Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Baṭṭūṭa was born in Tangiers, Morocco, in 703/1304, and died in Marrakech in 770/1368. His family were part of the Muslim religious elite, that had a tradition of serving as judges (qādīs), from whom he would have likely received an extensive literary education and religious instruction. From when he left home in 725/1325, ostensibly on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he travelled widely around the Old World visiting Yemen, Oman, southern Iran and the East African coast initially. His subsequent travels took him to the Delhi Sultanate via Cairo, Asia Minor, the Black Sea, Constantinople, Afghanistan and Sind. He stayed in Delhi, serving as the Mālikī qādī for seven years from 1333, before setting off on his travels again, this time south and eastward reaching Bengal, the Maldives (where he again served as a judge for a year), Sri Lanka, and Sumatra at different times, before arriving China in 1346, which at the time was under the rule of the Mongols. He took approximately three years to return to Morocco, compared with the twenty years he had spent travelling to China, and after a brief visit to Muslim Spain in 1350, he set off again on his last expedition, to the West African empire of Mali, between 752/1351 and 755/1354. On his return, and at the request of his patron Sultan Abū ‘Inān, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa set about compiling an account of all his travels. In this he was assisted by Muḥammad ibn Juzayy, who was assigned to him by Abū ‘Inān to help edit the work, which they completed in 757/1355. The full title given to these accounts was Tuhfat al-nuzzār fī gharāʿib al-amsār wa ‘ajāʿib al-asfār (The Precious Gift for Those Who Would Look into the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travel), but it is more commonly known simply as Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s Riḥlāt or Travels.

Unlike the itineraries produced by several Muslim Arab geographers who never visited many of the places they wrote about, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s Travels is based on his own direct observations made over the course of a life spent covering, conservatively, some 117,500 kilometres (73,000 miles) taking in most of the late Medieval Islamic world and many other countries beyond. It is precisely this that makes it such a valuable as a historical source, even if some elements are simply anecdotes and imaginary. His account of his visit to Kilwa Kisiwani, the wealthiest medieval Swahili town on the East African coast, provides confirmation of the presence of enslaved individuals, adding substance to earlier references to their presence and the practice of slave raiding on the Swahili coast. These include various medieval-period sources, such as The Book of the Wonders of India compiled in the first half of the tenth century CE by Buzurg ibn Shahriyār, a Persian shipmaster, and the Chinese Southern Song Dynasty author Zhou Qufei’ s Ling wai dai da written in the twelfth century. Although there are relatively few explicit references to slave trading in his account of his travels to the kingdom of Mali and to Gao (Kwakwa), we do learn that the emperor of Mali, Munsa Sulaymān had his own retinue, numbering around 300, of military slaves, his female slaves had to parade naked in front of him on a regular basis, and that his wives also had their own slave girls. Slave labour was also used to mine salt around Taghāzā in the Sahara and that both male and female slaves worked in the copper mines at Takkadā, which were supplied by the Zaghāwa Kingdom centred on Kanem (Nigeria) in return for copper. The Zaghāwa, in turn acquired them during raids on non-Muslim communities living further south, and already had a long history of supplying the Ibadi merchants in Zuwīla as noted in the ninth century by al-Yaʿqūbī.

Introduction contributed by Paul J. Lane. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Text translated from the Arabic and published in Nehemia Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 282, 291-297, 301-302. Copyright © University of Ghana, International Academic Union, Cambridge University Press 1981. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

Ibn Baṭṭūṭa on Taghāzā

After 25 days we arrived at Taghāzā. This is a village with nothing good about it. One of its marvels is that its houses and mosque are of rock salt and its roofs of camel skins. It has no trees, but is nothing but sand with a salt mine. They dig in the earth for salt, which is found in great slabs lying one upon the other as though they have been shaped and placed underground. A camel carries two slabs of it. Nobody lives there except the slaves of the Masūfa who dig for the salt. They live on the dates imported to them from Darʿa and Sijilmāsa, on camel-meat, and on anilī imported from the land of the Sūdān.[1] The Sūdān come to them from their land and carry the salt away. One load of it is sold at Īwālātan for eight or ten mithqals, and at the city of Mālī for thirty or twenty mithqals. It has sometimes fetched forty mithqals.

