Source: Burzug ibn Shahriyar on Slave Trading from the East African Coast
Before the colonial period, one of the most extensive slave trades was that of the Muslim world, to which slaves were transported from several places in Europe, Africa, and Asia between the 7th to 19th centuries. There they would work in agriculture, mines, armies, or as domestic labourers, or even in royal palaces. The treatment and living conditions of these slaves varied greatly, and while some are known to have become wealthy and prosperous, many probably experienced much hardship.
Slave trading from the East African coast is thought to have begun in the 9th century CE, or maybe even earlier. The main evidence for this trade is historical texts written by Indian Ocean traders and travelers. Many enslaved individuals came from the areas of today’s Ethiopia and Somalia, but some would have come from areas further south as well and been traded through the Swahili towns of East Africa. These slaves probably came from the hinterland and interior areas of East Africa, although as the text by Buzurg ibn Shahriyarshows, slaving may also have been opportunistic and involved coastal people as well.
Ibn Shahriyar was a sailor from the Persian Gulf in the tenth century who wrote a number of texts based on sailors’ tales; the passage below is probably a mix of real-life events and legendary stories. It comes from the Book of the Wonders of India and takes place somewhere on the East African coast. Freeman-Grenville argues that this story may be set somewhere in southern Somalia or Kenya, but the reference to Sofala suggests a location further south in Mozambique. Place names are difficult to interpret in these texts, however, as they are sometimes confused with each other or may refer to more than one place.
The text describes the kidnapping of a local East African king and his entourage by taking advantage of his good will. The text also gives an indication of a larger-scale slave trade, as the king is placed on board a ship with 200 other slaves. We do not know where these slaves come from, but we can surmise they had been captured or traded somewhere on the coast before the ship landed in Sofala. The king and these 200 slaves were then sold in Oman. In the king’s recounting of his return to his homeland, he described being enslaved again on at least two occasions, which may be an indication of how common enslavement and slavery were at the time. We get little information about the conditions the king lived under during his enslavement, but he recalls being taught about Islam, the Quran, and the Arabic language, indicating that he worked in an urban and/or domestic context. It was not uncommon for slaves in the Muslim world to receive lessons about Islam, and many were also converted.
Introduction contributed by Henriette Rødland. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Text translated from the Arabic and published in G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (London: Rex Collings, 1975), 9-13.
Ismailawaih told me, and several sailors who were with him, that in the year A.H. 310 he left Oman in his ship to go to Kanbalu. A storm drove him towards Sofala on the Zanj coast. “Seeing the coast where we were,” the captain said, “and realizing that we were falling among cannibal negroes and were certain to perish, we made the ritual ablutions and turned our hearts towards God, saying for each other the prayers for the dead. The canoes of the negroes surrounded us and brought us into the harbour; we cast anchor and disembarked on the land. They led us to their king. He was a young negro, handsome and well made. He asked us who we were, and where we were going. We answered that the object of our voyage was his own land.
‘You lie,’ he said. ‘It was not in our land that you intended to disembark. It is only that the winds have driven you thither in spite of yourselves.’
When we had admitted that he spoke the truth, he said: ‘Disembark your goods. Sell and buy, you have nothing to fear.’
We brought all our packages to the land and began to trade, a trade which was excellent for us, without any obstacles or customs dues. We made the king a number of presents to which he replied with gifts of equal worth or ones even more valuable. When the time to depart came, we asked his permission to go, and he agreed immediately. The goods we had bought were loaded and business was wound up. When everything was in order, and the king knew of our intention to set sail, he accompanied us to the shore with several of his people, got into one of the boats and came out to the ship with us. He even came on board with seven of his companions.
When I saw them there, I said to myself: ‘In the Oman market this young king would certainly fetch thirty dinars, and his seven companions sixty dinars. Their clothes alone are not worth less than twenty dinars. One way and another this would give us a profit of at least 3,000 dirhams, and without any trouble.’ Reflecting thus, I gave the crew their orders. They raised the sails and weighed anchor.
