African slave trade
Slave trade routes of the Ethiopian Empire
Slave trade routes through Ethiopia
Dhows were used to transport goods and slaves.
Slaves captured from a dhow

The Red Sea slave trade, sometimes known as the Islamic slave trade, or Oriental slave trade, was a slave trade across the Red Sea trafficking Africans from the African continent to slavery in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East from antiquity until the mid-20th-century. When other slave trade routes were stopped, the Red Sea slave trade became internationally known as a slave trade center during the interwar period. After World War II, growing international pressure eventually resulted in its final official stop.

The Red Sea Slave Trade was, together with the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade and Indian Ocean slave trade, one of the arenas comprising what has been called the “Islamic slave trade,” “Oriental slave trade,” or “Arab slave trade" of enslaved people from East Africa to the Muslim world.[1]

Slave trade

The slave trade from Africa to Arabia via the Red Sea had ancient roots. While in Pre-Islamic Arabia, Arab war captives were common targets of slavery, importation of slaves from Ethiopia across the Red Sea also took place.[2] The Red Sea slave trade appears to have been established at least from the 1st-century onward, when enslaved Africans were trafficked across the Red Sea to Arabia and Yemen.[3]

In the 9th-century, slaves were transported from the Red Sea slave trade to Jeddah, Mecca and Medina, and by caravan over the desert to Baghdad and slavery in the Abbasid Caliphate.[4][5] The slave trade was still going on a many centuries later, when it was noted by Western travellers.

In the 12th-century, Muhammad al-Idrisi trafficked African children from present day Kenya to Arabia.[3] During the 13th-century, Indian boys, as well Indian women and girls intended for sex slavery, were trafficked from India to Arabia and to Egypt across the Red Sea via Aden.[3]

Richard Francis Burton described the slave market in Medina in the 1850s:

"The bazar at Al-Madinah is poor and as almost all the slaves are brought from Meccah by the Jallabs or drivers after exporting the best to Egypt the town receives only the refuse.... some of these slaves come from Abyssinia: the greater part are driven from the Galla country and exported at the harbours of the Somali coast, Berberah, Tajoura and Zayla. As many as 2000 slaves from the former place, and 4000 from the later, are annually shipped off to Mocha, Jeddah, Suez and Maskat. [...] It is a large street roofed with matting and full of coffee-houses. The merchandise sat in rows parallel with the walls. The prettiest girls occupied the highest benches. Below were the plainer sort and lowest of all the boys. They were all gaily dressed in pink and other light-colored muslins with transparent veiles over their heads; and whether from the effect of such unusual splendor or from the re-action succeeding to their terrible land-journey and sea-voyage, they appeared perfectly happy."[6]

According to a British report, 320 slaves were shipped via the Red Sea slave trade to Jeddah in May 1879.[7]

After World War I, the East coast of the Red Sea formed an independent nation as the Kingdom of Hejaz (1916–1925). Hejaz did not consider itself obliged to obey the laws and treaties signed by the Ottoman Empire in regard to slavery and slave trade. During the Interwar period, the Kingdom of Hejaz was internationally known as a regional slave trade center.

Ethiopia and Sudan

The slave trade had two major routes to Hejaz. African slaves were trafficked from primarily Sudan and Ethiopia. Primarily children and young women were bought or given as tribute by their parents to Ethiopian chiefs, who sold them to slave traders.[8]: 76–78  The parents were told that their children were going to be given a better life as slaves in Arabia.[8]: 76–78  The slaves were delivered to Arabian slave traders by the coast and shipped across the Red Sea to Jeddah.[8]: 76–78 

Eunuchs, female concubines and male labourers were the occupations of slaves sent from Ethiopia to Jidda and other parts of Hejaz.[9] The southwest and southern parts of Ethiopia supplied most of the girls being exported by Ethiopian slave traders to India and Arabia.[10] Female and male slaves from Ethiopia made up the main supply of slaves to India and the Middle East.[11]

Egypt and Hejaz were also the recipients of Indian women trafficked via Aden and Goa.[12][13] Since Britain banned the slave trade in its colonies, 19th century British ruled Aden was no longer a recipient of slaves and the slaves sent from Ethiopia to Arabia were shipped to Hejaz instead.[14]

Pilgrimage route

A major slave route were connected to the Hajj pilgrimage. Already in the Middle ages, the Hajj played a role in the slave trade. In 1416, al-Maqrizi told how pilgrims coming from Takrur (near the Senegal River) brought 1,700 slaves with them to Mecca.

