by Karen Williams 

When many people think of slavery, they think of the translatlantic trade that took place between Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. The legacy of enslavement in the Americas (particularly in the United States) is known globally through the cultural and political impact of African-American iconography, films, history and references in popular culture. For many people of African descent across the world, it is one of the clearest historical links that binds us together, even if we do not have west African or American ancestry.

But the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean is not the only history of longstanding mass global enslavement. Less well-known is a system that went on for centuries longer, but which took place across its opposite oceanmass, the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean slave trade encompassed Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with people from these areas involved as both captors and captives.

Zanj rebellion 2The numbers of people enslaved and the exact length of the trans-Indian slave trade have not been definitively established, but historians believe that it preceded the transatlantic enslavement by centuries. Even though it is largely ignored as an international slave trade, examples of its impact abound. Writing on Indian Ocean slavery frequently mentions African people in China and Persia as well as in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which also served as central slave markets.

The longevity of the Indian Ocean slave trade is also evident in key historical moments. Long before the slave revolt of Haiti under Toussaint L’Overture, which istouted as the most successful slave revolt in modern history, established the first black republic in the western hemisphere, African slaves in the southern Iraqi city Basra established political power centres in Iraq and parts of present-day Iran for a period of fourteen years. The Zanj rebellion, and subsequent rule of East African slaves in parts of Iraq, took place between 869-883AD1. Centuries later, when American president Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president in the United States, his election proved inspirational to their black descendants who continue to live in Basra.

But focussing solely on African people enslaved across Asia would be hiding the extent of Indian Ocean slavery: Asian people were enslaved for centuries as well, with Asian slaves who survived shipwrecks on European ships found living with the indigenous population on South Africa’s coast long before colonisation. There are also reports of Indian people enslaved and living in Kenya and Tanzania, and later, there was the large-scale movement of enslaved Asian people sent to work as slaves in colonial South Africa, starting from Dutch colonisation in 1652. Enslaved Asian people in South Africa came from as far afield as Japan and Timor, but the majority were from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and China.

In addition, men from Baluchistan in present-day Pakistan are regularly mentioned working as guards in relation to the slaving community based in Tanzania in the 1800s, overseen by the Omani sultanate who ruled Zanzibar, and Indian and Chinese slaves were to be found in South Africa, as well as in parts of the African eastern coast.

The Ottoman Empire enslaved non-Muslim populations in the Balkans, and women were often the target for sexual slavery, hence the Orientalist “allure” of the harem, and likely the source of the term “white slavery”. Afro-Turks also continue to live in Turkey. At its most pernicious, the effects of Asian enslavement is seen in contemporary racist European depictions of Asian women – which often have roots and metaphors in the sexual abuse inherent in the enslavement of Asian women and their status in the early days of colonialism.

There are other contemporary reverberations of the Indian Ocean slave trade – and continuing practices of enslavement in parts of north Africa, including in Mauritania. Enslavement of “African” populations by the “Arab” Sudanese ruling class in Sudan was one of the key reasons for the breakup of the Republic of Sudan and the secession of South Sudan. Even today, being darker-skinned African is synonymous with being called abd/abeed (slave) by Arabs. This includes Arab people who have been born and have lived all of their lives in western Europe and north America. (The Twitter hashtag #abeed will show you how prevalent and contemporary the epithet is.)

Words like “coolie” and “kaffir”, often associated with the Asian indentured labour system prevalent under later European colonialism, had roots and common usage in the periods of Indian Ocean slavery from the 1600s onwards.

Starting today, Media Diversified will be publishing an ongoing series on slavery across the Indian Ocean (#IndianOceanSlavery). The articles will have most of their starting points in South Africa, which was one of the epicentres of the Indian Ocean slave trade, with the country importing slaves as part of its colonisation process. This series will include articles looking at the history of Asian political prisoners in the country, the history of Chinese people in Africa which goes back for at least a millennium, and the wider resonances of both slavery and very specific under-reported histories in Australia, Ireland and India. Although the descendants of enslaved Africans and Asians continue to live in South Africa, outside of academic publications the country has very little knowledge about its own history of slavery.