In the mean time the king was most agreeable to us, making us promise to come back again and promising us a good welcome when we did. When he saw the sails fill with the wind and the ship begin to move, his face changed. ‘You are off,’ he said. ‘Well, I must say good-bye.’ And he wished to embark in the canoes which were tied up to the side. But we cut the ropes, and said to him: ‘You will remain with us, we shall take you to our own land. There we shall reward you for all the kindnesses you have shown us.’
‘Strangers,’ he said, ‘when you fell upon our beaches, my people wished to eat you and pillage your goods, as they have already done to others like you. But I protected you, and asked nothing from you. As a token of my goodwill I even came down to bid you farewell in your own ship. Treat me then as justice demands, and let me return to my own land.’
But no one paid any heed to his words; no notice was taken of them. As the wind got up, the coast was not slow to disappear from sight. Then night enfolded us in its shrouds and we reached the open sea.
When the day came, the king and his companions were put with the other slaves whose number reached about 200 head. He was not treated differently from his companions in captivity. The king said not a word and did not even open his mouth. He behaved as if we were unknown to him and as if we did not know him. When he got to Oman, the slaves were sold, and the king with them.
Now, several years after, sailing from Oman towards Kanbalu, the wind again drove us towards the coasts of Sofala on the Zanj coast, and we arrived at precisely the same place. The negroes saw us, and their canoes surrounded us, and we recognized each other. Fully certain we should perish this time, terror struck us dumb. We made the ritual ablutions in silence, repeated the prayer of death, and said farewell to each other. The negroes seized us, and took us to the king’s dwelling and made us go in. Imagine our surprise; it was the same king that we had known, seated on his throne, just as if we had left him there. We prostrated ourselves before him, overcome, and had not the strength to raise ourselves up.
‘Ah!’ said he, ‘here are my old friends!’ Not one of us was capable of replying. He went on: ‘Come, raise your heads, I give you safe conduct for yourselves and for your goods.’ Some raised their heads, others had not the strength, and were overcome with shame. But he showed himself gentle and gracious until we had all raised our heads, but without daring to look him in the face, so much were we moved to remorse and fear. But when we had been reassured by his safe conduct, we finally came to our senses, and he said: ‘Ah! Traitors! How you have treated me after all I did for you!’ And each one of us called out: ‘Mercy, oh King! be merciful to us!’
‘I will be merciful to you,’ he said. ‘Go on, as you did last time, with your business of selling and buying. You may trade in full liberty.’ We could not believe our ears; we feared it was nothing but a trick to make us bring our goods on shore. None the less we disembarked them, and came and brought him a present of enormous value. But he refused it and said: ‘You are not worthy for me to accept a present from you. I will not sully my property with anything that comes from you.’
After that we did our business in peace. When the time to go came, we asked permission to embark. He gave it. At the moment of departure, I went to tell him so. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘and may God protect you!’ ‘Oh King,’ I replied, ‘you have showered your bounty upon us, and we have been ungrateful and traitorous to you. But how did you escape and return to your country?’
He answered: ‘After you had sold me in Oman, my purchaser took me to a town called Basrah,’ – and he described it. ‘There I learnt to pray and to fast, and certain parts of the Koran. My master sold me to another man who took me to the country of the king of the Arabs, called Baghdad,’ – and he described Baghdad. ‘In this town I learnt to speak correctly. I completed my knowledge of the Koran and prayed with the men in the mosques. I saw the Caliph, who is called al-Muqtadir. I was in Baghdad for a year and more, when there came a party of men from Khorasan mounted on camels. Seeing a large crowd, I asked where all these people were going. I was told: “To Mecca.” “What is Mecca?” I asked. “There,” I was answered, “is the House of God to which Muslims make the Pilgrimage.” And I was told the history of the temple. I said to myself that I should do well to follow the caravan. My master, to whom I told all this, did not wish to go with them or to let me go. But I found a way to escape his watchfulness and to mix in the crowd of pilgrims. On the road I became a servant to them. They gave me food to eat and got for me the two cloths needed for the ihram. Finally, they instructing me, I performed all the ceremonies of the pilgrimage.
