The East African slave trade
From the earliest times, slaves were one of the many 'commodities' exported from Africa to Arabia, Persia, India and beyond. In the 18th century the demand increased considerably and Arab trading caravans from Zanzibar penetrated mainland Africa in search of suitable slaves. Various contemporary accounts describe all aspects of the trade, from the initial capture of the slaves to their sale in the infamous market of Zanzibar Town.
In the interior, the Arab traders would often take advantage of local rivalries and encourage powerful African tribes to capture their enemies and sell them into slavery. In this way, men, women and children were exchanged for beads, corn or lengths of cloth. When the Arab traders had gathered enough slaves, sometimes up to a thousand, they returned to the coast. Although the Koran forbade cruelty to slaves, this was frequently ignored on the long journey to Zanzibar: the slaves were tied together in long lines, with heavy wooden yokes at their necks or iron chains around their ankles which remained in place day and night until they reached the coast.
The trade in slaves was closely linked to the trade in ivory: the Arab traders also bought tusks from the Africans and some of the captured slaves may have had to carry these on their heads as they marched towards the coast. If a woman carrying a baby on her back became too weak to carry both child and ivory, the child would be killed or abandoned to make the ivory load easier to carry. Any slaves unable to march were also killed and left behind for the vultures and hyenas. The passage of a slave caravan was marked by a long line of decaying corpses.
After many weeks or months of marching, the slave caravans reached the coast at ports such as Kilwa and Bagamoyo. Here, the slaves were loaded onto dhows, seldom more than 30–35m long, and taken to Zanzibar. Each dhow carried between 200 and 600 slaves, all crammed below decks on specially constructed bamboo shelves with about 1m of headroom. There was not enough room to sit, or to kneel or squat, just a crippling combination of the three. Sometimes slaves were closely packed in open boats, their bodies exposed day and night to the sea and the rain. They were thirsty, hungry and seasick and many died of exhaustion. Meals consisted of a daily handful of rice and a cup of stagnant water. Sanitation was non-existent and disease spread rapidly. When any illness was discovered, infected slaves were simply thrown overboard.
By the time the slaves reached Zanzibar, they were suffering from starvation and the effects of torturously cramped conditions: it was sometimes a week after landing before
they could straighten their legs. The slave traders paid customs duty on all slaves who landed, so any considered too weak to live were thrown overboard as the ship approached the port. Even so, many more slaves died in the Customs House or on the
streets between the port and the market.
Before being put on sale, the slaves who did survive were cleaned so that they would fetch a better price. Men and boys had their skins oiled and were given a strip of material to put around their waist. Women and girls were draped in cloth, and sometimes even adorned with necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Generous layers of henna and kohl were smeared onto their foreheads and eyebrows.
The slaves were put on sale in the market in the late afternoon. They were arranged in lines, with the youngest and smallest at the front and the tallest at the rear, and paraded through the market by their owner, who would call out the selling prices. The owner would assure potential buyers that the slaves had no defects in speech or hearing, and that there was no disease present. Buyers would examine the arms, mouths, teeth and eyes of the slaves, and the slaves were often made to walk or run, to prove they were capable of work. Once their suitability had been established, they were sold to the highest bidder. After being sold to a new owner, slaves were either put to work in the houses and plantations of Zanzibar or else transported again, on a much longer sea voyage, to Oman or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. However, the slaves were relatively well treated when they arrived at their new homes. They were fed, housed and clothed, and given small plots of land, with time off to tend them. Young mothers were rarely separated from their children, and good slaves were often freed after a few years. Many took paid jobs, such as gardeners and farmers, for their previous masters: some even became leaders of slave caravans or masters of slave ships.Source: Charles Miller 'The Lunatic Express', Macmillan 1971