Slavery in
The Sahara
Salt was profitable, gold was more profitable still, but no commodity was more abundant and profitable than slaves, and slavery was always a mainstay of Saharan commerce.

No one knows the number of hapless captives who stumbled along the Saharan caravan routes from the African savanna to the slaving warehouses of the north. Their numbers were certainly in the many hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions. In the eighteenth century, Arab caravans brought as many as five thousand slaves annually from the Sudan to Tripoli alone; slaving raids deep into the savanna "cleaned out" entire villages and, typically, returned with ten or fifteen thousand captives. For much of the last millennium the slave trade dominated all commerce, even gold, for there seemed an inexhaustible hunger for slaves all through the Maghreb, the Levant, and Arabia; and slaves from central Africa were even forced to walk across central Asia to Tashkent and Bukhara in the days of Tamerlane the Magnificent, in the fourteenth century. Black slaves were found all over the Hellenic and Roman worlds; and for centuries after the Arab conquest of North Africa there were flourishing slave markets in dozens of desert towns, with "warehouses" in places like Sijilmasa, In-'Salah, Ghadamès, and Zouila. Until well into the nineteenth century perhaps half the value of all Saharan traffic was in slaves.

The attrition rate on the trans-Sahara crossing reached as high as a third, and sometimes even a half, of the captives. Many thousands left their bones in the sand or on the stony plains --- grisly markers that go back into deepest antiquity, for the glorious Pharaonic civilization depended on slave labor, and blacks of the Sudan and Nubia rounded up in slave raids or captured in the chaotic aftermath of tribal warfare were transported across the desert to make their meager and despised but necessary contribution to the even running of society.

Eyewitness reports of slave caravans across the desert left many a grisly portrait. Dozens of them remark on the unnerving silence of the passing throng: the grumbling of camels, and the plodding of human feet, but never the crack of whips, never screams from the victims or curses from the slavers. There had been no need for whips, for the poor benighted slaves knew that laggardliness meant certain death. If one stumbled and fell, the other slaves would try to support him, or the slave masters would cut off his head and there would be an open neckband in the chain, a horrid reminder to the weary.

Most of the wells on the other Saharan slaving routes were surrounded by skeletons and the bones of humans and animals. This was due mostly to children fallen by the wayside dragging themselves to the nearest well only to find the caravan gone. Many slaves also died when the wells were found to be clogged and took too long to clear.

From the Niger River, Mali, Bornu, the Hausa towns, and Sudan, the slave trade dominated life in the villages and petty kingdoms of the interior, keeping their pastoralist societies in a constant state of chaos and decay.

§     §     §

There had always been slavery in Africa, but the Arabs brought to the trade a new thoroughness and energy, unsurpassed in its rapaciousness until the mercantilist economies of the West turned their attention to Africa. Once the first phase of Muslim conquest was over, none of the newly "protected" subjects, such as Jews, Christians, or Zoroastrians, could any longer be reduced to slavery, and slaves had to be sought elsewhere. Most were simply seized in punitive raids, but many were bought by Arab slavers from local chiefs, usually in weaker, less tightly knit societies incapable of defending themselves, like Nubia, Ethiopia, and central and western Sudan.

In the mid-1800s a typical raiding party returned from Sudan to Murzuq, in the Fezzan, a thirty-day journey across the empty desert:

    They had brought with them 800 lean cripples, clad in skins and rags, between 2,000 and 3,000 Maherries [mehari camels], and about 500 asses: 180 of the mounted Arabs, and about 300 foot, were still left behind in the Negro country; nearly 1,000 camels, and many captives, had died on the road, besides children. The death of the latter was not included, as they were not considered of any importance.

A slave was worth much less than a good camel, which was a fair approximation of their relative value. A "good black slave" was about half the price of a good piebald, brindled, or white camel, and considerably less than the tawny reddish-buff racing camels, so prized for their speed and endurance. An Ethiopian called Kafur, who later became regent of Egypt (945-966), was once a slave, picked up for a mere 18 dinars, a paltry sum. Still, there were many exceptions, for talent was expensive and market economics were brought to bear on the slave trade.