‘Not daring to go back to Baghdad, for fear that my master would take away my life, I joined up with another caravan which was going to Cairo. I offered my services to the travellers, who carried me on their camels and shared their provisions with me. When I got to Cairo I saw the great river which is called the Nile. I asked: “Where does it come from?” They answered: “Its source is in the land of the Zanj.” “On which side?” “On the side of a large town called Aswan, which is on the frontier of the land of the blacks.”
‘With this information, I followed the banks of the Nile, going from one town to another, asking alms, which was not refused me. I fell, however, among a company of blacks who gave me a bad welcome. They seized on me, and put me among the servants with a load which was too heavy for me to carry. I fled and fell into the hands of another company which seized me and sold me. I escaped again, and went on in this manner, until, after a series of similar adventures, I found myself in the country which adjoins the land of the Zanj. There I put on a disguise. Of all the terrors I had experienced since I left Cairo, there was none equal to that which I felt as I approached my own land. For, I said to myself, a new king has no doubt taken my place on the throne and commands the army. To regain power is not an easy thing. If I make myself known or if anyone recognizes me, I shall be seized upon, taken to the new king and killed at once. Or perhaps one of his favourites will cut off my head to gain his favour.
‘So, in prey to mortal terror, I went on my way by night, and stayed hid during the day. When I reached the sea, I embarked on a ship; and, after stopping at various places, I disembarked one night on the shore of my country. I asked an old woman: “Is the king who rules here a just king?” She answered: “My son, we have no king but God.” And the good woman told me how the king had been carried off. I pretended the greatest astonishment at her story, as if it had not concerned me and events which I knew very well. “The people of the kingdom,” she said, “have agreed not to have another king until they have certain news of the former one. For the diviners have told them that he is alive and in health, and safe in the land of the Arabs.”
‘When the day came, I went into the town and walked towards my palace. I found my family just as I had left them, but plunged into grief. My people listened to the account of my story, and it surprised them and filled them with joy. Like myself, they embraced the religion of Islam. Thus I returned into possession of my sovereignty, a month before you came. And here I am, happy and satisfied with the grace God has given me and mine, of knowing the precepts of Islam, the true faith, prayers, fasting, the pilgrimage, and what is permitted and what is forbidden: for no man else in the land of the Zanj has obtained a similar favour. And if I have forgiven you, it is because you were the first cause of the purity of my religion. But there is still one sin on my conscience which I pray God to take away from me.’
‘What is this thing, o King?’ I asked. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘that I left my master, when I left Baghdad, without asking him his permission, and that I did not return to him. If I were to meet an honest man, I would ask him to take the price of my purchase to my master. If there were among you a really good man, if you were truly upright men, I would give you a sum of money to give him, a sum ten times what he paid as damages for the delay. But you are nothing but traitors and tricksters.’
We said farewell to him. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘and if you return, I shall not treat you otherwise than I have done. You will receive the best welcome. And the Muslims may know that they may come here to us, as to brothers, Muslims like themselves. As for accompanying you to your ship, I have reasons for not doing so.’ And on that we parted.”
 922 C.E.
 ʿAbbasid caliph, r.908-932.
 The ritual garments used for the pilgrimage.
- What may be the purpose of texts like this one, and who might have been the intended audience? Are there certain passages that can give an answer to this?
- What can the text tell us about the treatment of slaves at the time of writing?
- Are all the aspects in this texts equally believable? Which parts may be based on actual events, and which may be fictional?
Related Primary Sources
- Kilwa: Slavery on the East African Coast
- Source 1: Ibn Baṭṭūṭa on Slaves at Kilwa
- Source 2: Slave Trading at Kilwa: Archaeological Perspectives
- Laxdæla Saga
- Misdeeds of Catalan Corsairs
Related Secondary Sources
- Beaujard, P. “The Indian Ocean in Eurasian and African World-Systems before the Sixteenth Century.” Journal of World History, 16, no. 4 (2005): 411–465.
- Campbell, G. “Introduction: Slavery and other forms of unfree labour in the Indian Ocean world.” Slavery and Abolition, 24, no. 2 (2003): ix-xxxii.