Forgotten Slavery: the Arab-Muslim Slave Trade

By Bob Koigi /
Nov 16, 2021
Forgotten Slavery: the Arab-Muslim Slave Trade

Over the years global focus and discourse on slavery has concentrated on the Trans-Atlantic trade that featured the Americas and European merchants. One other trade has however remained largely ignored at times even treated as a taboo subject despite being a key component of the African history owing to its devastating impact it has had on the continent, its generations and a people’s way of life.

The Arab Muslim slave trade also known as the trans-Saharan trade or Eastern slave trade is billed as the longest, having happened for more than 1300 years while taking millions of Africans away from their continent to work in foreign land in the most inhumane conditions.

Scholars have christened it a veiled genocide, attributing the tag line to the most humiliating and near-death experience slaves were subjected to, from capture in slave markets to labour fields abroad and the harrowing journey in between.

While official figures on the exact number of slaves captured from Africa in the Trans Sahara trade are contested, most scholars put the estimate at about nine million.

The Eastern slave trade in Africa was predominantly concentrated in the East and West African regions. In East Africa the coastal region was the preferred route and Tanzania’s archipelago of Zanzibar became a hub for this trade.

“The Arabs raided sub-Saharan Africa for thirteen centuries without interruption. Most of the millions of men they deported have disappeared as a result of inhuman treatment. This painful page in the history of black people has apparently not been completely turned,” read a loosely translated excerpt from The Veiled Genocide a book by Tidiane N'Diaye, a Franco-Senegalese author and anthropologist.

Enterprising Arab merchants and middlemen would gather in Zanzibar for raw materials including cloves and ivory. They would then buy black slaves who they would use to carry the raw materials and also work in their plantations abroad. Slaves from as far as Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia would be availed at the Zanzibar market and shipped through the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf or Arabic Peninsula where they worked in Oman, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. African Muslims were however never captured as slaves due to the Islamic legal views.

On the other hand the Trans Saharan Caravan concentrated on the West African region straddling the Niger Valley to the Gulf of Guinea along the TransSaharan roads to slave markets in Maghreb and the Nile Basin. The voyage that world take up to three months involved inhumane conditions that saw slaves die along the way due to diseases, hunger and thirst. An estimated 50 percent of all slaves in this trade would die in transit.

While European merchants were interested in strongly built young men as labourers in their farms, the Arab merchants were more focused on concubinage capturing women and girls who were turned into sex slaves while living in harems. So high was the demand that the merchants would double the price of female slaves with the ratio of captured women to men being three to one.

“The practice of castration on black male slaves in the most inhumane manner, altered an entire generation as these men could not reproduce."

Liberty Mukomo

Male slaves would work as field workers or guards at the harems. To ensure that they never reproduced in case they got intimate with their fellow female slaves, the men and boys were castrated and made eunuchs in a brutal operation where majority would lose their lives in the process.

“The practice of castration on black male slaves in the most inhumane manner, altered an entire generation as these men could not reproduce. The Arab masters sired children with the black female slaves. This devastation by the men saw those who survived committing suicide. This development explains the modern black Arabs who are still trapped by history,” said Liberty Mukomo, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies.

And even as Europe, one of the key players in the African slave trade abolished the practice hundreds of years ago and the United States officially ended it in 1865, Arab countries continued the trade with majority ending it late in the 20th century. In Malawi, slavery was officially criminalized in 2007 with mentions of some Arab countries currently being involved albeit clandestinely.

“Even as the rest of the world realized the harm slavery did to an entire continent and made a declaration to abolish it, the Arabs protested it and it took a lot of international trade and revolt by the slaves for them to end it. But it is the degree and intensity with which it altered the entire social, reproductive and economic life of black people that made it more brutal and painful than the trans-Atlantic one,” said Liberty.

Trending Videos
Indigenous Stories and Perspectives
Cancel The Apocalypse: Here are 30 Films to Help Unlock the Good Ending
The New Story Revolution
Films For Patrons: Donate $5/mo to Gain Access to These Great Films

Films For Action is a library for people who want to change the world.


Our mission is to provide citizens with the knowledge and perspectives essential to creating a more beautiful, just, sustainable, and democratic society.

Films For Action was founded in 2006 by a few friends in Lawrence, Kansas, after realizing how essential healthy media is to a healthy democracy.

Over the last 15 years, we've reviewed and curated over 1,000 free documentaries and 4,000 short films, plus over 150 pay-per-view documentaries, spanning 34 topics related to changing the world.

During this time we've been able to reach tens of millions of people - not by owning a TV network or spending truckloads of cash on advertising, but because millions of awesome people keep sharing 'films for action' with their friends on social media - in particular, our 850,000 supporters on Facebook and 70,000 site members. 

One of the coolest things is, thanks to our patrons, our library is ad-free and 100% supported by member donations, while 99% of our library is free to access and always will be. The pay-per-view films on our site, of course, help support the filmmakers, and 90-100% of the revenue for PPV films hosted by us goes to the filmmakers. 

To thank our $5/mo patrons, we partner with filmmakers and distributors to provide access to a growing number of films that are normally pay-per-view. With just 23 highly curated films at the moment, it's basically a mini "Netflix for world changers," but its main function is to support the library as a whole.

If you'd like to know more, want to help out, or you're a filmmaker or distributor looking to collaborate, drop us a line via our contact page. 

Tim Hjersted
Co-Founder & Director
Lawrence, KS