Slavery Routes: A Short History of Human Trafficking
Part 1 476 AD -1375 AD: Beyond the Desert
This series explores slave trading that followed the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 AD. Although debt and conquest-related slavery clearly occur in ancient Greece and prehistoric civilizations, wholesale slave trafficking to remote locations only began after the fall of Rome.
Following the fall of Rome, the barbarian societies that replaced Roman civilization (the Goths, Visigoths, Slavs in the Northeast, Byzantine Empire, Berbers and Nubian and Arab tribes). For several centuries Slavs from Eurasia were the preferred slaves. This would cause their ethnic label to be confused with the Greek word for slave.
As Arab armies began expanding into Egypt after 641, the economy and demand for slaves increased exponentially. As oil wouldn’t be discovered for another 1200 years, slaves would serve as an essential source of energy for territorial and economic expansion.
In less than a century, the Islamic Empire would occupy the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean. When Baghdad became its capital (762 AD) thousands of slaves were needed to remove the coating of salt* that covered the soil around Basra to enable cultivation. It was during this period Muslims first began using African slaves. Under Islamic law, only non-Muslims could serve as slaves. Slaves who converted to Islam had to be freed.
Over the eighth century, the Islamic Empire expanded into the Caucasus, the Balkans, Turkey and Russia.
After Cairo became the new capitol of the Islamic Empire in the tenth century, Berber slaves taught their Muslim masters how to use camels for transportation. This enabled military and political leaders to cross the Sahara Desert for the first time to the rich capitol of the the Mali Empire Timbuktu. The Mali emperor employed more than 12,000 slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to work his gold mines – representing, at the time, the world’s largest gold reserves.
Once he he declared Islam the official religion, more than 1000 slaves would leave Mali every year for distant outposts of the Islamic World. Mali rulers also enslaved more than 12,000 natives of sub-Saharan Africa to work the emperor’s goldmines.
By the end of the Middle Ages, there were six main trading routes for exporting sub-Saharan slaves to territories north of the Mediterranean and in some cases as far as China and Japan. Between the 7th and 14th century (when Europe entered the slave trade), it’s estimated a total of 3.5 million Africans were captured and sold into slavery by Islamic traders.
Ironically in the 21st century, light skinned Tuaregs in North Africa still enslave sub-Saharan Africans who become prey to traffickers trying to flee economic oppression and violence in southern Africa.