The Somali slave trade existed as a part of the East African slave trade. To meet the demand for menial labor, Bantus from southeastern Africa slaves were exported from Zanzibar and were sold in cumulatively large numbers over the centuries to customers in East Africa and other areas in Northeast Africa and Asia by the somalis.[1] Ethiopians, especially Amharas and Tigrayans were also captured and sold to traders from Arabia, India, Greece, and beyond.[2]

The trade routes of slaves in medieval Africa

Oromo subjects were favoured due to their features compared to other slaves.[3] Additionally, they were not viewed as very different from their Somali owners, thus being higher in price compared to other East Africans.[4]


Habesha Slave Trade

Historical routes of the Ethiopian slave trade.

Habesha slaves were sold by Somalis as early the 13th century. Archival records compiled at the end of Rasulid Sultan Al-Muzaffar Yusuf’s rule in the 1290s mentions that the main slaves brought to Yemen were of Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic backgrounds and were shipped from the Somali port city of Zeila. A eunuch of Amhara origin would cost four dinars while a concubine would cost two dinars.[5] Somali Adalite Sultan Jamal ad-Din sold numerous Amharas into slavery in places as far away as Greece and India. By the end of each of his battles he would distribute three Amhara slaves to the poorest Muslims and sell the rest for a cheap sum due to their overwhelming number.[6]

According to Francisco Álvares, Imam Mahfuz attacked the Christian Abyssinians when they were physically weak during Lent and was able to carry off no less than 19,000 Abyssinians to which he immediately sold off to his friends in Arabia.[7] Ludovico di Varthema, who visited Zeila in 1503 wrote that the port was a place of immense traffic, especially for slaves. He declares:

“Here are sold a very great number of slaves, which are the people of Prester John (Ethiopia) whom the Moors take in battle, and from this place they are carried into Persia, Arabia Felix, and to Mecca, Cairo and into India.”

Zeila seems to have been the southernmost port frequented by Arab merchants, whose chief center for these regions, however, was Aden, where the commercial, and also the climatic conditions were more favorable. Through Zeila, and to a lesser degree Berbera, passed the main stream of slaves from the Ethiopian hinterland.[8]

The conquests of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi resulted in large numbers of Habesha peoples enslaved. He is said to have captured "hordes of Christians" which resulted in every soldier of his army having no less than two hundred slaves each, and according to a local chronicle every man in Harar had at least three Habesha slaves. Many of the Christian nobility were sold into slavery and their wives turned into concubines for the Muslims.[9][10]

According to Richard Pankhurst, almost all of the Ethiopians captured by Imam Ahmad were subsequently sold to foreign merchants in exchange for firearms and cannons. A Portuguese Jesuit reported that Adal managed to sell "thousands" of Abyssinian slaves to traders from across the sea, to Arabs, Turks, Persians and Indians.[11]

Origin of The Bantu Slave Trade

Main articles: Bantu peoples and Bantu expansion

A Bantu Servant woman in Mogadishu (1882–1883)

2500 years ago, speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group began a millennia-long series of migrations eastward from their original homeland in the general Cameroon area of Central Africa.[12] This Bantu expansion first introduced Bantu peoples to southern and southeastern Africa.[13][14]

To satisfy the demands of the market for agricultural produce in the Arabian Peninsula and cater to the local needs, Somali clans in the Lower Shabelle region and along the ancient Banadir coast began the procurement of Bantu slaves from Arab slave traders to provide labor and serve as client farmers for the Somali clans.[15]

"The farming was performed by local client-farmers, boon, or low status groups of the dominant Biimaal, Geledle, Hintirre, Murosade, Mobileyn and other predominantly pastoral clans which had established control of small portions of the valley. They produced mainly to serve local markets. Ample, fertile land remained uncultivated, due to a chronic shortage of farm labor. In order to respond to market demands for grain in South Arabia, the local Somali clans of the Lower Shabelle began purchasing slaves from Arab and Swahili slave ships. These slaves came first from Zanzibar (the Zegua or Mushunguli people)."

