In the XIX century, Europe reacted strongly against slavery. The first effort was to put an end to the slave trade in the Atlantic. However, also the eastern slave trade became under scrutiny. Missionaries from different Churches and denominations worked hard to free slaves and halt the trade. For centuries, Arab slave traders pillaged villages in Sudan and kept a steady flow of slaves to reach the markets of Egypt, but also the Arabian Peninsula. The slave trade in the Sudan continued long after slavery had been declared illegal. Daniel Comboni, who worked in Sudan from 1858 to 1881, soon became involved in the fight against slavery. During his second trip to Sudan, in 1873, he met forty boats filled with slaves on the Nile, and more than twenty caravans of slave women in the desert.
Once he arrived in Khartoum, he surveyed the situation there and realized that twenty five thousand slaves lived in the city. This meant that about half of the population of the capital was made up of slaves. He also noted that at least half a million slaves left the Sudan towards Egypt every year. Comboni reacted to this situation by writing extensively to European and American magazines and newspapers to raise awareness. This media campaign was necessary both to receive political backing from the international community and to counter the negative propaganda by Samuel Baker, a British explorer turned governor in Africa who had authored various articles to reassure the public that slavery had been successfully suppressed in Africa.
Comboni acted also at local level. After meeting Ismail Ayub, governor general of Khartoum, he obtained power to free slaves who would appeal to him. The same he obtained in El Obeid. Comboni knew that these were temporary decisions. Nonetheless, he was able to free hundreds of slaves in a few months. In time, he established a right of asylum at the mission compound. Those slaves that turned to the missionaries were freed and sent to a farm near El Obeid where they were assigned land to till for their own upkeep.
On August 10th 1873, Comboni published a pastoral letter where he pointed out the moral abuses committed by Christians within the Vicariate entrusted to him. He directed the missionaries to fight slavery with all legitimate means. This strong letter was to have an effect also on the local administration. In 1875, the right of asylum was revoked. Comboni instructed his missionaries to work within the law, trying always to free slaves. He also ordered the missionaries in Delen, in the Nuba Mountains and outside the administrative reach of the Egyptian government, to institute a de facto right of asylum and to welcome any slave who would ask for their support.
Comboni soon realized that local activism was not enough to fight the slave trade. The trade had vast roots, far beyond his Vicariate. When Leopold II, King of Belgium, founded the International African Association, which should have tackled the problem of slavery among other issues, Comboni went to Brussels to talk to King Leopold. Among other things, he asked that people of integrity be put in charge of fighting the slave trade. Comboni knew well enough that European powers were ready to fight the slave trade, but as ready to bring in new form of oppression if this fitted their project of exploitation of resources.
On the international scene, Comboni gave full support to the anti-slavery campaign guided by Gordon and Gessi. Charles Gordon was nominated Governor General of Sudan in 1878. He was a convinced abolitionist who found a good supporter in Romolo Gessi, an Italian explorer who was to take administrative posts in the Sudan. Comboni supported them as much as he could, and defended them from baseless accusations aimed at undermining their work. In 1881, Comboni undertook the exploration of the Nuba region to enforce an anti slavery decree gazetted by the Egyptian authorities. On August 29, weeks before his death, Comboni was able to report to Rome that the fight against slavery in the Nuba Mountains was going as planned. He died in October 1881, unable to see the fruits of his commitment against slavery. His work was continued by the missionaries working in Sudan. Slavery was officially banned but the trade has never really stopped. Even today, Anti Slavery Societies in various countries raise their voices against the abduction of children in South Sudan (see www.antislavery.org). Most of these children end up as forced labourers in the houses of rich families in the North.