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Red Sea Slave Trade  

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.