23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 37

The pot and the kettle

Justin Ma rozzi

ISLAM'S BLACK SLAVES: A HISTORY OF AFRICA'S OTHER BLACK DIASPORA by Ronald Segal Atlantic Books, £20, pp. 241, ISBN 0374227748 SLavery, wrote the 19th-century British explorer James Richardson, was 'the most gigantic system of wickedness the world ever saw'. Richardson was describing the worldwide traffic in human flesh, but it was the Saharan trade, rather than the better known commerce across the Atlantic, which informed his outrage.

Countless volumes have been written about the seizure of black Africans from their homes; their transport in appalling conditions from the ports of West Africa to the plantations of North America; their degrading and dehumanising treatment which all too often ended in premature death; and the enduring legacy of slavery in the US. Such is the depth of scholarship on the subject that historians wrangle endlessly with each other about the extent to which slavery promoted or inhibited the development of Western capitalism.

During the four centuries it lasted, the trade across the Atlantic accounted for an estimated 12 million slaves. The comparable figure for the Islamic trade, over a period of 13 centuries, was 11.5 million to 14 million. Yet this closeness in numbers is nowhere reflected in the respective historiographies. In fact, the disparity is glaring.

Part of this is surely due to the fact that, as Ronald Segal suggests, slavery in Muslim lands — or 'in Islam' as he confusingly and incorrectly puts it — 'was never the moral, political and economic issue that it was in the West'. The torrent of publications campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade was not matched in dar al Islam, the realm of Islam, where the Koran itself sanctioned the institution of slavery. That much is true, but Segal's argument is undermined by the proliferation of tracts against the Saharan slave trade written in the 19th century by men like Richardson and many other, predominantly British, explorers and missionaries, to which the author pays insufficient attention. It is a shame, too, that the voices of slaves do not make themselves heard here, not least those who managed to exchange captivity for political and military command.

The Koran has much to say on the subject of slavery. It counsels generally compassionate behaviour but specifies, for example, that female slaves may be lawfully enjoyed by their masters. It also encourages the emancipation of slaves as an act of piety, particularly if they are Muslim. In the Hadith, the sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, there are a number of prescriptions affecting their treatment. One of the more graphic prohibits their mutilation: 'Whoever cuts off the nose of a slave, his nose will be cut off; and whoever castrates a slave, him also shall we castrate..

One of the most important differences between the US and Islamic trades was the employment of slaves. Those heading west were destined primarily for gruelling commercial work on the tobacco, sugar, coffee and cotton plantations, or in the rice fields, or gold and silver mines. On the other hand, those who survived the journey across the burning wastes of the Sahara — the brutality of the conditions resulted in a mortality rate of about 20 per cent — or were exported either from the Red Sea or East African coasts were intended for more domestic work. Cleaners, cooks and concu bines, nurses, porters, housemaids, musicians, singers, dancers, guards and soldiers, all were symbols of conspicuous consumption.

The more you owned, the greater you were. Yusef ibn Tashfin, the 11th-century Almoravid ruler of Morocco, had a 2,000man bodyguard of black military slaves, A tenth-century caliph of Baghdad boasted an entourage of 11,000 slaves in his palace. But few could outdo Ahrnad ibn Tulun, founder of the ninth-century Tulunid dynasty of Egypt and himself the son of a Turkish slave. On his death he left 24,000 white slaves and 45,000 blacks as part of his estate.

The Egyptian ruler was one of the most notable examples of the social mobility inherent in the system of slavery as practised in the East, which once again distinguished it from the far more rigid North American version. Slaves could rise to positions of enormous influence and authority, which was unthinkable in the US. In the 16th century, a Habshi, or Ethiopian, slave called Ambar became a military commander in India under the Sultan of Bijapur, before deserting and raising his own army. It grew into a force of 60,000 and succeeded in defeating the advancing Moghuls under their celebrated emperor Akbar. Baybars, a Turkish military slave in the 13th century, fought his way to the sultanate of Egypt and routed a Mongol army in 1260.

Eunuchs, who often wielded considerable power, were prized above all other slaves. They cost up to seven times as much as an uncastrated male in the 19th century, in recognition of the heavy odds against survival after the slash of the barber's knife. Their popularity was in direct defiance of the Prophet's injunctions against mutilation, but profit prevailed over precept. If eunuchs represented one of the cruellest elements of Islamic slavery, they were by no means alone in suffering terrible treatment. The overwhelming use of concubines and male slaves, used for buggery against their wishes, undermined Islam's claims of humanity which Segal appears determined to uphold. 'The treatment of slaves in Islam was overall more benign,' he argues, 'in part because the values and attitudes promoted by religion inhibited the very development of a Western-style capitalism, with its effective subjugation of people' to the cash nexus.

But what of the terrifying slave raids, where men, women and children were seized and cast into irons, primarily, it should be noted, by Afro-Arab slavers? David Livingstone, the great voice against slavery, estimated that for every slave captured at least ten more were killed. It is a question Segal does not properly address. Early on, he talks of Western societies 'deformed by racism and an ultimate totalitarianism of money', as good a clue as any to the predispositions which underpin his research and perhaps predictable from the author of America's Receding Future and The Decline and Fall of the American Dollar.

It is not surprising, then, that the colonial powers in Africa come out particularly badly for their record in the slave trade. Britain, which played a crucial role in putting an end to slavery, was also guilty of brutality in Zanzibar and along the Kenyan coast, where in 1914 the colonial authorities forcibly evicted former slaves squatting on agricultural land, and torched their huts and possessions. Under Fascist government from 1922, Italy simply replaced slavery in Somalia with forced labour. The French were no exception. The army sanctioned slavery in French Soudan, while in Mauritania Paris argued that freeing slaves would lead to a catastrophic revolution. Its policies probably justified the outburst, not quoted here, from Richardson in the mid19th century:

I'll defy any traveller to write fairly and justly upon the late history of North Africa, without filling his pages with bona fide and wellfounded abuse of the French and their works in this part of the world. They emphatically stink throughout Africa.

Segal takes the story into the 20th century in his final two chapters, which include a depressing look at contemporary slavery in Mauritania and Sudan and the fruitless efforts of outside bodies to eradicate it. Responding to a scathing report from the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1993, Khartoum angrily denounced the criticism as an attempt to 'wage war on Islam'. The last chapter hops unexpectedly to a discussion of America's black Muslim backlash, in which Segal deplores Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, a movement that is curiously silent on contemporary black slavery in Islamic Sudan and Mauritania while wearily prone to blaming the ills of the world on Jews, as no more than 'a racism to confront racism'.

Given the disproportionate concentration by historians on the Atlantic slave trade, Segal is to be credited for lifting the veil on its much neglected cousin in the Islamic world. Although Islam's Black Slaves could be told more engagingly and with less recourse to cluttered anecdotes — in trying to take on a narrative of 13 centuries the book suffers not from too little ambition but rather too much — it is a brave effort in a new field. Where Segal has led, others now will surely follow.

Justin Marozzi's South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara is published by HarperCollins.