back edition I have just put my hands on, printed in the UK by Amazon.co.uk Ltd would deserve additional notes to integrate the enormous progress we have done in the field over the last twenty years. It centers practically exclusively on the Arab world when it became Islamic. It sure considers ancient times but superficially. The Greeks are hardly mentioned. The Romans are vaguely mentioned. The Biblical Jews are mentioned but not explored as much as they should have been explored. For example the two sons of Abraham are not mentioned, though Isaac is famous in the West and Ishmael is famous in the Islamic world. Ishmael or Ismail is supposed to be the link of Islam to Abraham, hence to Moses and Adam and Eve. This Ishmael is Abraham's son he gets from his slave servant Hagar. It is a whole section of the Book of genesis. Let me quote it in full.
"16 Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her."
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me."
6 "Your slave is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, "Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?"
"I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered.
9 Then the angel of the LORD told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her." 10 The angel added, "I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count."
11 The angel of the LORD also said to her:
"You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,[a]
for the LORD has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone's hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward[b] all his brothers."
13 She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen[c] the One who sees me." 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi[d]; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne.16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael." (Genesis 16
New International Version)
This is important because Hagar is Egyptian and a slave. A slave can obviously be mistreated but a slave must according to the Angel of God "submit to her mistress." Note a slave can be sexually given to a man by his own wife. The slave has no choice about it and we are many centuries before the Prophet Muhammad.
He should have studied the Dead Sea Scrolls because their own beliefs and sense of purity is extremely close to what Islam was going to preach. And these Dead Sea Scrolls are closely connected to James, the brother of Jesus, the first bishop of Jerusalem, the trend in Judaism that is rejected by the Temple and the priests, to the point of getting James stoned to death some thirty years after Jesus' crucifixion at the request of the same priest of the same Temple. Islam is thus inheriting from a general situation at the time and from a deep tradition in Judaism, the other Semitic religion from the Middle East. In fact Arabs are quite commonly quoted in the Old Testament. It is by far not enough to only quote what is said about slaves in the Old Testament, though it proves slavery was accepted and practiced by the Jews or Israelites, even if softened, meaning it was currently a lot harsher.
The result is that slavery among Arabs seems to be starting with Islam in the Arab world, though the title of the book is misleading on this point since it is in fact dealing with slavery in the Islamic world, including of course the Ottoman Empire, the Indian Subcontinent (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India), Iran and other Muslim countries around the Pacific Ocean that are not Arab at all.
The book has another shortcoming: it is very often repetitive because it uses the same facts over and over again in the various chapters. Instead of having a straight and unique timeline, we constantly go back and forth in the time line to facts that come up over and over. We are at times not sure what period is concerned because of these frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards.
In spite of that this book is essential about the Trans-Saharan slave trade and about the African East Coast and Red Sea slave trade. Many facts are given, though the author hammers in the idea that we do not have feasible and trustworthy figures and facts. We are too often led to using conjectures, in other words guessing figures and numbers. The slave trade we are speaking of though is enormous in the long run, though rather reduced, even when it is at its top level, in the short run. Yearly figures are often in thousands rather than tens or hundreds of thousands.
The book insists on the fact that the future slaves are captured by Africans who provide the Arab merchants with their prisoners to be turned into slaves. It actually try to evaluate the real cost of such raids and he is maybe slightly vague. Some empires in Eastern Africa, or in the vast Sudan crossing the whole African continent south of the Sahara, are plagued by wars whose objective is to capture the others, those who are defeated, in order to make them slaves. The Tuareg raided Timbuktu just for that reason, but the various empires in West Sudan, including the Manding Empire in what is today Mali and its Kurukan Fuga Charter of the 13th century is the result of several wars between the Muslims and the Animists, and on each side when they win they capture all the others and make them slaves. The Kurukan Fuga Charter actually has an article on slaves. Slavery was a war measure and the Arab merchants did not invent something that must have gone on for millennia. They just gave wars another reason to be waged: to capture slaves in order to sell them to the merchants at and for a profit.
Note that same procedure existed among Native Americans. A prisoner after a war had the simple choice, and it did not depend on his decision, to be used as some ceremonial sacrificial animal, generally going through slow killing and live cutting up, or to become the slave of a family who had lost one of their members in the war or battle.
The point here should be that the merchandizing of these prisoners turned a common practice into a frightfully inhuman commercial and profitable activity. The worst part is then that the raided villages or communities were mostly wiped out: the defending victims, the captured future slaves and the others probably vastly massacred. That's the vision we get since there are no precision about the outcome of such wars or raids. It is impossible to evaluate the number of victims, slave and collateral victims. But if you were in the slave trade area you had a serious interest to be on the side of the merchants. This would explain that one tribe will be on the side of the merchants and the other tribes will be the victims of this trade because the merchants did not have the manpower to wage the war itself, and they did not want to take risks. Such phenomena are extremely long-lasting and their consequences may last for very long centuries, even after the end of the phenomenon itself. The slave trade across the Sahara or along the Eastern Coast have thus produced tribal oppositions that nourish today's tribal wars and conflicts with genocidal practices. Rwanda was in the very heart of the East Coast slave trade along with Burundi, Uganda, the Congo (at least the eastern part of it), etc. All the sub-Saharan countries of today were directly concerned by the Trans-Saharan slave trade, just like Sudan and Ethiopia. We often say about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade the Europeans used the service of a village chief to get the slaves they wanted. In fact it is a lot more vicious than that in real facts; they used one tribe against another, they also used in Western Africa one religion, the Muslims, against another, the Animists. In fact the Trans-Atlantic slave trade just amplified what was already happening before, and made it even more profitable.
