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The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade  

Ralph A. Austen

The almost two-millennium-long forced overland movement of several million Black Africans across the Sahara desert toward the continent’s Mediterranean coast was, at its base, an economic undertaking. On its receiving end, this commerce was driven by the demand for various forms of private and public services in Mediterranean as well as in Saharan societies; on the supply side it depended upon the willingness and capacity of Saharan and Sudanic forces to seize people and exchange them for imported goods. The basic technology and institution of trans-Saharan slave-trading—the cross-desert camel caravan—did not change radically during the many centuries of its existence, although it did undergo important transformations in specific times and places along its broad and ever-expanding landscape. The combination of regulations under Islamic law and the deployment of most slaves—the majority of them female—in domestic rather than agricultural labor allowed them to enjoy better prospects of manumission and even social advancement than the New World African plantation workers to which they are often compared. But, paradoxically, such relatively liberal treatment of the already enslaved produced an increased demand for new captives, all subjected to the harsh and often fatal transition of the great desert and, in the case of many young men, the additional ordeal of castration.