The Sūdān use salt for currency as gold and silver is used. They cut it into pieces and use it for their transactions. Despite the meanness of the village of Taghāzā they deal with qinṭār upon qinṭār of gold there. We stayed for ten days, under strain because the water there is brackish. It is the most fly-ridden of places.

[1] Literally translated, Sūdān means Blacks. It was used in medieval Arabic as a generic term for dark-skinned Africans.

Ibn Baṭṭūṭa on the Court of the Sultan of Mali

[The sultan of Mali] also sits on some days in the council-place. There is a dais (maṣṭaba) under a tree there with three steps, which they call banbī. It is upholstered with silk. Cushions are placed upon it and the shiṭr is erected. This is like a dome (qubba) of silk having on it a golden bird the size of a falcon. The sultan comes out of the door in the corner of the palace with his bow in his hand and his quiver between his shoulders. On his head he wears a shāshiyya of gold tied with a golden strap. It has extremities like thin knives and is more than a span long. His clothing consists for the most part of a furry red jubba of the European cloth which is called muṭanfas. The singers come out in front of him with gold and silver stringed instruments (qunburī) in their hands and behind him about 300 armed slaves. He walks slowly, with great deliberation, and sometimes halts. When he reaches the banbī he stands looking at the people, then he mounts gently, in the same way that the khatib mounts the pulpit.[1] As he sits the drums are beaten and the trumpets are sounded. Three slaves come out quickly and summon the deputy and the farāriyya[2] and they enter and sit down. The two horses and the two rams with them are brought. Dūghā[3] stands at the door and the rest of the people are in the street under the trees…

During the two festival days[4] the sultan sits in the afternoon on the banbī. The bodyguard comes with remarkable weapons, such as quivers (tarkash) of gold and silver and swords decorated with gold and with scabbards of the same, and lances of gold and silver, and clubs of crystal. Next to him stand four emirs whisking away the flies and having in their hands silver ornaments resembling stirrups. The farāriyya and the qadi[5] and the khatib sit according to custom. Dūghā the interpreter comes with his four wives and his slave girls (jawārī). There are about a hundred of these, with fine clothes and on their heads bands of gold and silver adorned with gold and silver balls. A seat is set up for Dūghā and he sits on it and plays the instrument which is made of reed with little gourds under it, and sings poetry in which he praises the sultan and commemorates his expeditions and exploits and the women and slave girls sing with him and perform with bows.

With them are about thirty of his slave boys (ghulām) wearing red jubbas of cloth and with white shāshiyyas on their heads. Each one of them is girt with a drum which he beats. Then come his young followers who play and turn somersaults in the air as the Sindī does. In this they show unusual elegance and skill. They play with swords in the most beautiful way and Dūghā [also] plays remarkably with the sword. At this the sultan orders him to be given a bounty and a purse is brought in which there are 200 mithqals of gold dust…

Qāsā[6] began to ride every day with her slave girls and men (jawārīhā wa-ʿabīduhā) with dust on their heads[7] and to stand by the council place veiled, her face being invisible. The emirs talked much about her affair, so the sultan gathered them at the council place and said to them through Dūghā: “You have been talking a great deal about the affair of Qāsā. She has committed a great crime.” Then one of her slave girls was brought bound and shackled and he said to her: “Say what you have to say!” She informed them that Qāsā had sent her to Jāṭil, the sultan’s cousin, who was in flight from him at Kanburnī, and invited him to depose the sultan from his kingship, saying: “I and all the army are at your service!” When the emirs heard that they said: “Indeed, that is a great crime and for it she deserves to be killed!” Qāsā was fearful at this and sought refuge at the house of the khatib…

One of their disapproved acts[8] is that their female servants and slave girls (al-khadam wa-‘l-jawārī) and little girls appear before men naked, with their privy parts uncovered. During Ramaḍān I saw many of them in this state, for it is the custom of the farāriyya to break their fast in the house of the sultan, and each one brings his food carried by twenty or more of his slave girls, they all being naked. Another is that their women go into the sultan’s presence naked and uncovered, and that his daughters go naked. On the night of 25 Ramaḍān I saw about 200 slave girls bringing out food from his palace naked, having with them two of his daughters with rounded breasts[9] having no covering upon them.

