Omani History: Slavery

Omani slavery
Figure 1.--This French engraving dated to the 1840s shows Arab merchants selling boys in the Muscat slave market.

The Arabian peninsula juts out into the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. Thus as might be expected, the Sultanate of Oman played a major role in commerce between Africa and the Middle East. Little is know about this trade in the early years after the Arab outburst (7th century AD). We do know that Muscat and the Sultanate of Oman was an important part of that trade and slaves were an important part of that commerce. More is know about after the arival of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean. Vasco de Gama reached the Cape of Good Hope (1488). This opened up the possibility of direct European trade with the Orient for the first time. First the Indian Ocdean had to be made safe for European shipping. The Battle of Diu premanently broke Muslim (Ottoman/Arab/Persian) naval dominance in the Indian Ocean (1509). This ended Muslim dominance of the Indian Ocean, but it did nor end Muslim (mostly Arab trade) in the Arabian Sea. And this included the trade in slaves. The numbers of enslaved Africans, primarily from East Africa, sold into the Middle East by Arab traders, however, is not well documented. Arab commerce was, however, limited by the fact that the Portuguese dominated much of the eastern coast of Africa south of what is now Somalia. The Portuguese were, however, by the end of the 17th century, the weakest of the European colonial powers. Omani Sultan Saif bin Sultan decided to challenge Portuguese control of the western Indian Ocean by seizing their fortified trading posts (1690s). The first to fall to the Omanis was Fort Jesus which was at Mombasa in modern Kenya (north of Zanzibar). It fell after a 33-month seige (1699). The Omanis subsequently seized one Portugrese base after another as far south as Kilwa in modern Tanzania (south of Zanzibar). The island strionghold of Zanzibar fell (1699). It was more secure than the mainland outposts and became the center of Omani trade in East Africa, although the Omanis also garisoned Pemba (a smaller island near Zanzibar) and Kilwa. The Omanis did not give great attention to their African conquests. And they did not move inland, although Arab traders from their coadtab bases did set up trade networks inland. Products included gold, ivory, and slaves. Trade began to expand (late-18th century). The most importantv commercial centers Kilwa Kivinje (modern Kenya) and Bagamoyo, Lindi, Mikandani, Pangani, and Tanga (modern Tanzani)on the African mainland. Mikandani was the southern-most extent of Omani rule. The Portuguese held control of Mozambique to the south. Much of the trade from these outposts were chanelled through Muscat which became an especially importanht slave market for supplying the wider Middle East. Eventially the slavec trade became so important that the Sultanate seat of rule to Zanzibar.

Geography

The Arabian peninsula juts out into the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. Thus as might be expected, the Sultanate of Oman played a major role in commerce between Africa and the Middle East. Both Yemen and Oman thus benefited from its trading position both with Africa and the Indian Sub-continent. Merchants could more easily reach African and Induan ports than other Middle-Eastern merchants.

Early Slave Trade

Little is know about this trade in the early years after the Arab outburst (7th century AD). We do know that Muscat and the Sultanate of Oman was an important part of that trade and slaves were an important part of that commerce. More is know about after the arival of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean. The numbers of enslaved Africans, primarily from East Africa, sold into the Middle East by Arab traders, however, is not well documented.

The Portuguese (16th-17th centuries)

Vasco de Gama reached the Cape of Good Hope (1488). This opened up the possibility of direct European trade with the Orient for the first time. First the Indian Ocean had to be made safe for European shipping. The Battle of Diu premanently broke Muslim (Ottoman/Arab/Persian) naval dominance in the Indian Ocean (1509). This ended Muslim dominance of the Indian Ocean, but it did nor end Muslim (mostly Arab trade) in the Arabian Sea. And this included the trade in slaves. Arab commerce was, however, limited by the fact that the Portuguese dominated much of the eastern coast of Africa south of what is now Somalia. They set up fortified trading posts all along the eastern coast, but made very limited efforts to colonize the interior. The Portuguese were by the end of the 17th century, the weakest of the European colonial powers. Fort Jesus and Zanzibar were two of their major bases. Zanzibar was a particularrly valuable possession because as an island, it was largely imune from African attacks. It became the most important slave market along the East African coast.

Omani East African Offensive

Omani Sultan Saif bin Sultan decided to challenge Portuguese control of the western Indian Ocean by seizing their fortified trading posts (1690s). The first to fall to the Omanis was Fort Jesus which was at Mombasa in modern Kenya (north of Zanzibar). This was a major obstacle with its substantial Portuguese settlement. Fort Jesus fell after a 33-month seige (1699). We do not full understand why Portugal did not mount an effective naval relief operation, but this after the union with Spain (1780-1840/68) and war with the Dutch (1602-54) during which Portugal was significantly weakened, losing much of its Asian possessions. The Omanis subsequently seized one Portugrese base after another as far south as Kilwa in modern Tanzania (south of Zanzibar). The island stronghold of Zanzibar fell (1699). It was more secure than the mainland outposts and became the center of Omani trade in East Africa, although the Omanis also garisoned Pemba (a smaller island near Zanzibar) and Kilwa.

