Omani Arabs had been trading slaves along the East African coast for centuries. European travellers reported that most of the royal court’s revenue came from taxes on slave imports. By mid 1800s, one third of the inhabitants of Oman were blacks. At least two thousand slaves a year were absorbed by local demand, while others were sent elsewhere to be sold in slave markets around the Arabian Peninsula. During the XVIII century, Kilwa became the main port for salve traders in East Africa. Slaves were sourced in Tanganyika and from the region of Lake Malawi. The Omani were based at Zanzibar and, after taking control of Kilwa in the mid-1780s, diverted to that island the bulk of the trade in slaves and ivory. By 1834, imports of slaves from the mainland had reached an annual figure of six thousand. Ten years later, the annual numbers had risen to between thirteen and fifteen thousand. Most of these slaves were kept in Zanzibar, where the labour-intensive cultivation of cloves had begun and was expanding rapidly in response to the growing market demand. By the 1850s, in Zanzibar there were no fewer than sixty thousand slaves. In 1840, Sayyid Said ibn Sultan, transferred his court from Oman to Zanzibar. The island had become the principal port on the western side of the Indian Ocean, the source of virtually the entire world supply of cloves, the main African market for ivory, and the largest slave market in Africa.
Other towns benefited from the trade. Because of its rich agricultural hinterland, its open beaches, and its proximity to Zanzibar, Bagamoyo became the dominant mainland outlet for the slave trade. Coastal caravans to the interior relied on porters, and Bagamoyo attracted thousands of them. Locals of Indian origin, a majority of them Muslims, financed slave raids; while the so-called northern Arabs, or Omanis, led the caravans. The more ferocious aspects of slaving in the region came to be ascribed to them. Yet, most of the leading slavers were Afro-Arabs and the trade itself became increasingly a Zanzibari rather than an Omani one. Certainly, many of the main slavers, along with many of the regional slave dealers, were as black as their victims. Said and the British struck an alliance. Said was afraid to lose his realm. Indeed, the British helped him against the Egyptians in 1839. Said was also wary of the French’s intention in the region. Yet, he was not inclined to bring the slave trade to a halt. On the one side, he and his family had invested much in the trade, which also generated most of his tax revenues. On the other, powerful figures in the sultanate would have objected, even violently if necessary, to the suppression of the trade.
Her majesty’s government, with characteristic British doubletalk, did not mind to be committed against the trade at home, and close both eyes where this was actually taking place. The result was a slow diplomatic ballet of pressure, concession, and connivance – from both sides. This continued until 1845, when Said outlawed the sea trade from the coast between the ports of Lamu in the north and Kilwa in the south, except for the transport of slaves from one to another part of the Sultan’s African domains. The trade did not stop. It simply shifted from one port to the other and went easily through any gap in British naval surveillance to reach the costal markets in Arabia. In 1856 Zanzibar became independent and Siad’s son, Majid, took power. He proved to be less receptive to British pressure. During his reign, an increasing number of slaves were recorded to arrive in Zanzibar. Records are also imprecise in that they report only slaves imported by traders. Any slave imported by the Sultan and his family was tax exempted – and so went unrecorded, and Said was one of the largest traders. In addition, large numbers of slaves were smuggled in the island.
At Zanzibar, the slaves were unloaded swiftly. The sick and weak were left to die on the beach, to save the customs tax. The remainder were given food and water outside the customs house, and dispatched to their temporary owners, who kept them for a few days of recuperation. Washed up and attractively clothed, they were then taken to the slave market for sale. A Captain Colomb drew a distinction between the horrors involved in the supply of slaves and their subsequent treatment by their Arab owners. Indeed, he confessed that he was unable to discover if the free black in Zanzibar was in any respect better off than the slave. While the lack of documentation makes it difficult to appropriately describe the life of slaves in Zanzibar, various witnesses’ accounts support the view that the treatment of slaves by their owners was markedly more humane than the treatment accorded by those engaged in capturing and transporting them.
Mepukori ole Karam