The Dark Trade

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Even though the etymology is disputed, some scholars contend that Africa is a Phoenician name meaning ‘slave’. Through the centuries – since ancient times – many plundered the continent for raw material and slaves, hence the name. The Atlantic trade was perhaps the greatest challenge to the Africans. Millions of people were abducted and taken to the Americas. No one will ever know for sure how many people left Africa and how many died on those slave ships. The horrors of slavery were finally to raise concerns in the West, where anti-slavery societies became very active and lobbied their governments to bring the trade to a halt. In 1808, the United Kingdom decided to withdraw from the Atlantic slave trade and directed its efforts to promoting the pulling out of other Western states, especially Portugal and the Netherlands. Alongside the Atlantic trade, there was a flourishing slave trade that took prisoners from Northern and Eastern Africa towards the markets in the Middle East. Arab merchants controlled this trade long before the advent of Islam. Of the many centuries of Islamic controlled trade, the XIX century was certainly the worst. Large numbers of people were enslaved or died in the process. In Islam, slave trading was not a respected occupation, and those who were engaged in it were not likely to be among the most principled traders. Procurement was frequently carried out in the brutalizing conditions of raiding or warfare. As the trade came under pressure by enforcement measures against it, any humanitarian restraints vanished. The trade had always involved violence, cruelties, and loss of life. In the XIX century, these traits became even more evident. Muslim insistence that their slaves were humanely treated had little effect on Western opinion, as evidence mounted on the horrors involved in their procurement and transport, with the devastating impact on much of the East African interior.

D2The Egyptian market sourced its slaves from many areas under the control of the Turkish Empire, of which it was nominally part. For centuries, slaves arrived from both East and West. Black slaves originated from as far as the Senegalese regions. In the XIX century, Egypt turned increasingly to the Upper Nile region as the main source of slaves. People captured during raids were gathered at El Fasher. They were then taken to the great market at Es Siout, 400 kilometres south of Cairo. Between five and six thousand slaves arrived yearly at Es Siout, most of them were females. In 1820, the Egyptian army conquered northern Sudan. Khartoum grew from a fishing village to an administrative and commercial capital. It also became an important distribution centre of slaves. The Egyptian government needed slaves for its army, and military officers from as far as Arabia came to Khartoum for slaves. By 1838, between ten and twelve thousand slaves were being imported into Egypt annually, the males mainly for military purposes, and the females for domestic service. Even though the government tried to restrain slave merchants from their worst practices, raiding not only continued but also increased. Afro-Arabs carved out their own spheres of influence, extending their reach into Bahr el Ghazal and farther south into what is now Uganda.
Although the Egyptian government repeatedly denied it, it was so involved in the trade that it had established large camps for the collection of slaves. Here, the extreme conditions caused many to die from exhaustion and diseases. Survivors faced additional trials. It was estimated that, for every slave who reached Cairo, five had died along the way. The impact of the trade on the African population was disastrous. British explorer Samuel Baker first journeyed through the region of Gondokoro in 1863. He found it prosperous, with large herds of cattle. Returning in 1872, he discovered that the people had all but disappeared. Charles Gordon, appointed Governor of Egypt’s Equatorial Province in 1873, estimated that at least a hundred thousand slaves from South Sudan had been exported to the North between 1875 and 1879. Under British pressure, the Egyptian government banned the import and export of Sudanese and Ethiopian slaves. D3The British navy was directed to stop and search all vessels suspected of carrying slaves in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and Egyptian waters. These measures proved largely ineffectual since most of the Red Sea coast was under Ottoman control. Moreover, slavery itself survived in Egypt. Only in 1883, with the British occupation of Egypt, did the laws against the trade begin to be applied seriously.
Matters were very different in Sudan. The followers of the Mahdi captured El Obeid in early 1883, wiped out British resistance later that year, and took control of the Bahr el Ghazal. Under the Mahdi, the slave trade thrived. Great numbers of captives, taken in the course of raiding or warfare, were sold to dealers for export, especially to Arabia. When the British gained control of the Sudan in 1898, they came across the consequences of such widespread warfare, disease, and starvation. In the mean time, in Egypt, while government officials were not keen to enforce anti-slavery laws, popular attitudes towards slavery changed. Few wanted to invest in slaves, knowing that they could lose them and be subjected to a fine if discovered. Western cultural influence had an impact; and British re-conquest of the Sudan cut the traditional supply route. By the beginning of the 1900s, the slave trade in Egypt no longer existed. Slaving in Sudan itself was less easy to suppress. In Kordofan, raiding was a customary test of maleness. The establishment of a mounted police patrol at El Obeid in 1902 had some impact. Also effective was the setting up of military posts on the frontier between Bahr el Ghazal and French Equatorial Africa in 1908. The trade from the eastern regions of Sudan to the Red Sea coast, for the onward shipment of slaves to Arabia, proved more difficult to suppress. Here, Sudanese slaves continued to arrive along with Ethiopian slaves.
Mepukori ole Karam


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