Mauritius slavesWhat will become apparent is that slavery in Africa stretched much further than the west African coast where most of the transatlantic slave trade took place from. It also decimated the African interior for centuries longer than the period in which the transatlantic slave trade took place. Southern, central and east Africa were similarly affected, including by the large-scale movement of enslaved people within Africa, most notably in places like Mozambique and Madagascar. At the same time, there was extensive enslavement in Asia, in India as well as in Indonesia and other parts of south-east Asia, including Japan.

Publishing this series on Indian Ocean slavery is significant because it brings together key aspects of a largely underplayed history for general readers. When I started reading up on the topic, I was surprised at how many academic tracts had been published on the issue, and yet that knowledge had not in any significant way filtered through to the populations from whom the history was drawn. If anything, despite all of the extensive body of research on Indian Ocean slavery, the information remains “hidden within books”.

It challenges the history we tell ourselves in Africa, Asia and the Middle East about how we came to be, and it also challenges the history that we tell ourselves about other continents. It brings to light that what was perceived as anti-colonial solidarity in the 1950s and 1960s (often with India as its centre) was a continuation of a centuries-long historical twinning between what is collectively called the “Third World” or developing world.

Very often finding the information involved following whispers of conversation or remembering a fact that I had heard long ago and could not make historical sense of at the time. The internet made researching information easier at times, but I would not have been able to do concerted research without the extensive archives in Cape Town and the dedicated staff who manage them. I also would not have been able to find the background material without the well-stocked libraries in South Africa. In fact, if I attempted this project outside of South Africa, there would likely have been very little in terms of records and libraries to bolster my knowledge.

In a wider context, I also drew strength from the burgeoning interest in the history of slavery from the descendants of enslaved people in South Africa. At the moment it reaches a small group of people, but it is the start of reversing the trend of historians writing about history as if there are no contemporary resonances and impact, and as if there are no contemporary living descendants of slaves in South Africa, the wider African continent and Asia.

Outside of the formal research, finding the information has been an astonishing experience, which led me to retrace all of my life’s journey, especially the often disparate lives that I have led across Africa and Asia during the past two decades — stretching from Senegal to east Africa, across Turkey and Afghanistan to south-east Asia. What was previously incongruous to me made sense when I walked into the Slave Lodge in Cape Town and saw a map detailing the places where enslaved people in South Africa came from. The map of slaves’ origins was in fact a map of all of the places that I had lived in or had very significant contact with. And so, many of the gaps were things that only I could have known, having lived a very particular life: why in Turkey I encountered the exact same fig jam recipe as my grandmother’s in Cape Town, which is a traditional Cape Malay dish; the common words close to isiZulu that I would hear when I lived in northern Uganda; why – besides the common vocabularies of Persian, Kiswahili and isiZulu that I’d draw on in Kabul and Nairobi – Persians in Iran and Afghanistan as well as Zulus in South Africa both ate maas/maast/amasi (plain yoghurt/fermented milk) with their meals. These were small questions that I could not answer up to now, but the thread of what I have discovered is much bigger than I had anticipated.

The first article in this series will look at the history of the Dutch Christmas icon, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). The iconography around Zwarte Piet brings together my own questions about slavery in South Africa, and about why the soot-smeared, golden-earringed icon who arrived in a wooden boat continues to be such a key cultural figure in Holland.

But researching the history of Zwarte Piet took me far away from what had been the familiar framing of enslavement to me for most of my life, namely the trade between mainly west Africa and the Americas. I hope that for you, the reader, it will as fruitful to read as it was for me to spend the past year in musty archives, running after snippets of information, being surprised again and again, and ultimately giving voice not to an academic pursuit, but to real people who lived and breathed, who were part of my history, and might be part of how you came to be as well.



Encyclopaedia Britannica, Zanj Rebellion.

Descendants of Iraq’s black rebels back Obama


For more information on the African-Iraqi community in Basra, see:

Black Iraqis make Obama a model to follow

Following Obama, black Iraqis run for office

Black Iraqis Struggle to Shake Legacy of Racism

Black Iraqis in Basra Face Racism


1Encyclopaedia Britannica (First accessed 08/04/2016)

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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17 thoughts on “An introduction to the Indian Ocean slave trade

  1. Excellent piece. There needs to be an explanation why there is no place on the littoral of the Indian Ocean anything like Haiti, or at least Alabama.


