Modern history

3

The Slaves Who Find the Gold Are All Black

“The slaves who find the gold are all black but, if, by a miracle, they manage to escape from the mines, they become white.”

Valentim Fernandes, c. 1500

AT THE END of the Roman empire, most ancient institutions collapsed. So did most families, gods, and traditions. But slavery survived. In the worst years of the Dark Ages, Scythian slaves could still be bought in Antioch, and Gothic ones could still be found in Rome. Slaves too played a part in the overthrow of the empire. Thus Alaric’s army of forty thousand included many fugitive slaves, many of them Goths in origin. The partisans of the Emperor Honorius in Spain even armed slaves to fight the Franks. In 423, the usurper John seized power in Ravenna and, having no troops, he enfranchised and armed the slaves of the nearby villae. In Gaul, runaway slaves were frequent in the Franks’ invading armies.

The “barbarians” swiftly drew close to the peoples whom they had conquered. It was not their purpose to break up the old social order. Rather, they wanted to capture it. They needed no convincing that their new estates needed slave labor, for they had always used slaves whenever they could, even when they had been nomadic, and they had often suffered from Roman slaving raids in the past.

The new masters of the old Roman world obtained most of their slaves by capture in war; and war was then incessant. There was not only continual fighting between the different Anglo-Saxon monarchies, but by them against the Celts in the west of Britain: wars that often seemed mere manhunts for Celtic slaves. The Franks, too, were always fighting—against Bretons, or Aquitainian Goths—and usually bringing back slaves as booty. In the Dark Ages of Europe, slaves were also made as a result of punishments (a criminal who could not pay a fine allocated to the victim might be reduced to slavery). Most slaves in Visigothic Spain seem to have derived from that source; or from debts; or from simple poverty, for men and women deliberately sold themselves, or their children, into bondage for the sake of a better life. Gregory of Tours, the sixth-century historian, recalled that, in Gaul of his day, “merchants reduced the poor to slavery in return for a morsel of food.”1

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Slave markets maintained their rhythm, if at a slower beat than in the past; and, in Visigothic Spain, Jewish merchants were prominent among those providing slaves for sale—Celts or Suevi, no doubt—until the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the seventh century restricted their activities.

The laws of most of these successor states to Rome reflected Roman practice, though they adapted them to the new age: a Burgundian decree, for example, declared that a slave was worth five and a half oxen, or five hogs. There are many references to slavery in Anglo-Saxon, Lombard, and Frankish codes: innumerable provisions related to punishments for slaves who tried to cross the borderline between bondage and liberty; and, in some ways, the rules read at least as if they were harsher than those of Rome. Out of nearly five hundred Visigothic laws which survive (their kings were great lawyers), almost half refer to some aspect of slavery. Saint Isidore of Seville who, at a bleak time, established a philosophical entente between Christian and Gothic customs, had, meantime, no doubts about the divine origin of slavery: “Because of the sin of the first man, the penalty of servitude was inflicted by God on the human race; to those unsuitable for liberty, he has mercifully accorded servitude.”2 It will be remembered that, inTristan and Isolde, Tristan’s first mission was to kill Morold, a knight from Ireland who came regularly to Cornwall to obtain slaves.

So, throughout the early Middle Ages, slaves constituted a highly prized section of the population of Europe, including Northern Europe. How large a proportion of the population of Charlemagne’s empire constituted slaves is a matter for speculation. But certainly, during the Carolingian “renaissance,” slave markets, like learning, prospered. Saxons, Angles, Wends, and Avars could all be bought at Verdun, Arles, and Lyons, at whose “great fairs” slavs soon became also a prime commodity. Verdun prided herself on her production of eunuchs, most of them being sold to the Moors in Spain. Louis the Debonair, Charlemagne’s heir, unlike his father, followed a defensive policy. So slaves as prisoners of war were less easy to come by. He sold licenses to trade slaves to the powerful merchants whom he knew, who were concerned to buy and sell abroad as well as in France.

Still, there remains doubt as to whether all these servi, to use the Latin word for them, were slaves proper—chattel slaves, that is—rather than serfs, persons with some rights of property. The words are confusing, for, soon after, “slavery” vanished in Northern Europe. The reasons are disputed. Was it because feudal lords found that they could not feed a labor force all the year round and decided to employ them only during the harvest? Was the eclipse of the old institution the consequence of the use of “new technology”—especially on small holdings (or associations of small holdings)—which made slave labor inappropriate: for example, large cart horses, with frontal collars; frontal yokes for oxen; the new flail, the wheeled plow with a moldboard; iron tools; and, above all, the diffusion of water mills (such a wonderful release from the old hand mill, which had given such exhausting work to slaves for so long)? Or were the feudal lords too poor to be able to afford new slaves? Were there too few foreign wars which could bring home captives in the early Middle Ages (especially in competition with the Muslim markets of the Mediterranean)? Did new lords find it to their economic advantage to free their slaves in return for rent, becoming landlords rather than masters? Did the descendants of slaves rise in the world to merge with a mass of once independent farmers who were in decline, to form a new class of serfs? Or were slave revolts (such as that against King Aurelius in Asturias in 770) and the mass slave escapes of the time too much for masters to endure? (In Visigothic Spain, King Egica in 702 tried to persuade the entire free population to help him seek runaway slaves.)

