ARABS AND BERBERS IN THE TRANS SAHARA SLAVE TRADE
ISLAM AND THE ENSLAVEMENT OF AFRICANS (Copyright 2013)
I recently came across a Tikkun Magazine article featuring a former slave of Mauritania, Mr. Moctar Teyeb. The article appeared under the title of “A Call to Freedom,” published in 2000. I was at the time researching the extent of the participation of Berbers to the institution of African slavery, the slave castes of the Western Sahara, Mauritania and the Tuareg groups, as well as the infamous Saharan Slave Trade of North Africa. The task assigned to me by the World Amazigh Congress, an international organization of Berbers (Imazighen) was to elucidate the topic of slavery in North Africa, and not that of exculpating or inculpating any particular group. I was to submit a report based on my findings for the United Nations Conference on Racism and Discrimination scheduled for the following year in Durban, South Africa.
Mr. Moctar Teyeb, the informer for the Tikkun Magazine article, has first- hand knowledge of an existing problem in his native country of Mauritania. However, he may not have had access to some of the extensive historical material available on the matter which could allow him to modify some of the statements he makes in his appraisal of the historical context of slavery in Africa in general and the Slave Trade more particularly. Apparently, neither did Tikkun, the publisher of his article. Otherwise, I am sure the Editor would have provided some notes for the benefit of the readers of Tikkun, as to the perhaps little known but serious participation of North African Jews to the traffic of slaves in Africa, not to speak of the necessary distinction between Arabs and Berbers, two distinctive ethnic groups, Berbers being the aboriginal people of North Africa. This important distinction was entirely omitted in this article, and no mention was made of the fact that numerous Berbers were converted to Judaism long before Islam entered their lands, and many “pagan” Berbers were themselves enslaved by Arab invaders.
The writer opened his story with this statement: “Eight centuries ago, my ancestors lived peacefully in their homeland in Africa. Then came the Arab-Berbers raids.” As we enter the 21st century, this sentence places the origin of enslavement practices of Mauritania at the 12th century AD. Mr. Teyeb purposefully ignored the preceding centuries of enslavement practices in Africa by Black Africans in sub-Sahara countries, and their involvement in the Slave Trade after the arrival of Arabs and Islam. Slavery existed prior to the arrival of the Arabs in Africa in the 7th century, as an African institution. His further assertion that “as a result of those caravans, slavery began as an accepted institution in the region in which I was born," needs to be scrutinized and differentiated.
It is known that the caste system existing in that area is not so much directly related to the caravan trade as it is to the importation on an ideology – Islam – which upheld the superiority of believers over non-believers, and created the subsequent views that pagans of Africa could be enslaved with impunity. I would like to recapitulate briefly some of the important facts of this historical development.
The first people enslaved in North Africa were the indigenous Berbers (Imazighen, meaning “Free People”) who were enslaved by the tens of thousands by colonizing Phoenicians to run their plantations and man the oars of their powerful fleet of ships. The Romans had a somewhat different relation to these indigenous people of Africa, while the only “black” slaves Rome might have known were not from sub-Saharan countries, but from Upper Egypt, the country known as Nubia. The records show that they were relatively few since Romans relied more originally on war captives from European campaigns, then on Jewish revolts and subsequently on slave offspring from their existing slave population. By the time they arrived in North Africa, they had enough of a supply among their slave population to meet their needs, with the majority of their slaves coming from that group, criminals and a plentiful number of orphans.
The Arabs began to invade and defeat Egypt, Libya and the Maghreb regions of North Africa from 644 AD and afterwards in successive waves of invasion until the 11th century. Who were the defeated populations? They were the various groups of indigenous Berbers. The first policy of Arabs, as clearly established by historical documentation, was to tax the inhabitants of these regions with such heavy war taxes that the sale of Berber women and children was included in their treaties with Berber groups as a means to come up with the tax. The first treaties with Libyan groups stipulated 360 women and children annually from each conquered village or group. This practice was continued throughout the invasion of North Africa, which occurred westward all the way to the Atlantic Coast, where the enslavement of women and children remained a substantial part of the booty collected by Arab conquerors and their forces.
One must remember that the Arab invaders brandished the Koran, which explicitly stated that the enslavement of non-believers was permissible. The first idea of enslavement on the part of Arabs was sanctioned by their religious ideology: only non-believers (all pagans) could be sold in slavery. The Koran pretends to a certain noble humanity by saying that once they adopt the faith of their masters and conquerors, that of Islam, the vanquished can be “redeemed” from their slave status. Mr. Moctar Teyeb underlines, and rightly so, that both masters and slaves of Mauritania are of the Islamic faith. I would add, it is because they are all believers in the same book which upholds that slavery is permissible that, today, in that region of Africa, the institution is widespread and even the Islamic courts favor it. The first sanction of slavery came from Allah. Ideology and divine authority are the pillars on which millions of human beings have been “justifiably” enslaved.
Soon, the steady supply of Berber women and children from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, collected for the needs of the wealthy emirs by then settled in Egypt, as well as those of Arabia, became inadequate, and even Islamicized Berbers became the target of Arab slavers. History reveals the number of slaves extracted by certain leaders of the conquest and occupation of North Africa. Among them, I have retained the documented figures of 315,000 for one and 400,000.00 for another of those invading lords of Arabia. The Arab essayists who reported those figures might have exaggerated somewhat, but nonetheless, the number of slaves coming from North Africa was substantial. This took place in North Africa between the seventh and ninth centuries, with numerous rebellions of Berber groups during those centuries. Until the crucial expedition of 734 AD, the Sahara and western sub-Saharan countries were not part of the slave-oriented needs of Arab consumers. The Arab invaders of North Africa, keen on locating where the gold of the Berbers came from, organized an expedition to the Souss and south of Morocco to find the location of gold traded among Berbers. This expedition was fateful in that it created what would become the western routes of the infamous Trans-Saharan Slave Trade.
A close examination of Arab texts leads to the inevitable conclusion affirmed by scholars that this Trans-Saharan Slave Trade of Black Africans started indeed in the eighth century, with this 734 D expedition. The second powerful motive, which enters history, is then greed, and a huge commercial and financial enterprise was mounted. Berber tribes who controlled key oasis settlements of the Sahara soon learned that they could enrich themselves by this trade, and began to impose heavy taxation on any traffic through their lands, while also furnishing guides, scouts, supplies, and camels at a price. The security provided by nomadic warriors of the desert also was costly to the financiers of the slave Trade, as the Tuareg Tribes leased their policing forces at high prices and also began to profit by this trade. Let us examine, however, who actually financed, organized and directed this immensely profitable trade.
Caravans were organized and financed by Turkish bankers, Arabs, and Jewish merchants of the North. Many entrepreneurs of foreign countries, living in littoral urban settings of Cyrenaica at Tripoli, around the slave trade center of Benghazi, and in thriving port communities of Morocco, were the financial backers and final profiteers of the Slave Trade during the flourishing era of the trade. In 1591, a Moroccan expedition destroyed the Kingdom of Songhai, and in the 16th and 17th centuries, the routes of the central Sahara were dominated by Tuareg (Berber) tribes. In the 17th and 18th centuries European traders dominate the Slave Trade. After the death of two Arab slave hunters, Rabah and Samori (1900), famous for their “rezzous” on horseback, a clear decline of the Trans-Saharan traffic occurred. Great Britain, the largest slave trading state enacted Anti-Slavery laws in 1837, and France followed in 1848. The centuries old practices that had created a specific type of economy in the desert oases and the Sahara sustained a deep blow from colonization, and the character and social structures of the entire Sahara desert population were destroyed. Slavery practices and serfdom (two categories of Saharan societies) upon which castes of warriors and holy men of Berber ancestry built wealth and power became obsolete. Mauritania, on the occidental side of the Sahara, is a new post-colonial nation where, despite the existence of rich iron mines which makes it valuable to the Western corporations and states exploiting the various underground resources of Africa, traditional hierarchical societies persist in the essentially barren environment of the desert.
For centuries, huge caravans were needed to transport the goods and the slaves. To equip them, load them with supplies, and provide a safe journey through dangerous territories traversed by numerous groups of nomadic tribes, Arabs and Berbers, the moguls of the Slave Trade had to put enormous amounts of cash up front. Seed money was provided by Turkish and Jewish bankers and merchants before the arrival of European capital. The cost of providing escorts of some 300 to 400 mounted Tuaregs to protect them along the way made it also a very expensive proposition. These commercial enterprises developed not only well run departure and arrival centers with slave depots, but intermediary secure caravan stops. In these centers, they maintained relatives, non-Berber and non-black personnel, to oversee the traffic in North Africa, in sub-Saharan regions, and in the desert of the Sahara. Timbuktu was a central crossroad to four different routes toward Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but there were other centers.
Such was the enormous enterprise of the well-known Mardoche Brothers, five Jewish brothers, native of Akka, descendants of Spanish Jews. Their letters outline the procedures, the structure of their vast organization (with brothers at key points), the cost of caravans and the mode of transport and security needed for their dangerous travel though the desert. From these numerous letters, we have an ample record of the Black African Slave Trade from 1859 to 1879. The Jewish Mardoche brothers held the monopoly of this Trade in the Moroccan and Algerian routes, (Timbuktu/Tindouf/Djisilmassa) but they had their counterpart in the Tunisian and Libyan routes. Several top executives on record were merchants of Tripoli, Jewish for the most part, such as the one who took up the name of Hassan but was actually an Italian Jew of the large Jewish community of Livorno, or Arabs like a certain Hadj Mohammed Barbari. Market competition was high, and the better organized relied on family members located at strategic points, such as the Mardoche Brothers Enterprises.
In addition, the record shows that the Kehath family from southern Morocco settled in Timbuktu, converting to Islam in 1492. The Cohen family descending from the Moroccan Jewish trader al Hajj Abd-el-Salaam al Kuhin is recorded in Timbuktu in the 18th century, and in the 19th century, the Abana family. Furthermore, Rabbi Mordachai Abi Serour came from Morocco in 1860 to be a trader in Timbuktu.
A number of ancient manuscripts preserved in Timbuktu reflect the overseeing capacity of those Jewish traders as some of the accounting records are annotated in Hebrew characters on their margins.
The market demands of Arabia and Egypt grew enormously. At the top of its unceasing appetites for black slaves were the women mostly used for cooks and domestic need (Arabs continued to favor white slaves for sexual pleasures, though black ones were not excluded), children and young castrated males being second in demand. The casualties of castration performed by sub-Saharan African barbers on young black men of Africa have been calculated at up to 90%. It was only later that the military needs of the Sultans of Morocco (Moulay Ismail who was an Emir of Egypt with a commander of troops in Morocco was the creator of the first army) equally relied on that market to form the well-known Sudanese ranks of their army, and subsequently that of the Royal Black Guards of Morocco. While the consumers were the Arabian lords, the bankers were primarily Turkish, and the mercantile top executives were Jews, the Berber oasis dwellers were the middle management and the Berber Tuareg warriors were the police force. The participation of black Africans in the capture and original sale transactions in sub-Saharan regions cannot be omitted from the overall business scheme. Among the Berber tribes seriously involved in the Trade were the Massufa, the Lamta, the Mazata, the Hawwara, and the Hafusa, tribes that were all defined as “Ibadite “ Berbers settled on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Ideology was the primary factor in creating a class of slaves in the Arabic world, and ideology preceded by far the enslavement of Black Africans by Arabs, when it obtained a class of slaves from the Berber Free Men of North Africa. The greed of Arab conquerors, backed by Turkish financiers and mercantile Jews, was the secondary factor and initial motive for the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade in general.
