Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
The author of a book on the 1,400-year history of the other slave trade talks about the power of eunuchs, the Nation of Islam's falsehoods and the persistence of slavery today.
April 5, 2001 | Although slavery seems like an institution from a barbaric and uncivilized past, it survives today in both Sudan and Mauritania. The horrific details of the Atlantic slave trade -- the ruthless slave traders who pillaged Africa, the millions of Africans who died on treacherous sea journeys to America, the resulting "peculiar institution" of cheap, brutalized labor that spawned the Civil War -- weigh heavily on the American conscience. Another slave trade, however, the Islamic one, remains a mysterious aspect in the history of the black diaspora. Fourteen centuries old, this version of slavery spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, Europe, India and China. It is the legacy of this trade that continues to ravage Sudan and Mauritania today.
South African-born Ronald Segal is the author of 13 books including "The Anguish of India," "The Americans" and "The Black Diaspora." In his latest book, "Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora," he offers one of the first historical accounts of the Islamic slave trade. Salon spoke with Segal by telephone from his home in London.
How did the Atlantic and Islamic slave trades differ?
The Atlantic slave trade exclusively used black slaves or agricultural labor on plantations. It started in a very small way in 1450 and ended in the middle of the 19th century. It was the basic labor supply for the plantations in the Americas since the indigenous people had been all but wiped out by a combination of imported diseases and forced labor. The number of slaves who landed alive in the Americas -- it was an important aspect in the development of capitalism, so the numbers are fairly accurate and organized by merchant banks and investors with stock market quotations -- was something like 10,600,000. Slaves became so cheap that it was more profitable to work them to death and buy new ones than to try to keep your labor supply alive. For example, some of the mortality rates in San Domingue -- which became, after the only successful slave revolution in history, Haiti -- were quite staggering.
Slaves in the Atlantic trade came to be kept and regarded as units of labor, not as people. This was almost formalized by categorizing slaves as "pieces of the Indies." A male slave, able-bodied and in the prime of his life, was defined as a "piece of the Indies," and the other slaves, the women and children, were defined as "pieces of pieces of the Indies." That gives you an idea of how the exploitation of African slaves was rationalized in the West.
But not in Islam?
The slave trade in Islam was seriously different. It began in the middle of the seventh century and survives today in Mauritania and Sudan. With the Islamic slave trade, we're talking of 14 centuries rather than four.
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