The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, was biggest vehicle for enslavement.[15] When the open Trans-Saharan slave trade died out, Muslim-African Hajj pilgrims across the Sahara were duped or given low-cost travel expenses by tribal leaders; when they arrived at the East Coast, they were trafficked over the Red Sea in the dhows of the Red Sea slave trade or on small passenger planes, and discovered upon arrival in Saudi Arabia that they were to be sold on the slave market rather than to perform the Hajj.[15]

Slave traders trafficked primarily women and children in the guise of wives, servants and pilgrims to Hejaz, where they were sold after arrival.[8]: 88–90  The victims of this trafficking route were sometimes tricked, and taken on Hajj under false pretences. Slave traders trafficked women to Hejaz by marrying them and then taking them on the Hajj, where they were sold: afterwards, their families were told that their women had died during the journey.[8]: 88–90 

In a similar fashion, parents entrusted their children to slave traders under the impression that the slave traders were taking their children on Hajj, as servants, or as students.[8] This category of traffic victims came from all over the Muslim world, as far away as the East Indies and China. Some travellers sold their servants or poor travel companions in the Hajj, in order to pay for their travel costs.[8]: 88–90 

The English traveler Charles M. Doughty, who visited Central Arabia in the 1880s, noted that African slaves were brought up to Arabia every year during the hajj, and that "there are bondsmen and bondwomen and free negro families in every tribe and town".[16]

Activism against slave trade

Before WWII

The British fought the slave trade by patrolling the Red Sea. In 1880, the Ottoman Empire conceeded to Britain the right to search and seize any vessel to Ottoman territories suspected of carrying slaves.[17] However, these controls were not effective, since the slave traders would inform the European Colonial authorities that the slaves were their wives, children, servants or fellow Hajj pilgrims, and the victims themselves were convinced of the same, unaware that they were being shipped as slaves.[8]: 88–90 

Since the British Consulate had opened in Jeddah in the 1870s, the British had used their diplomatic privileges to manumit the slaves escaping to the British Consulate to ask for asylum.[8]: 93–96  Royal slaves were exempted from this right. The French, Italian and Dutch Consulate also used their right to manumit the slaves who reached their consulate to ask for asylum. However, the activity of France and Italy was very limited, and only the Dutch were as willing to use this right as much as Britain. The right for manumission by seeking asylum could be used by any slave who managed to reach the consul office or a ship belonging to a foreign power. Most slaves who used this right were citizens of these nations' colonies, who had travelled to Arabia without being aware that they would be sold as slaves upon arrival. The manumission activity of the foreign consuls was met with formal cooperation by the Arabian authorities but greatly disliked by the local population, and it was common for slaves seeking asylum to disappear between seeking asylum and the moment the consul could arrange a place for them on a boat.[8]: 93–96 

The slavery and slave trade in the Arabian Peninsula, and particular in Saudi Arabia (Kingdom of Hejaz), attracted attention by the League of Nations and contributed to the creation of the 1926 Slavery Convention, obliging the British to combat the slave trade in the area.[8][page needed]

Between 1928 and 1931, the British consulate in Jeddah helped 81 people to be manumitted, 46 of whom were repatriated to Sudan and 25 to Massawa in Ethiopia.[8]: 179–183  The vast majority of slaves originated from Africa, but the fact that the majority of them had been trafficked as children posed a problem for the authorities. They could not remember exactly where they had come from or where their family lived, could no longer speak any language other than Arabic, and thus had difficulty supporting themselves after repatriation, all of which in the 1930s had caused a reluctance from the authorities to receive them.[8]: 179–193 

In 1936, Saudi Arabia formally banned the import of slaves who were not already slaves prior to entering the kingdom, a reform which was however on paper only.