[1] The khatib delivers the sermon during Friday prayers.

[2] The military commanders.

[3] The king’s interpreter.

[4] Eid al-Adha (a celebration commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son Ishmael) and Eid al-Fitr (a celebration of the breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan).

[5] The judge.

[6] The queen, the sultan’s chief wife and co-ruler. She had recently been imprisoned by the sultan and her place taken by another wife, Banjū, who was not of royal blood.

[7] Good manners and a sign of respect.

[8] Ibn Battuta has just finished listing the good features of the people of Mali: absence of oppression and theft, respect for the property of foreigners who die in Mali, assiduity in prayer and in wearing white on Friday to attend prayer, and eagerness to memorize the Quran.

[9] Meaning that they were post-pubescent.

Ibn Baṭṭūṭa on Takaddā

The people of Takaddā have no occupation but trade. They travel each year to Egypt and import some of everything which is there in the way of fine cloth (thiyāb) and other things. Its people are comfortable and well off and are proud of the number of male and female slaves (al-ʿabīd wa-‘l-khadam) which they have. The people of Mālī and Īwālātan also are like this. They sell educated slave girls but rarely, and at a high price.

When I came to Takaddā I wished to buy an educated slave girl but could not find one. Then the qadi Abū Ibrāhīm[1] sent me a slave girl belonging to one of his friends so I bought her for 25 mithqals.[2] Then her owner repented and wished to revoke the bargain, so I said to him: “If you will indicate another one to me I will release you.” So he indicated to me a slave belonging to ʿAlī Aghyūl, who was the Moroccan from Tādlā who had refused to take up any of my belongings when my camel (nāqa) collapsed and refused to give my boy a drink of water when he was thirsty. So I bought her from him, she being better than the first one, and released my first friend [from the bargain]. Then this Moroccan regretted having sold the slave and wished to revoke the bargain. He importuned me to do so but I declined to do anything but reward him for his evil acts. He almost went mad and died from grief. But I let him off afterwards.

The copper mine is outside Takaddā. They excavate the earth for it and bring it to the town and smelt it in their houses. This is done by their male and female slaves (al-ʿabīd wa-‘l-khadam). When they have smelted it into red copper they make bars of it a span and a half long, some thin and some thick, of which the thick are sold at 400 bars per gold mithqal and the thin at 600 or 700 for a mithqal. This is their currency. With the thin ones they buy meat and firewood and with the thick ones male and female slaves, sorghum, butter and wheat (ṭaʿām). The copper is transported from there to the city of Kūbar in the land of the infidels and the Zaghāy[3] and to the land of Burnū,[4] which is at a distance of forty days from Takaddā. The people of Burnū are Muslims having a king named Idrīs who does not appear to the people and does not address them except from behind a curtain. From this country they bring handsome slave girls (jawārī) and young men slaves (fityān) and cloth dyed with saffron (jasad).

[1] Ibn Battuta’s host in Takaddā.

[2] A gold coin weighing 4.25 grams.

[3] Probably Zaghāwa.

[4] A kingdom in what is now northeastern Nigeria.

Related Primary Sources

Additional Translations

  • Ibn Battuta. The Travels of Ibn Battuta, AD 1325-1354: Volumes I-V. Translated by C.F. Beckingham and H.A.R. Gibb. The Hakluyt Society, Second Series. London: Routledge, 2016.