The Bantus residing in Somalia are the descendants of Bantu individuals who were taken captive and transported to Somalia by Arab slave merchants during the 18th and 19th centuries to work as agricultural laborers.[16][17] The Somali Bantus belong to several ethnic groups, namely Majindo, Mnyasa, Mkuwa, Mzihuwa, Mushunguli, and Molima, each consisting of numerous subclans. Their ancestral roots can be traced back to various African nations, including Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania.[18]

Bantus are ethnically, physically, and culturally distinct from Somalis and Ethiopians and they have remained marginalized ever since their arrival to the Horn of Africa.[19][20]

All in all, the number of Bantu inhabitants in Somalia before the civil war is thought to have been about 80,000 (1970 estimate), with most concentrated between the Juba and Shabelle rivers in the south.[21] Recent estimates place the figure as high as 900,000 people, however, lower estimates place the figure between 500,000 and 600,000.[22][18]

East African slave trade

Main articles: East African slave trade and Somali Bantu

Illustration of the various Bantu ethnic groups brought to Somalia

The Indian Ocean slave trade was multi-directional and changed over time. To meet the demand for menial labor, Bantu slaves were captured from southeastern Africa and sold in cumulatively large quantities over the centuries to customers in Egypt, Arabia, Somalia, Persia, India, the Far East, and the Indian Ocean islands.[23][1]

From 1800 to 1890, between 25,000 and 50,000 Bantu slaves are thought to have been sold from the slave markets of Zanzibar alone to the Somali coast by Somali slave traders.[24] Most of the slaves were from the Makua, Nyasa, Yao, Zaramo and Zigua ethnic groups of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. Collectively, these Bantu groups are known as Mushunguli, which is a term taken from Mzigula, the Zigua tribe's word for "people" (the word holds multiple implied meanings including "worker", "foreigner", and "servant").[23]

19th to 20th centuries

Slaves in legcuffs to prevent fleeing upon their return from working the fields. Under the watchful eye of a Somali master armed with a spear (waran)

Bantu adult and children slaves (referred to as jareer by their Somali handlers)[25] were purchased in the slave markets explicitly to do undesirable work on plantations with oversight.[25] They were made to work in plantations exclusively owned by the Italian government along the southern Shebelle and Jubba rivers, harvesting lucrative cash crops such as grain and cotton.[26] Bantu slaves toiled under the control of the Italian government.[25]

The Bantus were conscripted to forced labor on Italian-owned plantations since the Somalis themselves were averse to what they deemed menial labor,[27] and because the Italians viewed the Somalis as racially superior to the Bantu.[28]

While upholding the perception of Somalis as distinct from and superior to the European construct of "black Africans", both British and Italian colonial administrators placed the Jubba valley population in the latter category. Colonial discourse described the Jubba valley as occupied by a distinct group of inferior races, collectively identified as the WaGosha by the British and the WaGoscia by the Italians. Colonial authorities administratively distinguished the Gosha as an inferior social category, delineating a separate Gosha political district called Goshaland, and proposing a "native reserve" for the Gosha.[28]

— Catherine Lowe Bestman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class and the Legacy of Slavery

The Italian colonial administration abolished slavery in Somalia at the turn of the 20th century. However, some Somali clans notably the Biimaal clan opposed this idea. The Biimaals fought the Italians to keep their slaves. The Italians reported to the Advisory Committee of Experts on Slavery in the 1930s that the slavery and slave trade in Somalia had now been abolished.[29] However, although the Italians freed some Bantus, some Bantu groups remained enslaved well into the 1930s and continued to be despised and discriminated against by large parts of Somali society.[30]

Nilotic slaves

In the late 19th century, groups from the coastal regions of Kenya were also sold into slavery. Referred to as the Kore, these Nilo-Saharan-speaking Nilotes were later emancipated by British colonial troops. They subsequently resettled on the Lamu seaboard as fishermen and cultivators. Like many Bantus, the Kore reportedly now speak the Afro-Asiatic Somali language on account of their time in servitude.[31]

Other slaves

In addition to Bantu plantation slaves, Somalis sometimes enslaved peoples of Oromo pastoral backgrounds that were captured during wars and raids on settlements.[32][4] However, there were marked differences in terms of the perception, capture, treatment and duties of the Oromo slaves in comparison to Bantu slaves.[4]

On an individual basis, Oromo subjects were not viewed as racially jareer by their Somali captors.[4] The Oromo captives also mostly consisted of young children and women, both of whom were taken into the families of their abductors; men were usually killed during the raids. Oromo boys and girls were adopted by their Somali patrons as their own children. Prized for their beauty and viewed as legitimate sexual partners, many Oromo women became either wives or concubines of their Somali captors, while others became domestic servants.[32][33] In some cases, entire Oromo clans were assimilated on a client basis into the Somali clan system.[32]

