Signs from Allah: history, science and faith in Islam-I


By Professor Nazeer Ahmed


It is ironic that what started as a religious Crusade ended up in the enslavement of a continent. The cruel and inhuman Atlantic slave trade was a culmination of religious, political and social developments in Western Europe and North Africa. The literature on this subject is vast and has been extensively analyzed both from European and African perspectives. Here we look at it through the prism of Muslim history, examining how the slave trade was influenced by events in North Africa and how it influenced Muslim societies in West Africa.

Nothing in human history compares with the Atlantic slave trade (1441-1840) in its magnitude, cruelty or sustained brutality. Slavery was not a new institution invented in the Middle Ages. In ancient times, the losing side in war was enslaved and made to pay for its misfortune with servitude. Slavery was common in the Roman world. In the 10th century, the Vikings captured men and women in their raids in northern Europe and sold them off in the bazaars along the Volga River and the Caspian Sea. The Turks (900-1200) acquired European slaves, trained them in the arts of war and made them a part of the standing Turkish armies. Some of the slaves rose to become kings and ruled as Mamlukes of Egypt and India. Most of the Ottoman Janissaries (1300-1600) were recruited as bonded men from Europe.

In the 9th century, a large number of slaves were imported into southern Iraq from Zanzibar and put to work to clear the local swamps. These were called the Zanj. (The word zanjir, meaning an iron shackle or chain, used in Farsi, Urdu and Central Asian languages derives from the word zanj).

In the 15th century, the Crusades were very much alive in the western Mediterranean. The elimination of the Muslim presence in Spain was a prime objective of these Crusades. The Muslims maintained a toehold in Granada, on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Gradually, as political and social disintegration enveloped the Maghrib, the Iberian Christian powers expanded their horizons. In the first stage, important coastal towns in Morocco were occupied and trade was monopolized. In the second stage, the Maghrib was bypassed along the Atlantic coast, the slave trade began, and direct trade relations were established between Europe and West Africa. In the third stage, Granada was conquered, America was discovered, Africa was circumnavigated and direct European trade was established with India. In the final stage, slavery reached its peak, robbing Africa of millions of men, women and children. In the process, the political landscape of Europe went through successive transformations from feudal to mercantile to an industrial setting, paving the way for the colonialism of the 19th century.

It is not commonly appreciated that the first target of slavery in West Africa were the Moors (the Portuguese and the Spanish referred to all Muslims regardless of racial differences as Moors). A description of the first raids has come down to us through the writings of the Portuguese writer Azurara. In 1441, a certain young Portuguese captain Golcalves sailed along the coast of southern Morocco and Mauritania gathering ivory, animal hide and sea lion oil for sale in Lisbon. In a chance encounter, he met up with a Muslim couple, wounded the man with a javelin and took them both aboard ship as slaves. At that time the jurisdiction over the Portuguese colony of Tangier was with Prince Henry, an enthusiastic supporter of a naval thrust along the Atlantic seacoast to outflank the Maghrib. The couple was presented to Henry. Sensing an opportunity to capture more slaves, he authorized an ambitious raid the same year under a seasoned and experienced captain Tristao who was familiar with the Atlantic coast of West Africa.

Captains Golcalves and Tristao netted more than a dozen Muslims and enslaved them. Elated, Henry wrote to Pope Eugene IV who gave a decree that capturing the Moors as slaves was a part of the Crusade and whoever sailed south in this pursuit would receive ablution of his sins (1442). This was the origin of the slave trade, which began with Portuguese piracy on the Moroccan coast in 1441. The process was systematized in 1444 when the Portuguese Lagos Company was chartered under the patronage of Prince Henry.

At first, the capture of a few slaves did not cause a stir in Lisbon. There were already many Muslim slaves in Portugal and Spain, just as there were Christian slaves in North Africa, captured in the frequent wars between the Christians and Muslims. The slaves on both sides were kept as domestic servants, subject to the norms of the respective cultures. But as the benefits of owning slaves became obvious to the richer merchants of Lisbon, and with the trade sanctified by the Pope, investment in slave ventures increased. In 1443, an expedition was financed and organized explicitly to capture more Muslims. The Maghrib was in an advanced state of political disintegration and the presence of these predatory ships was hardly noticed in the palaces of the Emirs, busy plotting against each other. By 1465, Portugal was transporting more than a thousand slaves a year from southern Morocco, Mauritania and Sene-Gambia.

The Portuguese continued their relentless advance along the African coast. In 1456, they were at the mouth of the Gambia River. Here, they exchanged Andalusian silk, crude arms and horses for African gold, ivory and slaves. To protect their shipping, they built strong forts in Sene-Gambia, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, Sao Thome, Sao Jorge and Accra, Ghana. These were the first of the Portuguese forts that were to ring the Indian Ocean in the early part of the 16th century, including Goa (India), the Straits of Hormuz (Persia), and Malacca (Malaysia). The delta of the Gambia River was an important outlet for products of the Mali Empire. Many of the inhabitants of the area were Muslim who carried on a thriving trade with North Africa along the trans-Saharan routes. Now, the trade flowed directly to Europe, bypassing the Maghrib and contributing to its decay.

In the Sene-Gambia delta, the Portuguese heard about the rich lands further south. The Ivory Coast lay along the shores of the modern nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Further south, along the shores of Ghana, lay the Gold Coast. By 1465, Portuguese ships traversed these shores and appeared at the important trading post of Benin, in modern Nigeria. Benin was a major supply point for black pepper (the Benin pepper) and slaves. Within the next ten years Angola was visited. Slaves were bought in Sene-Gambia, Benin and Angola in return for horses and Andalusian garments.

By 1490, more than 3,000 slaves a year were transported to Portugal from Africa. Most were kept in Lisbon, but some were transported to Spain. Many of these helpless men and women were Muslim. We base this observation on the fact that the entire coast from Mauritania to the delta of Sene-Gambia lay in the Islamic belt. Further south, the predominantly Muslim Fulani and Hausa tribes carried on a brisk trade with Benin at the mouth of the Niger River, and were often caught in the web of the slave trade. In 1455 the Portuguese could boast that it was possible to buy eighteen Moors in West Africa in exchange for one Andalusian horse!

The news of these Portuguese exploits was heard in neighboring Spain, which felt left out of the spoils. Spain was hampered at this time by internal convulsions. There was friction between Castile and Aragon. The war with Granada was ongoing. So strong was the Portuguese position in relation to Spain that in 1468, King Henry of Portugal laid claim to the throne of Castile. After some skirmishes, open warfare was avoided by the intervention of the Pope. The kingdom of Spain was consolidated with the marriage of Ferdinand of Castile and Isabella of Aragon. In 1492, Ferdinand conquered Granada, and in a voyage financed by Isabella, Columbus discovered America. Spain now felt strong enough to challenge Portugal for the African trade. However, since the Portuguese were the first on the scene, the Papal Bulls solidified their claims to the shores of West Africa. Tensions between Spain and Portugal increased leading again to intervention by the Pope.

(The author is Director, World Organization for Resource Development and Education, Washington, DC; Director, American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, CA; Member, State Knowledge Commission, Bangalore; and Chairman, Delixus Group)