In addition to the trade in slaves from the East African coast, enslaved people were also kept internally in Swahili and other East African societies, working as agricultural or domestic labourers, artisans, and skilled producers.  The evidence for this local or indigenous form of slavery is much more difficult to ascertain, due to a lack of textual and archaeological evidence for this practice. Only one textual source is known that mentions the presence of slaves for internal use, which was written by the 14th century Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta. He made many journeys during his life time, one of which took him to the East African coast and the large Swahili trading town of Kilwa in southern Tanzania.

Kilwa is today a well-known heritage site with a number of impressive extant stone ruins, which are remnants of its heyday as an important trading entrepôt in the region. It was probably settled between the 7th and 16th centuries CE. Ibn Battuta’s account from Kilwa is very brief and is mostly concerned with the grandeur of the city and the generosity of the sultan. This focus on the upper classes is common in historical sources, which often spare little time for the underclasses and the enslaved. Ibn Battuta does however mention slaves briefly, in his recounting of the sultan’s and his son’s generosity when giving away 20 slaves to a beggar. This brief account tells us that slaves were present in Kilwa during Ibn Battuta’s visit in 1331, and we might assume they were readily available, at least to the sultan, who had the wealth required to give these enslaved individuals away.

Slaves at Kilwa would have been both men and women who worked as domestic labourers and agricultural slaves, and were probably a sign of wealth and status for the people who enslaved them. Although we cannot understand how they were treated based on Ibn Battuta’s text, African slaves may have been more easily incorporated into the society and families of their enslavers, and they may have had more opportunities for social mobility. Indigenous African slavery was often based on ideas of kinship, where a person’s lineage was an important part of his or her identity and belonging in society; a slave, on the other hand, was an outsider, and kinless. At Kilwa, these slaves would have originated from non-Swahili communities, perhaps far inland from the coast.

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), 31-32.

Concerning the Sultan of Mogadishu

… We spent a night on the island and then set sail for Kilwa, the principal town on the coast, the greater part of whose inhabitants are Zanj of very black complexion. Their faces are scarred, like the Limiin of Janada. A merchant told me that Sofala is half a month’s march from Kilwa, and that between Sofala and Yufi in the country of the Limiin is a month’s march. Powdered gold is brought from Yufi to Sofala. Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world. The whole of it is elegantly built. The roofs are built with mangrove poles. There is very much rain. The people are engaged in a holy war, for their country lies beside that of pagan Zanj. The chief qualities are devotion and piety: they follow the Shafi’i rite.

Concerning the Sultan of Kilwa

When I arrived, the Sultan was Abu al-Muzaffar Hasan surnamed Abu al-Mawahib [the Father of Gifts] on account of his numerous charitable gifts. He frequently makes raids into the Zanj country, attacks them and carries off booty, of which he reserves a fifth, using it in the manner prescribed by the Koran. That reserved for the kinsfolk of the Prophet is kept separate in the Treasury, and, when Sharifs come to visit him, he gives it them. They come to him from Iraq, the Hijaz, and other countries. I found several Sharifs from the Hijaz at his court, among them Muhammad ibn Jammaz, Mansur ibn Labida ibn Abi Nami and Muhamma ibn Shumaila ibn Abi Nami. At Mogadishu I saw Tabl ibn Kubaish ibn Jammaz, who also wished to visit him. This Sultan is very humble: he sits and eats with beggars, and venerates holy men and descendants of the Prophet.

The Story of One of His Generous Actions

I found myself near him one Friday as he was coming away from prayer and returning to his house. A faqir from Yemen stopped him and said: ‘O Abu al-Mawahib.’ He replied: ‘Here I am, beggar! What do you want?’ ‘Give me the clothes you are wearing!’ And he said: ‘Certainly you can have them.’ ‘At once?’ he asked. ‘Yes, immediately!’

He returned to the mosque and entered the preacher’s house, took off his clothes and put on others. Then he said to the faqir: ‘Come in, and take these.’ The beggar entered and took them, wrapped them in a cloth and placed them on his head. Then he went away. Those who stood by thanked the Sultan most warmly for the humility and generosity he had displayed.

His son and successor-designate took back the clothes from the faqir and gave him ten slaves in exchange. When the Sultan learnt how much his subjects praised his son’s action, he ordered that the beggar should be given ten more slaves and two loads of ivory. In this country the majority of presents are of ivory: gold is very seldom given.

When this virtuous and liberal Sultan died, may God’s mercy be upon him!-his brother Daud became ruler, and acted in the opposite manner. If a poor man came to him, he said: ‘The giver of gifts is dead, and has left nothing to give.’ Visitors stayed at his court a great number of months, and only then did he give them some little thing, so much so that eventually no one came to visit him.

Discussion Questions

  1. What could be the reason why so many historical texts focus on elite members of society, rather than people belonging to the lower classes? And how might this impact the way we view history?
  2. Can we assume that Ibn Battuta has given a reliable and accurate account of the events at Kilwa? Are some elements of this account more reliable than others?
  3. Ibn Battuta was a wealthy, well-educated Muslim man from Morocco – how might this have affected what he chose to write about and his interpretation of events at Kilwa? Does it help us to understand his background when reading his account, and aspects he might have chosen to omit?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Fleisher, J. (2004). “Behind the Sultan of Kilwa’s “Rebellious Conduct”: Local Perspectives on an International East African Town.” In African Historical Archaeologies, ed. A.M. Reid and P.J. Lane, 91-123. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2004.
  • Wynne-Jones, S. “Kilwa Kisiwani: Establishing a Town.” In A Material Culture: Consumption and Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East, ed. S. Wynne-Jones, 55-88.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.


Property, Raiding, Religion