The archaeology of slavery in Southeast and Central Africa


A HOLISTIC view of slavery is necessary to understand colonial slavery or servitude that was perpetuated in colonial Rhodesia, and to some extent inherited in post-colonial Zimbabwe.  

This view of slavery should be seen beyond the obvious labour conditions inherited from colonial Rhodesia and search for deeper understanding concerning the advent of slavery in our part of the globe.

Despite the fact that Zimbabwe was a slave reservoir for the Zanj – Indian Ocean Slave Trade, the country has not been given its historical space or attention for the slave trade operations that took place in the hinterland.

The Arab slave trade originated before Islam and lasted more than a millennium.  

It began after Muslim Arab and Swahili traders won control of the Swahili Coast and sea routes to the Indian Ocean, across the Sahara Desert, during the 9th century.  

These traders captured the unsuspecting people, they called ‘Zanji’, from the interior of present-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique and brought them to the coast.  

Here, in time, they gradually assimilated into the rural areas – particularly on the islands of Pemba, Unguja and Zanzibar, off the east African coast of Tanzania. 

The Zanj (black people), who were taken as slaves to the Middle East were often used in strenuous agricultural work as the plantation economy grew.  

As the Arabs became richer, they began to look down on agriculture and other manual labour work that resulted in labour shortages and led to an increased trading of slaves on the slave market.

To meet the demand for plantation labour, captured Zanj slaves were shipped to the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East, among other areas.

Historians assert that as many as 17 million people were sold into slavery on the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa, and approximately 5 million African slaves were bought by Muslim slave traders and taken from Africa across the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara desert between 1500 and 1900.

The English term ‘slave’ has its origins in the Latin word sclavus meaning ‘captive’.  

The Romans obtained most of their slaves from Eastern Europe or captured slaves from what is now Britain, France and Germany. 

This trade in humans, mostly females and young boys, continued to well into the 9th century AD and extended to Muslim Spain.

Slavery is an ancient practice that has been present in almost all civilisations in the world. It can be described as the ownership of another human being(s), buying and selling them for the sole purpose of forced and mostly unpaid labour and/or sexual exploitation. 

Many slaves were ‘employed’ as soldiers, servants, labourers and even civil servants.

All three Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam recognised slaves as a separate class of people in their society. 

Serfdom was another very common form of slavery.  A ‘serf’ was an unfree person in a condition of almost perpetual servitude, (hunhapwa) at times partially, or mostly inherited from his parents, and was required to render services to a feudal lord.   

A serf was commonly attached to the lord’s land or household, and though he could not be sold as chattel (movable property), he was transferred with the land from one owner to another, usually together with his family.

Slavery as an organised venture in Africa began in Darfur in 652. To keep to the terms of a peace agreement, the Sudanese leader at the time, was obliged to make a payment of several hundred African slaves per year to the Arab invaders. 

This continued for centuries, reaching up to 6000 slaves sent along the Red Sea route near the end of 18th century the peak of the Arab slave trade. 

According to documents, thousands of slaves were used in gangs for agriculture and mining.  Large landowners and rulers used thousands of such slaves, usually in dire conditions,  it is said that no slave lived there for more than five years. 

Records also show that slaves in the Islamic world were mainly used for lowly domestic and commercial purposes. 

Eunuchs were prized as bodyguards especially for harems and confidential servants; whilst women were used as concubines and menials. 

African slaves were used for all forms of arduous labour in agriculture, mines, buildings, as household help, or to be concubines or soldiers. It was only later during the(1870s-1960s) that the white European nations demand for cash crops i.e.: grain, cotton, coffee, sugar and tobacco and ivory became major contributors to the demand for slaves.

Slavery became a well-orchestrated military and commercial Euro-American enterprise and psychological process, that facilitated the capture and forced enslavement of the African people.  

This dehumanising historical process that was perpetrated for the purposes of supplying African labour to develop the First World, began with the transformation of Britain and other Western European countries prior to, and during, the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The abomination of slavery, disrupted and scarred African existence holistically, in its totality; and its effects are still felt in our midst, in post-colonial Africa, today, including in Zimbabwe, with the effects of slavery being compounded by the compulsory teachings of Christian missionaries.

Once captured, the slave-drivers, usually of White European or Arabic descent, yielded absolute power over the African person, thus controlling his liberty, movements, fortunes his life and even his mind, in such conditions that denied the African his right as a human being, to live freely in their own African space and/or any other geographical location they had been exported to as ‘cargo’; a commodity to be bartered, bought and sold. 

 Slavery is also the condition of being subject to the culture, whims and ways of life imposed on one, by the white slave-master and/or slave-mistress; denying the captive person (slave) of any form of Human Rights. 

Through various Euro-centric historic processes, legal instruments, political policies, civic regulations, psychological conditioning and ultimately colonisation inherited from the Slave epoch in history, many African people are still spiritually unhinged, and physically and culturally enslaved in this, the 21st Century.

There is no topic in African history on which so much has been written and yet so little known as the Atlantic slave trade.

Indeed, innumerable studies and books have been written, many by African historians, on the 400-year-long slave trade and its significant impact on man’s history: there is hardly a single work on the history of Africa, America or the West Indies and few studies on the history of Europe that do not contain at least one chapter on the export of slaves to the ‘New World’ America.

Yet, in World Slavery discourse, Zimbabwe, which prior to African independence, was christened Zambesia, then Southern Rhodesia (1923) followed by Rhodesia in 1965 until independence in 1980, is often omitted from the annals of the history of slavery.

Yet the Indian Ocean ‘Zanj slave Operation’  was one of the longest and most brutal forms of slavery that shaped the master-servant relationship, resulting in the inferiority complex we still observe in most of our Afro-Euro-Western socio-cultural and socio-political encounters today.

This is particularly noticeable in former British, Portuguese, German and Dutch colonies and settler states, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania and other African states, where European superiority and ‘Silent White authority’ over African indigenes is still assumed and often still practiced, albeit subtly. 

Although over a hundred years have gone by since Africans ceased to be transported to the various corners of the earth, disputes and disagreements on the slave trade and its place in world history are ongoing, especially on those slaves transported from Zimbabwe for which so little has been written about or is known. 


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