Women were always more valued, and therefore dearer, than men by one-third or even one-half; young women, in turn, were more valuable still, for they could be concubines as well as toil for their masters. In medieval times, trained dancing girls had price tags between one thousand and two thousand dinars --- for that, you could get a dozen camels or more. A female singer was sold in an aristocratic circle in 912 for thirteen thousand dinars. Men, on the other hand, were prone to violence and sudden rages, which made them uncertain goods.

Slaves were occasionally well treated, and manumission was relatively common. But they were also subject to random violence and arbitrary punishments. On the one hand, a Tuareg who mistreated his slave was badly thought of, and any slave who was discontented with his master merely had to cut the ear of the camel of the man whose slave he wished to become. As the master was responsible for his slave's action, he had to give the slave in compensation for the damaged camel, and in the process lost face. On the other hand, the Tuareg were known for their quick tempers, and might stab a slave in a moment of anger; for this, there was no punishment necessary. In the Tibesti region, "masters occasionally cut ligaments of their feet or toes, or drive thorns into the soles of their feet to make it impossible for them to run away."

The institution is deeply rooted in the life of the desert. As late as the 1950s, the nomadic social hierarchy of sheikhs or sultans' drum group leaders, nobles, vassals, haratin, and slaves, the same hierarchy that Ibn Battuta had encountered, the same hierarchy that the British explorer Mungo Park and the German Heinrich Barth found, had barely changed in a millennium. The English traveler Robin Maugham was told in the 1940s by a slave in Timbuktu: "Though I know that I am free, I also know that I still belong to my master. I know that when the French leave the country, my master will take me again," which almost certainly happened. Most upper-caste Tuareg of the Ahaggar and Tassili n'Ajjer regions still had slaves to take care of flocks and herds and to perform various domestic tasks in the 1960s. A cynic in Timbuktu said in 1998, "Yes, they freed the slaves in 1968, but not all of them have been told yet."

The haratin are the settled side of the nomads, tending to Tuareg gardens. Whether they are slaves is a semantic point. They are certainly lowly vassals with few rights. They are born to their role, and there's not exactly a free labor market for gardeners in the oases. They are generally darker than the Tuareg, but usually have Berber, not negroid, features. They work as sharecroppers. Their "pay" is one-fifth of what they produce, plus whatever they can conceal, which is sometimes substantial. Nevertheless, they are generally malnourished; the "general torpor of oasis life," which the early Europeans noticed so disapprovingly --- most oasis dwellers seemed to spend most of the day sleeping and most of the night gossiping --- was almost certainly caused by continuous malnutrition.

Upper-class Tuareg, certainly, had --- and have --- little interest in doing the kind of labor appropriate for slaves or haratin. They are still fond of quoting the proverb, commonly but quite wrongly ascribed to the Koran, that "when the plough enters a house, so does the condition of the family become vile." The Tuareg work with camels, but domestic or agricultural work is completely unacceptable.

That there are still slaves in the Sahara is not even a secret. The Sudanese government has been using slave labor in its campaign against the pagan south. In Niger and Mali and Mauritania, the Moors and the northern Tuareg have never given up their ways, and while they seldom use the word slave openly, the practice remains. Mauritania officially declared slavery illegal in 1980, but at the time there were an estimated one hundred thousand "haratin slaves" in the country and best estimates are that the numbers have barely changed. There are, reportedly, still slave markets in the Adrar area, northeast of Nouakchott in Mauritania.

Indeed, in parts of the desert slavery is still the natural order of things. Those few slaves who escape, either by running away or by dint of a soft master and a hard education, find only incredulity when they tell their stories. Moctar Teyeb, a Mauritanian slave who came to America in the 1990s, was briefly a hit on the talk show circuit, but the media were soon bored with him and nothing very much was done, except among impoverished exile groups, who were all too frequently written off in the larger society as cranks. A report that up to fifteen thousand Malian children, many of them from impoverished desert families, had been working as slave labor in the plantations of the Ivory Coast was issued by the Save the Children Fund in the summer of 2001, but received virtually no publicity.

In some places, little effort is made to hide the reality. Tuareg in the desert towns of Agadez or Timbuktu will point out the round huts of the slaves as casually as though they were pointing out the mayor's house, or the post office. These round huts, usually made of reed mats hung on bent poles, can be found in every vacant space, tucked up against the town walls, lining the road to town rubbish dumps.

Life in the desert changes, but slowly.

--- From Sahara: A Natural History
Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
©2002, Walker & Co.

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