Omani Trade (18th century)

The Omanis did not give great attention to their African conquests. And they did not move inland, although Arab traders from their coadtab bases did set up trade networks inland. Products included gold, ivory, and slaves. Trade began to expand (late-18th century). The peak of East African slave trading through Zanzibar was probably reached with the development sugar and clove plantations on Mauritius and Reunion (18th century). Th The most importantv commercial centers Kilwa Kivinje (modern Kenya) and Bagamoyo, Lindi, Mikandani, Pangani, and Tanga (modern Tanzani)on the African mainland. Mikandani was the southern-most extent of Omani rule. The Portuguese held control of Mozambique to the south. Much of the trade from these outposts were chanelled through Muscat which became an especially importanht slave market for supplying the wider Middle East.

African Rebellions

The Swahili-speaking African tribes began to resent the depredations of Arab slave traders and the Omani dominance of the coastal trading posts (late-18th century). A series of revolts and rebellions occured along the Omani-dominated trading posts. They were more vulnerable to attack than the island stroing-hold of Zanzibar. The Sultanate itself was temporarily weakened y domestic du=isputes associated with the end of Yorubi dynasty. African rulers attempted to gain permanent control of the coastal areas by negotuating an alliance with the Portuguese to assist them with their conflict. The Africans had no naval capability abd access to modern weapons. The Portuguese duid. Once the Busaidi Dynasty had consolidated their control of Oman, they began to focus on the rebelions along the coast of East Africa. Sa'id ibn Sultan oversaw the renewed Omani effort in East Africa.

Transfer to Zanzibar (1837)

Eventially the slave trade became so important that the Sultanate seat of rule to Zanzibar. Sa'id ibn Sultan ascended the Omani throne (1806). As the new Sultan, he appreciated appreciated the agricultural potential of Zanzibar. Oman of course was a very arid area with little agricultural potential. And he promoted a more active interest in Zanzibar and the East African trade. He promoted building projects. He also helped developed the agricultural economy of the island which until the 19th century was primarily arading post. Under the new Sultan, cloves, sugar and indigo plantations were opened. This changed the nature of the slave trade. Zanzibar had been an important port for shipping slaves to the Middle Wastern slave markets. The opening of plantations created a greatly increased demand for slaves in Zanzibar itself. And this only increased when pmore lantations were founded along the coast of what is now Kenya and southern Somalia. Sa'id also encouragedg Omanis to settle on Zanzibar to improve the security situation. Omanis were needed to manage the plabtartions and control the slaves. The land had been owned by the indigenous Hadimu people who were reducted to poorly paid agricultural laborers. Sa'id also promoted commerce by encouraging traders and financiers from India to settle in Zanzibar, this helped promote trade with the rich Indian sub-continernt. Zanzibar became the most important possession of the Omani Empire and the Sultan transferred his residence there (1837)

Ending the Indian-Ocean Slave Trade

The Indian Ocean slave trade was as in the Atlantic, primarily ended by British diplomats and the Royal Navy. This was primarily the result of the British abolition movement which grew out of the Chriustian churches. Unlike Christianity there was no abolitionist movement which developed out of Islam in Arab or other Muslim countries. In fact, slavery continued in Muslim, mostly Arab contries, into the 20th century. From a very early point, the British realized that the key to ending the Indian Ocean slave trade was Zanzibar. Unlike the Atlantic slave trade which was conducted along the lengthy African coast, a very large part of the Indian Ocean slave trade was conducted through Zanzibar. This gave the British who could use the powerful Royal Navy a great advantage. Zanzibar becamne important because it was an island. Thus the Arabs could easily defend it. Trading outposts on the mainland were vulnerable to African attacks. While the island location was realatively safe from Africam attack, it was particularly vulnerable to the Royal Navy. Thus British diplomats were able to exert considerable influence in Zanzibar. The first diplomatic success was the Moresby Treaty (1822). From that first success, the British gradually pressed the Sultan of Zanzibar for more restriuctions. Royal Navy patrols at sea also pressed the Sultan and slave traders. It was, however, not tell the Scramble for Africa and the European colonization of Africa that the Indian Ocean slave trade was finally ended.

Modern Era

Slavery continued on the Arabian Peninsula into modern times. Slavery was formally abolished in Yemen and Oman until (1970) and continued even longer on the Indian Ocean Islamic Republic of Mauriutius. REports of slavery and human traficking continue cin both Yemnen and Oman into the 21st century.







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Created: 1:52 AM 8/23/2011
Last updated: 1:52 AM 8/23/2011