The idea that some element of morality introduced by a more penitent Church played a part should not be entirely ignored. Balthilde, an Anglo-Saxon slave of Erchinoald, the maire du palais, married King Clovis II (the first roi fainéant) in 649, and she became known for her efforts both to stop the slave trade and to redeem those already enslaved (she is now very properly Saint Balthilde). Slaves were beginning to be allowed, in however humble a posture, to enter churches; and there was some intermarriage between freemen and slave girls. The mere act of baptism proved that slaves were men, or women, with souls. Then, in 960 A.D., the bishops of Venice sought to win divine forgiveness for what they admitted to have been their past sins in selling slaves by seeking to prohibit Venetians from engaging in the trade. In England, manumission became increasingly frequent before 1066, especially by bishops in their wills, and seems to have become almost a commandment. William the Conqueror gave his support to ecclesiastical rules forbidding the enslavement of Christians, as did Henry I. Archbishop Anselm, at the London Council of 1102, denounced the practice of selling Englishmen as “brute beasts”; his pious contemporary Bishop Wulfstan preached against the practice of selling English slaves from Bristol to Ireland.3 But it is unclear whether they would have minded selling Frenchmen—or Welshmen, come to that—and the Church remained a slaveowner. Much earlier, the goldsmith Saint Eligius was found enfranchising “only” a hundred of the slaves whom he offered to the new Monastery of Solignac, near Limoges.

The truth seems to be that many causes for the fall of the ancient institution came together during the eleventh century in Northern Europe. There seem to have been no slaves to speak of by then in central Italy, in Catalonia, in central France. In Spain, the slave system was already on the verge of collapse at the time of the Moorish conquest. Thereafter, the grandsons of many who had been slaves began to be converted into serfs, men with obligations to masters (who provided their houses, as in the mezzadria, the sharecropping arrangement of Italy) but who also worked on their own to gain some part of their living. In northern France, it became evident that serfs not only produced more than slaves did, but they required no permanent guards. All the same, there seems to have been what a modern French historian has called “un moment privilégié,” a “discontinuity,” when slavery was dying, and before serfdom had been properly established.4

England carried through these changes a little later than did her continental neighbors. But after the Norman Conquest, the new lords freed many of the slaves whom they found on the estates which they seized, and these then joined the ranks of the lower peasantry. Domesday Book records twenty-five thousand servi, or about a tenth of the labor force (many were plowmen, living completely at the lord’s disposal, and in his house). But the Norman Conquest was the first such invasion of England which did not increase the number of slaves in the country. Thereafter, the feudal system was introduced, in a more coherent way than anywhere on the continent, by the king and his tenants, the new lords. By 1200, slavery had disappeared in England, even if William Wilberforce, in a famous speech six hundred years later, introducing in the English House of Commons a discussion of the slave trade, talked of child slaves from Bristol being sold to Ireland as late as the reign of Henry VII—an aspect of the troubles of the latter island which has not otherwise received attention.5

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The state of slavery was, however, quite different in Southern Europe. In all the countries which bordered the Mediterranean, the institution prospered in the Middle Ages. The reasons were, first, that that sea, and its shore, constituted a permanent war zone between Christians and Muslims; and, second, that slaves continued to be a priority in Islam. Christians and Muslims alike in the Mediterranean still considered that the institution of slavery had a firm basis in Roman and canon law, in the Bible, and also in the Koran—though the latter specifically, and often, proclaimed that to free a slave was one of the most praiseworthy of acts. The third Caliph Othman had done so: he was said to have bought over two thousand captives simply for the purpose of liberating them.