Neither captured Oromo children nor women were ever required to do plantation work, and they typically worked side-by-side with the Somali pastoralists. After an Oromo concubine gave birth to her Somali patron's child, she and the child were emancipated and the Oromo concubine acquired equal status to her abductor's Somali wife. According to the Somali Studies pioneer Enrico Cerulli, in terms of diya (blood money) payments in the Somali customary law (Xeer), the life of an Oromo slave was also equal in value to that of an ordinary ethnic Somali.[33]

Freedom for Oromo slaves was obtained through manumission and was typically accompanied by presents such as a spouse and livestock.[25] During abolition, former Oromo slaves, who generally maintained intimate relations with the Somali pastoralists, were also spared the harsh treatment reserved for the Bantu and Nilotic plantation slaves.[25][33]

See also


  1. ^ a b Gwyn Campbell, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, 1 edition, (Routledge: 2003), p.ix
  2. ^ Yusuf, Al Malik Muzzafar (1295). نور المعارف [Light of Knowledge] (in Arabic). pp. 326–327.
  3. ^ Krapf, Johann (1857). Pauline Fatme, First Fruits of the Gallas to Christ Jesus. Germany: The British Library. p. 9.
  4. ^ a b c d Catherine Lowe Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery, (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1999), p. 116.
  5. ^ Yusuf, Al Malik Muzzafar (1295). نور المعارف [Light of Knowledge] (in Arabic). pp. 326–327.
  6. ^ Al-Makrizi.), Ahmad (Ibn Ali (1790). Historia regum Islamiticorum in Abyssinia. Sam. et Joh. Luchtmans. pp. 33–34.
  7. ^ Pankhurst, Richard (1982). History Of Ethiopian Towns. p. 58. ISBN 9783515032049.
  8. ^ Tegegne, Habtamu M. "The Edict of King Gälawdéwos Against the Illegal Slave Trade in Christians: Ethiopia, 1548". Retrieved 12 June 2023.
  9. ^ Tegegne, Habtamu M. "The Edict of King Gälawdéwos Against the Illegal Slave Trade in Christians: Ethiopia, 1548". Retrieved 12 June 2023.
  10. ^ Pankhurst, Richard (1982). History Of Ethiopian Towns. p. 63. ISBN 9783515032049.
  11. ^ Pankhurst, Richard (1982). History Of Ethiopian Towns. p. 59. ISBN 9783515032049.
  12. ^ Philip J. Adler, Randall L. Pouwels, World Civilizations: To 1700 Volume 1 of World Civilizations, (Cengage Learning: 2007), p.169.
  13. ^ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Refugees Vol. 3, No. 128, 2002 UNHCR Publication Refugees about the Somali Bantu" (PDF). Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  14. ^ Toyin Falola, Aribidesi Adisa Usman, Movements, borders, and identities in Africa, (University Rochester Press: 2009), p.4.
  15. ^ Middle Jubba: Study on Governance. United Nations Development Office for Somalia. 1999.
  16. ^ "Somali Bantu History". The Somali Bantu Community Association. Retrieved 2024-07-08.
  17. ^ "Somali Bantu Refugees". EthnoMed. Retrieved 2024-07-08.
  18. ^ a b "Who are the Somali Bantus?". Global History Dialogues. 2023-09-09. Retrieved 2024-07-08.
  19. ^ "The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture – People". Retrieved 21 February 2013.[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ L. Randol Barker et al., Principles of Ambulatory Medicine, 7 edition, (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: 2006), p.633
  21. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, v.20, (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.: 1970), p.897
  22. ^ "Tanzania accepts Somali Bantus". BBC News. 25 June 2003. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  23. ^ a b Refugee Reports, November 2002, Volume 23, Number 8
  24. ^ "The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 October 2011. Retrieved 18 October 2011.p.8
  25. ^ a b c d e Catherine Lowe Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery, (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1999), pp. 83-84
  26. ^ Henry Louis Gates, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, (Oxford University Press: 1999), p.1746
  27. ^ Laitin, p.64.
  28. ^ a b Catherine Lowe Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery, (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1999), p. 120
  29. ^ Miers, S. (2003). Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. Storbritannien: AltaMira Press. 226
  30. ^ David D. Laitin (1 May 1977). Politics, Language, and Thought: The Somali Experience. University of Chicago Press. pp. 29–30. ISBN 978-0-226-46791-7. Retrieved 2 July 2012.
  31. ^ Meinhof, Carl (1979). Afrika und Übersee: Sprachen, Kulturen, Volumes 62-63. D. Reimer. p. 272.
  32. ^ a b c Bridget Anderson, World Directory of Minorities, (Minority Rights Group International: 1997), p. 456.
  33. ^ a b c Catherine Lowe Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery, (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1999), p. 82.