After WWII

After World War II, there was growing international pressure from the United Nations to end the slave trade. In 1948, the United Nations declared slavery to be a crime against humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after which the Anti-Slavery Society pointed out that there was about one million slaves in the Arabian Peninsula, which was a crime against the 1926 Slavery Convention, and demanded that the UN form a committee to handle the issue.[8]: 310 

The British Anti Slavery Society actively campaigned against the slavery and slave trade in the Arabian Peninsula from the conclusion of World War II until the 1970s, and particularly publicized Saudi Arabia's central role in 20th-century chattel Slavery within the United Nations, but their efforts was long opposed by the lack of support from London and Washington.[18] The British Foreign Office's internal reports noted an upswing in the slave trade to Saudi Arabia after WII, but preferred to turn a blind eye to it to avoid international exposure of their own Gulf Sheikh allies’ complicity in the slave trade.[18]

The US Eisenhower administration sought to undermine the Bricker Amendment by a retreat from the UN, and made Saudi Arabia a cornerstone of the Eisenhower Doctrine, and therefore abstained from the United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.[19] The British Anti Slavery Society failed to pass stricter enforcements at the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on Slavery, but the issue started to attract international attention.[20]


When President Kennedy took office, the issue of slavery within the US ally Saudi Arabia had caused growing domestic and international attention and caused damage to the Kennedy administration's liberal world-order rhetoric and the US-Saudi partnership, and Kennedy pressed Saudi leaders to “modernize and reform” if they wished US military assistance during the Yemeni Civil War.[20] President Kennedy wished to strengthen the UN, which in turn also strengthened the long going abolition campaign of the British Anti Slavery Society within the UN and gave it gravitas.[20] The Kennedy administration also experienced international pressure from influential secular Middle East regional leaders like Gamal Abdul Nasser, as well as from the newly decolonized African states, whose own citizens were the most common victims of the slave trade to the Arabian Peninsula,[20] and whose good will was necessary Kennedy's anti Soviet New Frontier agenda in the Global South.[21] The Kennedy administration therefore put pressure on Saudi Arabia to introduce "modernization reforms", a request which was heavily directed against slavery.[21]

In 1962, Saudi Arabia abolished slavery officially; however, unofficial slavery is rumored to exist.[22][23][24]

The same year, 1962, slavery was banned in Yemen as well, followed by Oman in 1970.


Research has indicated links between the Red Sea slave trade and female genital mutilation.[25] An investigation combining contemporary from data on slave shipments from 1400 to 1900 with data from 28 African countries has found that women belonging to ethnic groups historically victimized by the Red Sea slave trade were “significantly” more likely to suffer genital mutilation in the 21st-century, as well as “more in favour of continuing the practice”.[25][26] Women trafficked in the Red Sea slave trade were sold as concubines (sex slaves) in the Islamic Middle East up until as late as in the mid 20th-century, and the practice of infibulation was used to temporarily signal the virginity of girls, increasing their value on the slave market: “According to descriptions by early travellers, infibulated female slaves had a higher price on the market because infibulation was thought to ensure chastity and loyalty to the owner and prevented undesired pregnancies”.[25][26]