Just as the entire population of Carthage had been enslaved after its capture by Rome, so, in the early eighth century, the swift conquest of Visigothic Spain by the Moors was followed by mass enslavements of Christians. Thirty thousand Christian slaves are said to have been sent to Damascus, as the prescribed fifth of the booty due to the caliph after the fall of the Visigoths. These slaves were fortunate, since the Koran allowed the killing of all males in cities which resisted, and merely the enslavement of their wives and children. Years later, Willibald, a Kentish pilgrim to the Holy Land, was helped by a Spanish “chamberlain to the King of the Saracens,” who may have been a survivor of these. In Medina, it was for a long time easy to meet Christian slaves of Spanish origin. Abd ar-Rahman III, the most gifted of the caliphs in Córdoba, in Spain itself, employed nearly four thousand Christian slaves in his palace of Madinat az-Zahra, outside that city. The great al-Mansur, grand vizier of that caliphate in the late tenth century, launched over fifty attacks on Christian territories, from all of which he brought back slaves: thirty thousand, it is said, after his conquest of León. When he died, at Medinaceli in 1002, his friends lamented that “our provider of slaves is no more.”6 As late as 1311, Aragonese ambassadors at the General Council of the Church at Vienne claimed that there were still thirty thousand Christian slaves in the kingdom of Granada.

Islam in fact accepted slavery as an unquestionable part of human organization. Indeed, Mahomet took over the system of slavery upon which ancient society was based, without question. The greatest of Arab historians, Ibn-Khaldun, believed that it was through slavery that some of the strongest Muslims, such as the Turks, learned “the glory and the blessing and [had become] exposed to divine providence.” By Islamic law, if a people were to convert to Islam before a battle against a Muslim army, their lives, goods, and liberty had to be respected. There were also some tolerant rules, such as that “it is essential that a captured polytheist [the Koran’s euphemism for a Christian] receives his nourishment and good treatment up till the time that his fate is decided.”7 Slave children were not to be separated from their mothers till they had attained the age of seven. Thus the laws of Islam were in some ways more benign in respect of slavery than those of Rome. Slaves were not to be treated as if they were animals. Slaves and freemen were equal from the point of view of God. The master did not have power of life and death over his slave property.

Not all Christians in Moorish Spain were enslaved after their subjection. Some Christian princes to begin with could even keep their own slaves. But they were not permitted to have Muslim ones, or black ones: the latter were especially coveted by Muslim noblemen, since they were in short supply.

The Muslims of Spain carried on their pursuit of slaves beyond the borders of the old Visigothic realm. For example, they raided France for captives from a base in the Camargue, and they made razzias to Arles in 842, to Marseilles in 838, and to Valence in 869. Throughout the High Middle Ages, there were also innumerable acts of Mediterranean piracy in which Christians were seized by Muslims (or Muslims by Christians), the captures being followed by long negotiations for ransoms. Entire religious orders, such as the Mercedarians, were founded in Christian Spain to deal with the matter. How often did innocuous-seeming little ships set off from the northern coasts of Africa in order to seize Christians from the shores of the north! And how often, too, did similar ships set off from Barcelona or Majorca with a similar goal.

The Muslims of Spain also bought slaves, and on a large scale. One important source, after the revival of prosperity under the Carolingians, were the still largely pagan Slav territories (the people lent their name to the institution, and the word “Slav” later became a synonym in Arabic for “eunuch”). Merchants in the eastern marches of Germany would drive captives to markets in the Mediterranean—sometimes via Walenstad in Austria—or Venice—sometimes via Koblenz, on the Rhine, or Verdun. These prisoners might also travel south, down the Saône and the Rhone, and be embarked at Arles. Thence, crossing the Mediterranean in a middle passage as disagreeable as, if shorter than, that of the Atlantic in later days, they would be landed at Almería, the main port of Muslim Spain. They might be shipped thence to any Muslim port, even to Baghdad or Trebizond, Cairo or Algiers.

There grew up, too, a thriving two-way commerce in slaves between Christian merchants of Europe, such as Normans (the Vikings often carried away slaves), and the Muslims of the Mediterranean and of the Atlantic coast. Christian representatives in Arab ports sought to obtain treaties, and consuls, to protect themselves. Sometimes they were successful. But they were prevented from penetrating the African interior by the Arab merchants who controlled the trade there. Those middlemen offered sought-after African products as well as slaves—gold, ivory, ebony, dyed goat skins, chillies, or malaguetta peppers (the “grains of paradise”) in return for European treasures such as glass beads, weapons, and woolen goods. Sometimes black slaves from Guinea might be exchanged for blond ones from Poland.

Thus, in the early Middle Ages, at all the Muslim Mediterranean courts and especially those of al-Andalus, there were gathered together, as in an international brigade of servitude, Greek, Slav, German, Russian, Sudanese, and black slaves. Nubians, Ethiopians, and occasionally those sought-after black men and women from Guinea were also to be seen, having been brought across the Sahara from Timbuktu to Sijilmasa, an important market town in southern Morocco.I With them came ivory which was used by the famous Islamic school of ivory carving at Cuenca. One historian of al-Andalus writes of the “vast hordes of slaves” brought in during the tenth century. Among the merchants who dealt in these slaves from Guinea was the father of the Andalusian historian Ahmad ar-Razi, who was not the last such writer to have financed his research by a fortune accumulated by a slaving forebear.