We have to go beyond the idea of slicing up the slave trade. We are dealing with a vast phenomenon that has been going on since agriculture appeared because then and only then human society needed some heavy work in some periods with mass of workers who had to be taken care of by the rest of the community since they could not provide for themselves. We are talking here of the post-ice-age period, particularly what is known as the Neolithic period. The Arabs and the Muslims in general, but also the Indians practiced slavery as a common day to day social organization in line with this division of labor going back to 12,000 years ago, and we must not forget that Hinduism had decreed that the Dalits were slaves they did not even have to care for directly, and they still are. Speaking of slavery here with the Dalits we have a form that is still very present in a country which is neither Arab, nor Muslim, nor tyrannical.
The book would have been a lot better inspired if it had tried to capture slavery as a universal human monstrosity and to then qualify various periods and forms according to the periods. The great care with which the Old Testament and the Quran specify that slaves have to be treated properly, the way the Kurukan Fuga Charter says the same thing, are there to demonstrate that slaves were treated a lot worse before and that many approaches, including the Islamic approach actually made that social organization better. It does not mean it is right, but it is better nevertheless. We do not seem to understand that in these areas in Africa where every four or five years a raid was organized to get some slaves, and where that has been going on for millennia, the villages tried to find some way of dealing with the phenomenon, such as negotiating with the raiders and delivering on a willing basis the slaves they want and it is the interest of the raiders not to go beyond a certain level of exploitation otherwise they would dry up their sources of profit. All civilizations have myths about the tyrannical neighbor or monster like the Minotaur who or that requires the delivery every year or so often of a certain number of young women and/or men. That is the mythical form of such exploitation of your neighbors by the delivery of slaves. If you have to deliver twenty young people every year you will manage the number of young people in the community so that you can deliver.
In Auvergne in France the military slavery of the First World War killed or maimed fifty per cent of the male population. That destroyed the agriculture of the region based on intense and numerous labor, and it has not yet recuperated. That produced a tremendous level of in-breeding that is still visible today. And one century after that war and its sacrificial military slavery the effects of the slaughter are still present and improving very slowly with the arrival of people from outside the region. This case is far from being unique in the world. The book does not study at all such phenomena. Before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Kurukan Fuga Charter was a way to organize the community within such surrounding phenomena like the raids by the Tuaregs and some other northern Muslims. One answer was actually to convert and build mosques because Muslims may absolutely not enslave Muslims. That explains why the slave merchants constantly had to go farther into Africa. Slavery was an excellent argument for conversion.
The main fact the author mentions is not sufficiently developed. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was mostly men (maybe two-thirds if not even more at the beginning) whereas Trans-Saharan and Red Sea slave trades concerned mostly women (maybe two thirds if not more all along). But it is clear that the author is only considering the United States in this Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and what's more the Protestant English colonies and then United States. The role of France, Spain and Portugal in the Americas is totally ignored and the case of Mexico is not even mentioned where slavery was mostly for a long time if not for two centuries urban and not rural. In the same way he sees the Americas as only using slaves in plantations, and that is not correct either. Cortez himself was aware of the cost of such human chattel and he constructed in Mexico the first water-powered sugar mill, and he was not the only one. When the rules dictated by the Catholic churches of Spain, Portugal and France were respected slave labor was not that interesting nor that profitable: obligation to christen the slaves, obligation for the slaves to marry and the slave owners to respect this sacrament in daily life, obligation to respect the relation between children and parents, obligation to have an active manumission procedure, the fact that slaves were supposed to be supervised by both royal and clerical courts, etc... And I do not speak of the respect of the life of these slaves.
The second fact, and the author exploits it properly, is the fact that on the Muslim side slavery was essential ancillary and urban: mainly servants of all styles and qualifications within the urban homes of the rich or well-off. It is true that with the exception of Mexico and with a mixed system in most other Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies in the Americas, slavery was mostly agricultural and within plantations on the English side of the Americas. In fact only in the USA do we have a two tier society with the one-drop-of-blood theory, whereas everywhere else we have a three tier society both ethnically and socially, the medium group in slavery time (and that is fundamentally visible still today) being constituted of free people of color, all kinds of free mixed blood and poor whites, between the slaves at the bottom mostly pure or dominant black and the upper class that could also have some rich blacks or mixed blood.
The book though is best when it examines the slow and still unfinished process to get rid of slavery. The dates are numerous and detailed, the documents and treaties are also numerous and detailed. He is proving it was the interest of the colonizing powers in the 19th century to get rid of the over-exploitation of the black population by slave traders. There he should have seen the important role of the various catholic churches and the Anglican church and he should have explored a little bit the free and yet not so free, certainly not equal, status of the colonized people. He could have shown the enormous improvement but he could have shown that the status of these colonized people was closer to that of serfs in medieval times, hence it was some kind of feudalism, and it is this feudalism that explains the failure of colonization, along with the inerasable traces and wounds of the millennia of slave trade for outside countries and slavery in the local countries. That would of course have made relative the hypocrisy of all leaders of the Muslim countries that used slavery and the slave trade because the Europeans were just as hypocritical since it was their interest to stop the slave trade and slavery to develop colonial feudalism.
An important book though the circularity of its composition makes it difficult to read.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU