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Edward A. Alpers

The Indian Ocean has occupied an important place in the history of Africa for millennia, linking the continental land mass to the peoples, products, and ideas of the wider Indian Ocean world (IOW). Central to this relationship are environmental factors, including the biannual operation of monsoon winds, which determined the maritime movement of people, things, and ideas. The earliest of these connections involve the movement of food crops, domestic animals, and commensals both from and into Africa and its offshore islands. From the beginnings of the Current Era, Africa was an important Indian Ocean source of valuable commodities, such as ivory and gold; in more recent times, hardwood products like mangrove poles, and agricultural products like cloves, coconuts, and copra gained economic prominence. Enslaved African labor also had a long history in the IOW, the sources and destinations for the export trade varying over time. In addition, for centuries many different Indian Ocean immigrant communities played important roles as settlers, merchants, sailors, and soldiers. In the realm of culture and ideas, African music, dance, and spiritual concepts accompanied those Africans who were forcibly removed from the continent to the different Indian Ocean lands where they were enslaved. A further indicator of Indian Ocean connectivity is Islam, the introduction of which marks an important watershed in African history. The human settlement of Madagascar marks another significant Indian Ocean connection for Africa. At different times and in different ways, colonial rule—Portuguese, Dutch, Omani, French, and British—tied eastern African territories to India, Arabia, and Southeast Asia. Since regaining independence, African nation-states have established a variety of new linkages to other Indian Ocean states.


The African diaspora in the Indian Ocean is inextricably intertwined with slavery and slave trading in an oceanic world that encompasses southern and eastern Africa, the Red Sea, the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, South Asia, the Indonesian archipelago, and parts of East Asia. A combination of factors, including the cost of free labor, high morbidity and mortality rates from diseases such as malaria and smallpox, and the perceived attributes of different African peoples spurred the exportation by Arab, Muslim, and Swahili merchants of an estimated 2.9–3.65 million men, women, and children from diverse populations in southern and eastern Africa, Madagascar, and the Horn of Africa to Arabia, the Persian Gulf, South Asia, and Southeast Asia between 800 and c.1900. European involvement in this transoceanic slave trade began during the early 16th century and continued well into the 19th century. This diaspora’s legacy includes the presence of communities of African descent in modern Iran, India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.


Jonathan Miran

Together with the Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades, the Red Sea slave trade is one of the arenas that comprise what is still referred to as the “Islamic,” “Oriental,” or “Arab” slave trades that involved the transfer of enslaved people from sub-Saharan Africa to different parts of the Muslim world. It arguably represents one of the oldest, most enduring, and complex multidirectional patterns of human flow. It animated a series of routes and networks that moved African enslaved people mainly to Arabia, the eastern Mediterranean, the Gulf, Iran, and India. The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden slave trade also constituted part of a broader commercial system that comprised, in varying degrees, the greater Nile Valley trade system through which enslaved people from the northeast African interior were moved via overland routes to Egypt and beyond. Unlike the Atlantic slave trade system, where slave cargoes were commonplace, enslaved people were most often shipped across the Red Sea on regular sailing boats carrying a variety of other commodities. At the peak of the trade during the nineteenth century, a large majority of enslaved people exported through the Red Sea were in their teens. The sex ratio heavily favored females. Enslaved individuals from northeast Africa were exploited in a host of occupations that varied from “luxury” slaves (eunuchs and concubines) to domestic servants to labor-intensive enterprises such as pearl divers, masons, laborers in ports, and workers on agricultural plantations. Others were employed in urban economies in transportation, artisanship, and trade. Estimates based on a notoriously weak evidentiary base (for most periods) put Red Sea slave exports for the entire period between 800 ce and around 1900 ce at a total of just under 2,500,000, though this figure may be higher or lower. The heyday of the Red Sea trade was in the 19th century with estimates of around 500,000 enslaved people exported during the period. The abolition and suppression of the slave trade proper in the Red Sea region took a century to accomplish. It is infamously known as one of the most enduring slave trades in the world and it was only in the mid-20th century, when slavery was legally abolished in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia (both in 1962), that illicit slave smuggling across the sea was choked off. But legal abolition has not ended various forms and practices of human trafficking, smuggling, forced labor, debt bondage, commercial sex trafficking, and in some cases enslavement. These persist in the third decade of the 21st century in most of the modern countries bordering the Red Sea and, as in the past, with a reach that extends far and wide, beyond the region proper.