The Umayyad rulers of Córdoba, acting in imitation of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, began to employ slaves as soldiers and, by the middle of the ninth century, the caliph there had a slave army of sixty thousand “silent ones,” so named because, being German, English, or Slav, they spoke no Arabic. Yusef ibn Tashufun the Almoravid favored the use of these Christian slaves against Christian rulers: they fought well. Even though Muslim power was in decay by the end of the fourteenth century, Christian slaves also worked on the Alhambra in Granada.

Slaves could prosper in Muslim courts, and the son of one such, the Slav Badr, became governor of Córdoba. Many caliphs had children by their slave mistresses, and so it was that Abd ar-Rahman III was the son of a Christian slave girl. Some of the rulers of thetaifas, the tiny principalities which sprang up in Spain after the collapse of the caliphate of Córdoba in the eleventh century, were slaves in origin: for example, Sabur, the slave king in Badajoz, was probably born Sapor, a Persian; and the ruler of Denia, near Valencia, may once have been a Sardinian slave.

Perhaps some black slaves were included in the largely Berber army of Gebel el-Tarik, which crossed to Spain in 711. Abd ar-Rahman I, the founder of the Umayyad caliphate in Córdoba, employed a black slave to manage his harem. Al-Hakam I, in the ninth century, surrounded himself with “mamelukes [Egyptians] and blacks.” Al-Hakam II, a hundred years later, had a black slave bodyguard, as did the most powerful king of Granada, Muhammad V, in the mid-fourteenth century.

The Christians in Spain emulated Muslim behavior. True, they began their reconquest of the peninsula by killing the Muslim populations of the towns which they seized. But, by the end of the eighth century, captured women and children were made into slaves, as were some men. After all, execution was a waste of a resource. A prime purpose of Christian adventurers and municipal councils in penetrating Muslim territory soon indeed became to find slaves. In 1143, a Castilian king, Alfonso VII, made an expedition to Andalusia, and brought back Muslim slaves from Carmona, near Seville, as from Almería. Slaves (principally from Eastern Europe) also began to be given as presents, along with gold, to Christian kings of Spain by Muslim tributaries. Muslim slaves were at work on the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela about 1150, just as Christian slaves were building the Mosque of Kutubiyya at Marrakesh.

Castilian razzias, copying Muslim ones, increased in the thirteenth century. The recovery of the great cities of al-Andalus led to the enslavement of thousands who were received with enthusiasm by the conquerors and their followers. Many of the Muslims’ slaves from all over the Mediterranean and beyond also passed directly into Castilian hands. King Alfonso III of Aragon is also said to have sold forty thousand Moors after his capture of Minorca (in 1287); and the best historian of this subject has suggested that it might be enough merely to halve that figure in order to establish the truth.8 It must have been easy for Ramon Llull, the Majorcan mystic and agitator, to buy a Muslim slave about that time, who would teach him Arabic. The extraordinary Arab traveler Ibn Battuta described a Christian raid in 1352 for slaves on the coast of al-Andalus between Marbella and Málaga, perhaps at the fishing port of Torremolinos. The raid must have been similar to that of the Portuguese a hundred years later in West Africa, which brought the Azanaghi back to Prince Henry and the Algarve.

Thus it is no surprise that slavery, though apparently in decline about 1000 A.D., as it was north of the Pyrenees, received detailed attention two hundred and fifty years later in the major Spanish legal code, the “Siete Partidas” of King Alfonso the Wise. That famous document specified that a man became a slave by being captured in war, by being born the child of a slave, or by letting himself be sold. The code, compiled in the 1260s, confirmed Roman definitions of slavery, though in some respects it was more tolerant (certainly more so than the rough Visigothic laws), for example, allowing that a slave might marry against his master’s will, and that, once married, couples could not be separated. If marriages occurred between slaves with different masters, an effort had to be made to let them work in the same place. If a compromise could not be achieved, the Church had to buy both slaves. Children would take the status of their mothers, so that, if the latter were free, the children could be too. A slave who was badly treated could complain to a judge, and a master who killed a slave could be tried for murder. Castration was forbidden as a punishment. Slaves were to be allowed to inherit property. There was no suggestion in the code that slavery might be an evil in itself. But manumission was possible, and slaves who could afford it could buy their liberty. King Alfonso also provided, bearing in mind that medieval Spain was a country of several cultures, that neither Jews, Moors, nor heretics could legally own Christian slaves.9

These provisions in theory governed Spanish-owned slaves not just for the remainder of the Middle Ages but, however inadequately applied, or explicitly amended, in one way or another until the nineteenth century.

By 1100, there were in Christian Spain (or Portugal) few slaves who had the same faith as their masters but many Muslim ones, living alongside a small class of free Muslims. Most of the captives were in one way or another servants in noble households, though some worked in workshops or on farms. Many of them were sold, often outside Spain. Thus, in the thirteenth century, Arles, Montpellier, Narbonne, Antibes, and Nice were important markets for slaves obtained from Africa. Venetian, Genoese, or Florentine merchants often did the selling. Barcelona was important too, its traders busily selling “sarrasines” or “Moors” to buyers in Sicily and Genoa. Palma de Mallorca ran Barcelona close as a slaving port in the fifteenth century. Thus we hear how Thomas Vincentius, of Tarragona, settled in Genoa, bought there, in the course of the summer of 1318, two white slaves (probably Moors), two olive-skinned ones, one slave from the Crimea, two Turks, and a Greek. Greek slaves were then fashionable in Barcelona, being obtained from the Catalan duchy of Athens; and slaves from the Crimea were easily acquired thanks to the Genoese colony at Kaffa (the modern Feodosiya). Other important sources for slaves were Sardinia and Russia: thus, on “24 April 1409, Johannes Vilahut, notary of the royal chancellery and bourgeois of Barcelona, sold to Narciso Jutglat, bourgeois of Palma, a Russian neophyte, aged 27, named Helen.” There were Circassian, Armenian, and Turkish slaves as well as Balkans of all sorts and particularly Albanians (in 1450, “Jacobus d’Alois, coral fisherman of Barcelona, sold to the widow of a merchant of the same city an Albanian named Erma, aged 25”). The ethnic diversity was remarkable, as it had been in al-Andalus.10

Ports in Aragon’s southern Italian dominions were also slave ports in the fifteenth century, above all Naples and Palermo. Sales there by Spanish merchants were frequent.

In Aragon and Valencia, though Christian razzias and kidnappings, especially at sea, continued, commerce played a more and more important part in providing slaves for Europe. No doubt that should be seen as a step towards civilization.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, slaves imported from Russia or the Black Sea became more rare. The conquest of Crimea by the Ottomans brought an end to the Genoese trading post at Kaffa. The shortage was compensated for in Spain by imports of slaves from the recently discovered (or rediscovered) Canary Islands. For example, after the “revolt” of Tenerife, a single merchant of Valencia brought back eighty-seven guanches (Canary Island natives) on one ship.

Black African slaves were also becoming quite numerous, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain and elsewhere. In the 1250s already, Moorish traders were to be found offering black slaves from Guinea at fairs in Guimarães, in northern Portugal; and blacks bought in North Africa were being sold in Cádiz at the end of that century. In 1306, two inhabitants of Cerbère, on the Spanish-French border, sold “to Bernard Gispert, of Santa Coloma de Queralt, in Catalonia, a ‘black Saracen,’ called Alibez, for 335 sous.” At the end of the fourteenth century, in 1395, King Juan I of Aragon reclaimed two “Ethiopians” (a generic word still used for all Africans) who had hidden in the Monastery of Santa María de Besalú—one of them claiming that he was the son of the king of Ethiopia. Then, in 1416, Jaume Gil, hotelier of Igualada, no distance from Santa Coloma, bought “an Ethiopian negress,” Marguerite, known as Axa before she was baptized, from Elisenda, the widow of an apothecary, for 139 Aragonese gold florins. The records of the markets of those days indeed seem to contain increasing mention of “black Tartars,” of Algerians, even of black Christians from Tunis, and some from Sudan or Cyrenaica. The Africans of Barcelona were numerous enough, in the mid-fifteenth century, to form there a black cofradia, a black Christian brotherhood, such as existed already in both Seville and Valencia—though the direction of these must have been in the hands of freemen.11

There were more slaves in Seville—the “needle’s eye,” in a later judge’s phrase—in the fifteenth century than anywhere else in Spain.12 They were to be found in the Arenal, where ships for trading were loaded, even selling goods in public squares and in marketplaces. Moors and Moriscos (white slaves, esclavos blancos), had usually been captives in war (either from Granada or captured in Mediterranean wars) and were often disliked; but blacks (esclavos negros), who often became Christians and accepted Spanish culture, were easily absorbed.

Slaves were also to be found in Italy: not just in commercially adventurous cities such as Genoa, Venice, and Florence, but also in Rome. A law of 1441 in Genoa showed how seriously the slave trade was taken then: a slave ship with one deck could henceforth only carry thirty slaves; with two it could carry forty-five; and one with three, sixty. (These were regulations of a kind which Northern Europe, after it had re-entered the slave traffic in the seventeenth century, would not repeat till 1790 on the occasion of Sir William Dolben’s bill in England.) It was laid down in Florence in 1364 that all kinds of slaves might be imported, provided they were not Catholics. Most of those brought in were Tartars from Kaffa; at least one Florentine firm, that of the family of Marchionni, had a foothold there in a prominently Genoese-dominated city. Between 1366 and 1397, nearly 400 slaves were sold in Florence (mostly women). Many Greek slaves were also sold in Italy, along with Albanians, Russians, Turks, and “Moors.” In the late fifteenth century, Venetians probably enjoyed the services of about three thousand slaves from North Africa or Tartary. Anxiety was sometimes expressed because there were too few slaves (for example, in a debate in the Senate in Venice in 1459); but there was also fear lest slaves might become so numerous as to constitute a danger to the city: a familiar cry in later slave societies in the Americas.

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The southern shore of the Mediterranean afforded an even livelier market for slaves in the late Middle Ages than the northern one. No doubt Christian captives dominated the field, mostly kidnapped on the high seas or in maritime raids on Spanish or Italian ports or villages. All the same, for hundreds of years, black slaves, especially girls and young men, had also been sought after by Arab merchants for use in Muslim courts, from Córdoba to Baghdad, as servants, concubines, or warriors. The slave girls of Awdaghost, on the Upper Niger, were prized as cooks, particularly skilled, reported the traveler al-Bakri, at making exquisite pastries out of a mixture of nuts and honey. In the fourteenth century, another traveler, al-Umari, described the empire of Mali, the largest West African monarchy of the time, also on the Upper Niger, as deriving great profit from “its merchandise and its seizures by razzias in the land of the infidel.” The successors of the Mali, the emperors of the Songhai, would customarily give presents of slaves to their guests. In Fez, in the early sixteenth century, the emperor gave Leo the African, a Moor born in Granada who later lived at the brilliant court of Pope Leo X in Rome, “fifty male slaves and fifty female slaves brought out of the land of the blacks, ten eunuchs, twelve camels, one giraffe, twenty civet-cats. . . . Twenty of the male slaves,” he added, “cost twenty ducats apiece, and so did fifteen of the female slaves.” The eunuchs were worth forty ducats, the camels fifty, and the civet-cats two hundred—the high cost of the last item being due to their use in making scent.13

Egypt had a taste for black eunuchs in the tenth century. Admittedly, they were largely able to satisfy this caprice by trading with the territories to their south. A treaty of 651 A.D. obliged the Nubians to deliver 360 slaves a year to Egypt, and there were Muslim conventions with other conquered peoples in North Africa. Then many of those who set off northwards from the sub-Sahara Sudan would take with them black slaves, whom they would customarily sell when they arrived at their destination.

The enthusiasm for black slaves was, to be sure, nothing like a private interest of the Muslims: they were also popular as slaves in Java and India in the Middle Ages; even the Chinese seem to have liked East African slaves, a desire presumably satisfied by Muslim merchants in Canton.

The numbers involved in trans-Sahara trading are difficult to estimate. Could there have been seven thousand black eunuchs in Baghdad in the tenth century? Was it the sheer number of black slaves in the fields of Mesopotamia which inspired there the great rebellion of slaves led by Ali ibn Muhammed at the end of the ninth century? Princes in Bahrain in the eleventh century are credited with holding thirty thousand black slaves, mostly employed in gardening or at least domestic agriculture. In 1275, ten thousand natives of the region of the Upper Niger are said to have been sold in Egypt “after a military campaign.”14 The chief buyers would have been the slave soldiers the Mamelukes, who seized power in Egypt in 1250 and in the fourteenth century dominated the Near East. An Egyptian claimed that Mansa Musa, the most remarkable sultan of the Niger empire of Mali, sold, during his pilgrimage to Mecca of 1324, fourteen thousand female slaves in Cairo in order to meet his traveling costs. The exaggeration in statistics in all societies before the twentieth century, from the size of armies to deaths in action, is notorious. Still, anything between five thousand and twenty thousand slaves may have been carried north annually from the region of the Niger to the harems, the barracks, the kitchens, or the farms of the Muslim Mediterranean and Near East during the late Middle Ages; and not just to North Africa, since Sicily, Sardinia, Genoa, Venice, and even parts of Christian Spain had, as has been suggested, their corrals of black slaves in the fifteenth century. The enslavement of black Africans recently converted to Islam might be forbidden to Muslims. All the same, the caliphs and emirs turned a blind eye to it. Thus the black king of Bornu, in what is now Nigeria, complained bitterly to the sultan of Egypt in the 1390s that Arab tribesmen were always seizing “our people as merchandise.”15

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This trans-Sahara trade, between West and North Africa, probably began in one form or another as early as 1000 B.C., when the desert was crossed by oxen and carts drawn by horses. The commerce was encouraged by both the Carthaginians and the Romans. After the introduction of the camel, the essential element in communications in Africa till the advent of motor vehicles in the 1920s, it prospered even more. The most important route in Roman days was that which led to Muzuk, the capital of Fezzan, in what is now southern Libya. That linked Tripolitania and Egypt with the cities on the central bend of the Niger. There were, however, even in antiquity, other roads to the Mediterranean. With the fall of Rome, this trade, such as it was, evaporated. But it revived when, in 533-35, Byzantium reconquered North Africa. Probably a few slaves were always brought along these routes, including in classical times.

The Arab conquests of North Africa in the seventh century, though at first destructive, eventually contributed to the restoration and expansion of trans-Saharan trade.

Leo the African, who traveled in this region, spoke of twenty cities between Morocco and Tripoli which enjoyed “great traffic into the land of the blacks.”16 The most important of these places—Fez, Sijilmasa, and Ghadames—were inland towns, whose merchants never traded directly with the Christian Catalans, Italians, and Majorcans who were established on the coast. Christian traders were allowed to settle in Marrakesh but nowhere else. The medieval European monarchies in consequence knew little of the details of this flourishing trade between the Maghreb and the people of Guinea.

The main Arab route across the Sahara to Morocco was that from Timbuktu to Sijilmasa. Though Muslim merchants were the most important traders, a few Jewish, Berber, and black ones also played a part. This commerce was limited, first, by the length of the journey—seventy to ninety days or longer—and, second, by the requirement that all goods (other than slaves) had a high value in relation to their weight. The crossing was dangerous, and could not be made at certain times of the year: there were sandstorms in the summer, as well as sharp changes in the temperature from day to night. Water was always short, and marauders were frequent. It was easy to become lost. It may easily be that as many as a quarter of the slaves died en route.

Of the other goods carried, gold was significant, at least from 800 A.D. It became more and more important (in the eleventh and twelfth centuries) after, first, the Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, and then several European ones adopted that metal as their currency. West Africa was Europe’s main source of gold in the late Middle Ages, although the place itself was quite unknown to Europe.

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The racial mixture in West Africa was interesting. Before the Arab invasions, the land was principally inhabited by two peoples: in the northwest, the Hamites—called Libyans or barbari by the Romans, and Berbers by the Arabs, a word actually deriving frombarbari—and black people to the south of the desert. The arrival of the Arabs brought a most troubling extra element. All the same, the Berbers retained most of their individual characteristics, as highland tillers of the soil and lovers of freedom. They were rarely moved by religious enthusiasm, and were able, on the whole, to preserve their purity of race. But in the south there was much mixture. Thus the people of Timbuktu had black skin but much Berber blood. They thought of the black Songhai, in the Middle Niger Valley, as savages, though the powerful ruling dynasty of that monarchy was Berber in origin. In the desert, the Hamitic Tuaregs were the dominant people at the time of the coming of the Arabs, who named them “the veiled people,” though in truth they adopted the use of veils only after the year 600. They may have had a time as Christians for, even after they adopted Islam, their favorite emblem was a cross, and they continued to be monogamous. In the fifteenth century, they controlled, and maintained, the desert’s oases and pastures, and they levied tolls on the caravan routes crossing the Sahara. In the confusion which attended the collapse of the Roman empire, they also acquired the large herds of camels which were the basis of their strength.

The distinguishing feature of West Africa was that it was a territory in which the peoples from the desert, such as these Tuaregs, were in the habit of making constant raids on settled communities in the well-watered and prosperous peripheries—on the Muslim Mandingos, for example, or the Songhai, from whom, among other things, they stole slaves. The desert peoples hated agriculture and needed slaves to tend the oases. The Tuaregs and the Arabs liked to employ blacks in this capacity, even though they despised them: a tenth-century traveler from Baghdad, Ibn Hawkal, wrote that he had “not described the country of the African blacks . . . of the torrid zone . . . because, naturally loving wisdom, ingenuity, religion, justice and regular government, how could I notice such people as these . . . ?”17 Ibn Battuta, who has been mentioned before, was also horrified to find that the blacks, whom he had in the past known as slaves, were the masters in their own country. He complained of the food he found there, and thought that this bad food showed that “there was no good to be hoped for from these people.” But he comforted himself all the same by traveling back to Fez with a caravan of six hundred black slaves.18

Raiding in what the Arabs named “the Country of the Blacks,” the Beled es-Sudan, the tropical rain forest of the Guinea coast, also became a traditional occcupation of Muslims of the plains, especially during dry weather.

Arab power expanded the trade in slaves. By the fifteenth century, Muslim merchants, usually mullahs, dominated the marketing of them, as of most other things. These holy men constituted an international brotherhood, for they were not attached to any kingdom. They obtained their captives much as the Muslims had done in Spain and elsewhere: by razzias into nearby towns, whose inhabitants they stole without bothering about a pretext. But they also bought slaves, which meant little more than that they let others do the stealing for them.

Medieval West Africa, after all, constituted a part of the civilization of Islam, if only a frontier zone. That Muslim connection had many positive sides. Indeed, the coming of Islam explains why, by the fifteenth century, the region had mostly advanced beyond a subsistence economy to one using production for exchange. The architect Es-Sahili had come there from Moorish Spain to introduce the idea of stone buildings into the land of Guinea. Craftsmen and hunters as well as fishermen and farmers by then sustained a vigorous commercial life extending over long distances, not just to the Mediterranean. Markets existed, often arranged according to an elaborate plan by which sellers met in rotation, large commercial exchanges being held once a week, smaller ones once a fortnight. Iron of different sizes, copper bars, copper wristlets, manillas (rings of metal used as necklaces or bracelets), and even cowries from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, all items which would play a part in the Atlantic slave trade, were widely used as currency. The slave dimension of West Africa was stimulated also by the extension of Islam into the region.

West Africa itself had known slavery on a small scale before the coming of Islam, and had done so since the establishment there of settled agricultural societies. African kings who collected and sold slaves for lucrative export to the north usually kept a few for their own use. But the Islamic monarchs, such as the emperors of Mali or their successors to great power on the Middle Niger, the Songhai, ushered in a new stage: these rulers were powerful men, with large armies at their disposal, and considerable territories to exploit. Many of their monarchs employed slaves as a kind of Praetorian guard, on the assumption that, if they were foreigners, they must be reliable.

In the early sixteenth century, Leo the African found that at Bornu, just beyond the Songhai empire, on the southern end of the easternmost, Garamantian, road to the Mediterranean, slaves were usually exchanged for horses: fifteen or twenty slaves for a single Arab horse. The low cost was because the Songhai had an almost limitless stock of captives: they had only to raid their weaker neighbors to the south in order to obtain all that they needed. Slaves were used for all kinds of purposes: for example, the commerce in gum on the river Sénégal was made possible by the use of slaves in the harvest from March till July. Slaves were also used in mines: the Lisbon typographer and translator Valentim Fernandes, a traveler of Moravian origin, who would go to Benin in the 1490s, described how seven kings, possessors of seven mines of gold, “have slaves which they put into the mines, and they are given wives; and they engender and raise children in the mines. . . .” He added mysteriously, “The slaves who find the gold are all black but, if by a miracle, they manage to escape from them, they become white because colour is modified in the mines.”19

When, in what is now western Nigeria, the Oyo kingdom of the Yorubas came into being (perhaps during the early fifteenth century), there were several thousand palace slaves. Many slaves worked in agriculture: in the 1450s, the Venetian Alvise Ca’da Mosto found that kings on the river Sénégal, tributaries of the Songhai, and before them of the Mali, had numerous slaves, obtained by pillage, “which they make use of in various ways, above all to cultivate their lands. . . .”20

In West Africa, slaves seem to have been the only form of private property recognized by African custom. They also represented the most striking manifestation of personal wealth.

This was the world touched at the periphery by de Freitas’s expedition in 1444, which, the ships aside, must have seemed to the Africans a conventional, not a revolutionary, event.

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Some of the slaves seen by Zurara on that day at Lagos in the Algarve became “good and true Christians”: the Azanaghi wore their Mohammedanism lightly, and were more easy to convert to other religions than those living farther inland in Africa. Some were freed. Some were put to work on the sugar estates founded farther south in Portugal, often by Genoese investors. Four of those present on that day in Lagos in 1444 were given to monasteries or churches. Of these, one was merely resold by the church to which he had been presented, for it needed money with which to buy decorations. One other, sent to the monastery of São Vicente do Cabo, became a Franciscan friar.

The expressions of regret and pity by Zurara, though they may now seem modest, were among the few to be recorded not just at that time but for several centuries. Perhaps the goddess Fortune, to whom the chronicler prayed, was a greater friend of man than more sophisticated deities.


IThe name “Guinea” appears to be a corruption of “Jenné” (Djenné), a trading town on the river Bani, a tributary of the Upper Niger; or, of the Berber word for “black,” namely, aguinaou.

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