See also



  1. ^ Miran, Jonathan (2022-04-20), "Red Sea Slave Trade", Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.013.868, ISBN 978-0-19-027773-4, retrieved 2023-11-28
  2. ^ The Palgrave Handbook of Global Slavery Throughout History. (2023). Tyskland: Springer International Publishing. 144
  3. ^ a b c The Palgrave Handbook of Global Slavery Throughout History. (2023). Tyskland: Springer International Publishing. 143
  4. ^ Black, J. (2015). The Atlantic Slave Trade in World History. USA: Taylor & Francis. p. 14 [1]
  5. ^ [2] Hazell, A. (2011). The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade. Storbritannien: Little, Brown Book Group.
  6. ^ Mirzai, B. A. (2017). A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929. USA: University of Texas Press. p. 56-57
  7. ^ Toledano, E. R. (2014). The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression: 1840-1890. USA: Princeton University Press. p. 228-230
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Miers, Suzanne (2003). Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. Rowman Altamira. ISBN 978-0-7591-0340-5.
  9. ^ Clarence-Smith, William Gervase (2013). The Economics of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century. Routledge. p. 99. ISBN 978-1135182212.
  10. ^ Yimene, Ababu Minda (2004). An African Indian Community in Hyderabad: Siddi Identity, Its Maintenance and Change. Cuvillier Verlag. p. 73. ISBN 3865372066.
  11. ^ Barendse, Rene J. (2016). The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century (illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 259. ISBN 978-1317458364.
  12. ^ Brown, Jonathan A.C. (2020). Slavery and Islam. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1786076366.
  13. ^ "Slavery and Islam 4543201504, 9781786076359, 9781786076366".
  14. ^ Ahmed, Hussein (2021). Islam in Nineteenth-Century Wallo, Ethiopia: Revival, Reform and Reaction. Vol. 74 of Social, Economic and Political Studies of the Middle East and Asia. BRILL. p. 152. ISBN 978-9004492288.
  15. ^ a b Emancipating “The Unfortunates”: The Anti-slavery Society, the United States, the United Nations, and the Decades-Long Fight to Abolish the Saudi Arabian Slave Trade. DeAntonis, Nicholas J.   Fordham University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2021. 28499257. p. 1-3
  16. ^ Zdanowski J. Slavery in the Gulf in the First Half of the 20th Century : A Study Based on Records from the British Archives. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Askon; 2008
  17. ^ Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Islam and the abolition of slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006; Lewis, Bernard. Race and slavery in the Middle East, an historical enquiry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, particularly chapters 10 and 11; Miller, Joseph C. “The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery: Historical Foundations,” in Diène, Doudou. (ed.) From Chains to Bonds: The Slave Trade Revisited, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2001, pp. 159–193. Avitsur, Shmuel. Daily Life in Eretz Israel in the XIX century. Tel Aviv: Am Hassefer Publishing House, 1972 (Hebrew).
  18. ^ a b Emancipating “The Unfortunates”: The Anti-slavery Society, the United States, the United Nations, and the Decades-Long Fight to Abolish the Saudi Arabian Slave Trade. DeAntonis, Nicholas J.   Fordham University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2021. 28499257. p. 3
  19. ^ Emancipating “The Unfortunates”: The Anti-slavery Society, the United States, the United Nations, and the Decades-Long Fight to Abolish the Saudi Arabian Slave Trade. DeAntonis, Nicholas J.   Fordham University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2021. 28499257. p. 3-4
  20. ^ a b c d Emancipating “The Unfortunates”: The Anti-slavery Society, the United States, the United Nations, and the Decades-Long Fight to Abolish the Saudi Arabian Slave Trade. DeAntonis, Nicholas J.   Fordham University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2021. 28499257. p. 4-5
  21. ^ a b Emancipating “The Unfortunates”: The Anti-slavery Society, the United States, the United Nations, and the Decades-Long Fight to Abolish the Saudi Arabian Slave Trade. DeAntonis, Nicholas J.   Fordham University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2021. 28499257. p. 17
  22. ^ "The Arab Muslim Slave Trade Of Africans, The Untold Story". Archived from the original on 2019-09-19. Retrieved 2019-09-18.
  23. ^ Scott, E (10 January 2017). "Slavery in the Gulf States, and Western Complicity". Archived from the original on 2020-06-04.
  24. ^ "Saudi Slavery in America". National Review. 2013-07-18. Retrieved 2019-09-18.
  25. ^ a b c Corno, Lucia and La Ferrara, Eliana and Voena, Alessandra, Female Genital Cutting and the Slave Trade (December 2020). CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP15577, Available at SSRN:
  26. ^ a b Barber, Harriet (2023-09-11). "Female genital mutilation linked to Red Sea slave trade route". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2023-11-28.