Slave trade brought 800,000 Africans to the Gulf
DOHA // The vast majority of people transported to the Gulf during the height of the slave trade in the latter half of the 19th century and until the global Great Depression were abducted from east Africa. The region was destabilised politically by the lucrative trade, which pitted tribal and ethnic groups against each other.
Up to 800,000 Africans were traded as slaves in the Arab Gulf during this time, scholar Matthew Hopper wrote in his book, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire.
They were kidnapped or captured across a swath of east Africa and then sent to Zanzibar, from where they were transported, typically chained, in dhows riding the May to October trade winds to ports on the coasts of Yemen and Oman. At the height of the trade as many as 3,000 slaves were bought each month at slave markets in the Gulf region. One fifth of Qatar’s population of 27,000 at the time were African, mostly enslaved. Many of these slaves worked alongside impoverished Arabs pearl diving and picking dates, the two industries that saw a boom at the time.
While the British, who outlawed slavery in their empire in 1833, signed a treaty with the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1873 allowing them to search ships suspected of carrying slaves in his territorial waters, their efforts could not staunch the flow. Slaves were brought over in smaller groups, and also in French and Ottoman-flagged vessels that the British were not allowed to search.
When the pearl and date markets collapsed with the global recession of the 1930s, many slaves were freed by owners who could no longer afford to clothe or feed them, and others used the opportunity to run away to the political agency in Bahrain where they were given their legal freedom. Some were taken by the British to colonial centres such as Bombay and Aden where they sometimes did the same kinds of gruelling work, though legally free. Others were freed and settled in the Gulf.
By 1952, when the then ruler Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani outlawed slavery, records show that most families in Doha had one or two slaves. There were many children with Arab fathers, and intermarriage of former slaves and their descendants with local people was not uncommon. Musical forms brought from Africa such as leywa and tanbura became part of the national culture. This “open” system of slavery differed greatly from American chattel slavery, and former slaves became absorbed into society – though not necessarily as equals.
The Qatari nationality law of 1961 gave full citizenship rights to the descendants of slaves, though the subject of slavery is still very sensitive. “Add to [the] complex diversity of populations the recent trends of urbanisation, dislocation, internal migration, and the tradition of homogeneity promoted by national dress, and there remains little incentive for those with servile ancestry to highlight this part of their family history,” Mr Hopper wrote in his book.