Introduction: Slavery on the East African Coast Before 1500 C.E.

Slavery and slave trading existed in African societies for several hundred years before the arrival of Europeans and the beginning of the well-known Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which carried millions of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas from the 16th century onwards. This was also the case on the East African coast, also known as the Swahili coast, which is the name often used to refer to the stretch of coastline from Mogadishu in Somalia to Chibuene in Mozambique. It also includes the northern tip of Madagascar and several islands and archipelagos along the coast. This area has been permanently settled since at least the 7th century CE by groups of people with a shared language, social organisation, and material culture, who subsisted on agriculture, fishing, and hunting. They also participated in long distance trade with ports in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and India and south-east Asia, which led to the introduction of Islam and the building of the first wood and mud mosques in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Islam grew in importance and became the dominant religion on the coast during the first half of the second millennium, by which time several settlements had grown into large trade centres and towns, with substantial links with Indian Ocean ports as well as the interior of eastern and southern Africa. Indian Ocean imports included glass and ceramic vessels, beads, cloth, and jewellery, while exports from the coast included ivory, gold, rock crystal, timber, and enslaved people. This trade in enslaved people from East Africa has been attested by a small number of historic texts written by Arab and Chinese travelers and writers, such as Al-Jahiz, Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, Al-Biruni, Al-Idrisi, Tuan Ch’eng-shih, and Chu-fan-chi (Pouwels 2002: 395; Trimingham 1976: 109, 116; Freeman-Grenville 1975: 8, 9-13; Kusimba 2004: 63). These texts tell of the kidnapping and sale of children and adults from the East African coast by slave merchants who brought enslaved individuals back to their homelands or to markets in the Indian Ocean world.

Some of the more well-known references to East African slaves (and by extension, slave trade) are the textual references to a large slave rebellion in southern Iraq during the 9th century, referred to as the Zanj Rebellion. In these and other Arabic sources, the word Zanj is often used to refer to slaves of East African origin. However, this word is difficult to interpret, as it may refer to slaves from the entire East African coast or Horn of Africa, and its use may have changed over time. Based on the textual resources, there can be little doubt that people were enslaved in East African Swahili towns and traded within the Indian Ocean, yet the scale of this trade is not clear.

Contributed by Henriette Rødland. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Source 1: Ibn Baṭṭūṭa on Slaves at Kilwa

Source 2: Slave Trading at Kilwa: Archaeological Perspectives

Source 3: Burzug ibn Shahriyar on Slave Trading from the East African Coast

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. The East African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century. 2nd ed. London: Rex Collings, 1975.
  • Kusimba, C. M. “Archaeology of slavery in East Africa.” African Archaeological Review, 21, no. 2 (2004): 59–88.
  • Lane, P. J. “Slavery and Slave Trading in Eastern Africa: Exploring the Intersections of Historical Sources and Archaeological Evidence.” In Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory, ed. P.J. Lane and K.C. MacDonald, 281-314. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Pouwels, R. L. “Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean to 1800: Reviewing Relations in Historical Perspective.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35 (2002): 385–425.
  • Trimingham, S. “The Arab Geographers and the East African Coast.” In East Africa and the Orient: Cultural Syntheses in Pre-Colonial Times, ed. N. Chittick and R. Rotberg, 115-146. London; New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1975.
  • Vernet, T. “Slave trade and slavery on the Swahili coast (1500-1750).” In Slavery, Islam and Diaspora, ed. B. Mirzai, I.M. Montana, and P.E. Lovejoy, 37-76. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2009.


Agency, Captives, Images, Kidnapping, Men, Property, Raiding, Religion, Trade