Source: A Letter by a Ninth-Century Slave Trader
This is a letter written in Arabic on papyrus and dated to the first half of the ninth century CE. It belongs to the correspondence of one Jaʿfar ibn Makhlad and his business associates, who traded in slaves and mules. The letter’s verso, the side of the papyrus that was visible after folding, contains the address: Jaʿfar wrote the letter to two of his sons, named al-Faḍl and Ismāʿīl, as well as to Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar who seems not to have been kin. The letter is almost intact. Only the bottom part is missing; the text breaks off in the middle of the letter’s closing lines. The letter was found in Egypt. It is unknown from where it was sent.
Jaʿfar and his associates were wholesale slave traders and seem to have marketed a considerable number of slaves. On the recto side of the letter, the side that was read only by the addressees, Jaʿfar writes he has with him “slave women and female servants,” and he complains that he has been unable to sell a single one of them. He also writes that he brought eunuchs to the market, of whom he sold a few. His inability to sell most of his human merchandise seems to have distressed him and appears to be his main reason for writing the letter. Jaʿfar’s description of his merchandise is noteworthy. He differentiates between his slave women (jawārī, sg. jāriya), female servants (waṣāʾif, sg. waṣīfa) and male servants or eunuchs (khadam, sg. khādim). The differentiation is not only based on the slaves’ gender, but also on the tasks they can perform. Whereas servants mainly performed household chores, a jāriya could be assigned different tasks and be used as a concubine.
Jaʿfar’s correspondence also speaks to the social and legal arrangements that made the Abbasid-era slave trade possible. In another letter he wrote, for example, Jaʿfar asks his addressees to take care of his dependents during his business journey. This appointment of care-takers was based on trust and usually took place before departure. Because slave markets mainly existed in large cities, the Abbasid-era slave trade was inherently interregional and necessitated travel or the appointment of agents or the hiring of brokers. In addition to such social arrangements, the slave trade also rested on legal instruments. In the letter translated below, Jaʿfar refers to “our mules and slaves” and expresses the hope that God “grant us good reward in what He ordains for the sale of the slaves”. The use of the plural in these passages implies that Jaʿfar and his business associates had entered into a partnership. This legal instrument allowed merchants to invest large sums of money in expensive but lucrative commodities and enabled them to secure and regulate commercial cooperation.
Translated from the Arabic by Jelle Bruning. The original document was edited and translated in Jelle Bruning, “Slave Trade Dynamics in Abbasid Egypt: The Papyrological Evidence,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 63 (2020), 682-742, at 706-709. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
“In name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. May God preserve you and grant you health. I wrote to you […] fourteen days into (the month) Dhū al-Ḥijja while we […]. And (as for) all of our mules and slaves, they are in the best condition, for which God, Who has no associate, is continuously praised. I sold neither few nor many of the slave women and female servants. We did sell some of the male servants, but the majority of them remain (with us). By God, we have been unable to sell anything of what we have mentioned due to the bad condition of the people (here), the stagnation of their markets, and their miserable state, their distress, and their trials. However, we beseech God alone, (Who has) no partner, that He complete upon us His bounty and grant us good reward in what He ordains for the sale of the slaves – God’s decisions contain only good things. We ask God for succ[e]ss through His me[r]cy. Do not [ce]ase [to] pray for our health, well-being, and good …”
“From Jaʿfar ibn Makhlad, to al-Faḍl and Ismāʿīl, the two sons of Jaʿfar, and (to) Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar. [It should be delivered] at the house of Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam or at Abū al-Faḍl al-Jazarī’s dwelling.”
 Square brackets enclose words, or parts of words, that are lost because of holes in the papyrus. Some of the affected words can be reconstructed. Three dots indicated that the lost letters or words cannot be reconstructed.
 Round brackets enclose words that have been added by the translator.
- To what extent did the organisation of the slave trade differ from trade in other commodities?
- Why does the author describe at such length the state of the market where he offered his slaves for sale?
- What does this letter suggest about how its author thought about the ethics of selling humans?
Related Primary Sources
- Concerning Sellers of Male and Female Slaves
- A Deed of Sale of Yumn, a Young Slave Woman, in Third/Ninth-Century Egypt
- The Stories of Shāriya in the Book of Songs (Kitāb al-Aghānī)
- Bruning, Jelle. “Slave Trade Dynamics in Abbasid Egypt: The Papyrological Evidence.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 63 (2020): 682-742.