  2. An excellent article, but as an Afro-Dutch woman I have to correct you. “Sinterklaas” & his blackface helper Zwarte Piet/Black Pete do NOT come at Christmas. The holiday is called Sint Nicholas/Sinterklaas and is celebrated on the 5th of December.

    We do celebrate Christmas, but at the 25th of December and without St. Nicholas or Black Pete.

    And the American name for Father Christmas, “Santa Claus” came from the word “Sinterklaas” – not the other way around.


  3. Slavery in other parts of the world were different to what the Europeans did to Africans. While the decedents of the Indian Ocean were eventually absorbed and lived with their captors, the European slavers injected racism and murderous inhumanity to the equation.


    1. “… murderous inhumanity …” was always part of the equation.
      Slavery goes back to war. In the good old (REALLY old) days, you fought, defeated your enemy, and then killed ’em. Possibly drink their blood, eat their hearts, have a bit of fun. Oh yes, and the young women, we can have fun with them too, after we’ve killed their older, less attractive sisters.
      Or, wait a minute, we don’t have to kill them all, do we ? Could we not keep some of them alive, make them work for us. Those women might produce a child, if we keep them alive for nine months, and then we could reuse them: environmentalism, old style. And the young men — we could castrate them first (standard treament of slaves) and then keep them to work in the mines – in the fields – in the galleys. Could be jolly useful, don’t you think, Chief ?
      What revolts you as “murderous inhumanity” is, in fact, alas, very much standard humanity, as was. Whitey was just as bad as the others, but in no way exceptionally so.
      And, then, for some reason or other (?) “things” changed: an attack on older ideas of an acceptable range of human conduct. Reason to be found in Europe, funnily enough.


  4. Thank you very much for your research efforts. I am an African American and feel that we need to know and understand our entire history not just parts and pieces. Thank you so very much and I am going to do all that I can to get the story out to my people here in the United States. IT IS TIME FOR ALL OF THE TRUTH ABOUT US !!!!


  5. Thank you I found it wonderful enlightenment that I could tell our kids to log on, have a read your site if that is OK I’m doing a Catalogue of Reference for Bagawa People and as a Minjerribah Morogumpin we have Kanakas relatives on Stradbroke Island Aunty A


  6. A great article. It is really about time the Arab/Islamic slave trade is given more attention. Few Blacks in the West seem to know about this legacy. Anti Black racism in Arab societies is rife and I am glad the liberal use of the term Ab’d was noted. Best of luck with the research.


    1. Don’t conflate! “There is historical evidence of North African Muslim slave raids all along the Mediterranean coasts across Christian Europe and beyond to even as far north as the British Isles and Iceland. The majority of slaves traded across the Mediterranean region were predominantly of European origin from the 7th to 15th centuries.” And herein – and in many other examples – is the distinction between the diverse “Arab” / “Islamic / Oriental slave trade and the singular race based Trans Atlantic slave trade.

      P.S How many Abdullah’s do you know?


      1. I was wondering when somebody was going to bring up the “Abdullah question”. Jackpot!

        Yes, I know that Abdullah means “slave of/to Allah” (abeed of Allah) and that it is a common name and quite an honour. Abeed still means abeed. I take it that you’re not “abeed” yourself.

        Same defensiveness and historical inaccuracies (polite term) used with the term sidi – meaning ‘lord’ – (as in master) and used to refer to African slaves in India. Well, African slaves were also given the names of Roman generals as a form of insult. Scipio and Scipio Africanus common way that slaves were renamed – and often renamed multiple times throughout their lives. Still slavery.


  7. Good article, not enough is written about today’s slavery, especially in East Africa, where the Muslin north has killed the men and enslaved the women and children.


  8. Great article! I’ve been also digging around African historical books ( for a different reason though). Check out a book named ‘From Babylon to Timbuktu’ It also has some great insights on black migration and slavery.


  9. What about the current slavery situation in the geographic areas you’re going to write about? How has historical Indian Ocean slave trade affected modern slave business in the Indian Ocean? I’d like to read about how this all ties together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Deezee. The series will look at the historical aspects – and from that readers will be able to draw their own parallels to modern and contemporary history – or, more importantly, be spurred to do their own research.


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