In Mauritania, Islamic ideology, and Arab conquest also brought about the social structure mentioned (but not explained) by Moctar Teyeb. He makes clear that both masters and slaves are Muslim. He also unfortunately includes the Harratin as fellow slaves, which they are not. The Harratin have mysterious origins, which scholars have long debated. They are more closely related, genetically, to the Berbers of North Africa than to Black Africans, and yet they are a black-skinned population. Some scholars have seen in them the direct descendants of the original prehistoric inhabitants of the Sahara. They once worked in the oases of the desert as serfs or domestic servants of the Tuaregs, and considered themselves closely allied to them, forming a class category, which was not equated by Arabs or Tuaregs with that of slaves. Indeed the Arabic word for slave is “Abd,” a word not applied to Harratin people. At the time Moulay Ismail gathered his elite black troops (14th century,) his general El Bakhri conscripted some Harratin, to the outcry of the Scholars of Fez and of the general population of Morocco, creating a great stir in the country, as Harratin were considered to be “Free Men” or “Imazighen not subject to a conscription of black slaves.
The Arabs inculcated to the vassal Berber tribes paying war tribute to them that Arab, and white was best (numerous Berber tribes were of darker color from previous mixing of populations in the desert): therefore, genealogies were fabricated to give entire groups of Islamic Berbers Arab ancestry. Thus, Mauritania has a caste of “white” Beydanes. The Hassaya speakers of Mauritania (about one million) call their territory “trab-l-bidan” (the land of the white man) and themselves “Beidanes” (“white men.”) They are the “Moors” or descendants of Sanhaja Berbers converted to Islam about 1,000 years ago and of Arab invaders who came several centuries later. Their area of dominion is opposed to the Savannah regions of the south, peopled by the black people of the grasslands (“Toucouleurs” of Peul language) whom they call “Abd,” meaning slave in Arabic. Arab warrior classes and the vassal religious Berber groups with fictitious Arab lineage are contrasted to that of “black” African ancestry, originally pagan, and often seen as reverting to pagan ways in spite of being converted. This remarkable formation of structural classes and the construction of a caste system based on Arab “white” lineage took over the whole area, distorting the actual genetic and ethnic origins of certain groups of the desert. The persistent supremacist ideology of the Arabs prevailed over common sense. To have access to wealth and power, entire groups of Berbers claimed ancestry in Yemen or from the lineage of the Prophet (i.e., the Reguibat of the Western Sahara), in order to gain status and recognition.
The catastrophic message of the Koran (enslave the non-believers you conquer in the name of Islam) and the use of this message made by Islamic followers, in their assertion that Arab means white and superior to African and black, resulted in the present-day situation in the entire region. There are over thirty million Berbers and a good number of them, some in the Western Sahara and Mauritania, identify with Arabs, linguistically, religiously, and even through the invention of fictitious genealogies.
While the view of Moctar Teyeb is understandably a valuable message, as a personal testimony of a man born to slavery under local and temporal social constructs based on a specific type of ideology, his report that “Arabo-Berbers” were the agents of historical events which enslaved his people needs to be read in the light of the ample documentation which exists on the institution of slavery in Africa, and the nature of the Trans-Sahara Slave Trade. The Berbers of North Africa and the Berber Tuareg groups of the Sahara desert – all Imazighen – succumbed to the tyranny of Arab conquest, rule, and ideology, some of them to the point of creating legends and myths which gave them, the conquered, the same authority and superiority as their assailants and conquerors. While some have arabicized themselves thoroughly, in order to escape the slave status, others continue to struggle against the supremacist views of Arabs.
Finally, as regards the publication and transmittal of Moctar Teyeb’s somewhat incomplete message to the readers of Tikkun, a reminder about the large contribution of North African Jewish merchants to the establishment and maintenance of a Trans-Saharan Slave Trade through the centuries, must be noted. Different sentiments emerged in the last century toward the formerly widespread institution of slavery. It was an institution which sustained a specific type of economy throughout entire Black kingdoms and the Sahara desert. Then, Africa joined the capitalist global economy and its democratic basis, and reparation is now demanded by some for the thinking of an earlier age. Then, any reparation must come from the Jews as well as from the Berbers in addition to the primary reparation from the Arabs, and must include equally all Islamic groups of Black Africa who participated in such an abusive commerce of human lives. The Arab conquerors of Africa, along with their Islamic teachers, are those who most bear the burden of responsibility for a specific mode of thinking, encoded in a religion they spread throughout the African continent, and was perpetuated in a behavior originally dictated by an exclusive God obviously alien to African spirituality.