Precapitalist slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Mar 4 11:20:51 MST 2001

NY Times Book Review, March 4, 2001
Human Cargo

A study of the little-known slave trade in the Islamic world.


Early on in ''Islam's Black Slaves,'' his history of slavery in the Muslim
world, Ronald Segal cites some estimates. One scholar puts the rough total
at 11.5 million slaves during more than a dozen centuries, and another at
14 million. We will never know the precise number, of course, but it is
striking that these two figures neatly bracket many scholars' estimates for
the much-better-documented Atlantic slave trade. So why in the West today
do we generally pay so little attention to Islamic slavery? One reason,
suggests Segal, a South African-born editor and the author of ''The Black
Diaspora,'' is that in the Muslim world slavery never became the publicly
fought moral and political issue that it did in the United States and Europe.

Islamic slavery began long before the Atlantic slave trade, and its
purposes were largely different. Although some slaves were put to work in
the fields, they were more valued as items of conspicuous consumption. The
Muslim elite wanted them as guards and soldiers, as concubines, as cooks,
as musicians and simply to show how rich they were: a 10th-century caliph
of Baghdad had 11,000 slaves at his palace.

The boundary between slavery and freedom, or at least between slavery and
power, was much more fluid than in the West. The Ottoman sultan commonly
married off his daughters and sisters to slaves, and in this and many other
Islamic regimes, slaves or former slaves reached astonishingly high
positions. Baybars, a former Turkish slave, led an army that defeated a
Mongol invasion of Egypt in 1260; there were other slave generals as well.
An Ethiopian slave became vizier to the sultan of Delhi and later governor
of a province. A caliph who ruled in Egypt for most of the 11th century was
the son of a black slave concubine. A Slavic slave -- not all slaves were
Africans -- was governor of Valencia in Islamic Spain.

All this will seem strange to many American eyes. Apparently the reason
monarchs made so many slaves high officials was that they were dependably
loyal -- more so than members of rival clans or leaders with local
constituencies. But how can you be loyal to someone who has deprived you of
your freedom? This is a mystery Segal does not explore.

Full review:

Louis Proyect
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