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Ronald Segal

Islam's black slaves
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.

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By Suzy Hansen

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.

Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora

By Ronald Segal

Farrar, Straus & Giroux
241 pages

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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.

Whereas the gender ratio of slaves in the Atlantic trade was two males to every female, in the Islamic trade, it was two females to every male. Very large numbers of slaves were used for domestic purposes. Concubinage was for those who could afford it and there was no disrepute attached to having women as sexual objects. In fact, they married them. Some harems could be enormous. One ruler had 14,000 concubines. In one respect, women slaves were a status symbol. I hate to say it this way, but it's comparable to the way people in the West collect motorcars.

The male slaves were used for the more exacting physical jobs in homes and palaces: porters, messengers, doorkeepers. In various places, from Islamic Spain to Egypt to Libya, there were black slaves used as soldiers. In Morocco, there was a whole generation of black slaves who became the army of Morocco, in which the young boys were bought at the age of 10 or 11 and trained in horse handling and military skills of various kinds. Young female slaves were instructed in household crafts and were then provided with resources to buy a home and get married.

What about eunuchs?

Strictly speaking, in Islam, castration was against the law. I don't think it was in the Koran, I think it was a hadith -- a saying attributed to the prophets -- which says he who castrates a slave will himself be castrated. But they got around this as people do. One contrivance was to buy already castrated slaves. Another was to employ those who were not Muslims to perform the operation. But then even these contrivances came to be abandoned and dealers would perform the operation themselves along the route. The mortality rates were absolutely huge.

To be technical, there was a crucial difference between white eunuchs and black eunuchs. White eunuchs were made by the removal of testicles. Black eunuchs were made by what was called "level with the abdomen." Eunuchs were guardians of the harem [because] if they were castrated "level with the abdomen," there was no risk of their damaging any of the property in the harem.

. Next page | Slavery in the Koran
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Photograph © Jerry Bauer


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