BY RUNOKO RASHIDI*
One thing that we have not done here and will not do is begin our survey of the African presence in Asia with enslavement. Indeed, we think that perhaps the greatest crime that we can commit is to teach our children that their history begins with invasion, enslavement and colonization. Our work here is therefore distinguished from the work of other diasporan scholars. Many scholars insist on examining the African Diaspora only from the perspective of enslavement, and use this foundation as the basis for all things.
The story of the African presence in early Asia would be incomplete without an expose of the African role as servant and slave. The subject of African enslavement anywhere is clearly the most sensitive and delicate of historical issues, and all too often it is asserted that the great international movements of Africans occurred only under the guise of slavery.
Obviously, as we have seen, this has not been the case. In order to develop a comprehensive understanding of the story of Africans in early Asia, the aspect of servitude must be objectively examined, however painful it might be. What is important to accentuate in this context then is that the period of African bondage in Asian lands is only one part of a much wider story.
The period of bondage is, in fact, dwarfed by the ages of Black glory and splendor in Asia’s past, and that even under the guise of slaves and freedmen the Black people in Asia distinguished themselves time and again in a variety of roles and guises and forms.
The issue of African servitude in Asia is intimately connected with the early spread of Islam in the continent’s western and southern regions when, with the success of the Arab conquests, large numbers of the conquered “non-believers” of all races fell into Muslim hands and were dispersed throughout the lands they dominated. While slavery was not at all confined exclusively to the Blacks, increasing numbers of enslaved Africans in Muslim lands became so disproportionate that in time the Arabie word abd, meaning slave, became applicable to the Blacks only. And the communities of descendants of these enslaved are scattered throughout South Asia.
It is estimated that perhaps as many as 11 million Africans were taken from Africa and transported to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India. Of all the territories of Western Asia, it was perhaps in Mesopotamia, or Iraq, that the African presence, albeit in the capacity of slave and slave descendant, manifests itself most prominently.
It should also be pointed out that the enslaved Black people in Asia were not all from Africa. During the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, the Muslim Indonesian sultanate of Tidore was a heavy slave raider of the coasts of New Guinea, transporting their Black captives to the slave markets of China, Turkey and Iraq. It was apparently during this period that the Malay term Papuan (literally “kinky-haired”) became synonymous with slave.
The period of African bondage is dwarfed by the ages of magnificent African civilizations, glory and splendor, not just in Africa itself but throughout the whole of the global African community including early Iraq.
It was in early Iraq where the largest African slave rebellions occurred. Here, well over a millennium ago, were gathered tens of thousands of East African slave laborers called Zanj. These Africans, from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Malawi and Zanzibar (an island off the coast of mainland Tanzania that gave the Zanj their name) and other parts of East Africa, worked in the humid salt marshes of Southern Iraq in conditions of extreme misery. Laboring in terrible, humid conditions, the Zanj laborers removed layers of topsoil and stripped away tons of earth to plant labor-intensive crops like sugarcane on the less saline soil below. Poorly fed with tiny rations of flour, semolina and dates, they were regularly in contention with the Iraqi system of enslavement.
Conscious of their large numbers and oppressive working conditions, the Zanj rebelled on at least three occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries. The largest of these rebellions lasted for fifteen years, from 868 to 883, during which time the Africans inflicted defeat after defeat upon the Arab armies sent to suppress their revolt. This rebellion is known historically in Arab and Persian histories as the Revolt of the Zanj or the Revolt of the Blacks. In the year 871, the Zanj sacked Basra, Iraq.
It is significant to point out that the Zanj forces were rapidly augmented by large-scale defections of Black soldiers under the employ of the Abbassid Caliphate at Baghdad. The rebels themselves, hardened by many years of brutal treatment, repaid their former masters in kind, and are said to have been responsible for great massacres in the areas that came under their sway.
At its height the Zanj revolt spread as far as Iran and advanced to within seventy miles of Baghdad itself. The Zanj even built their own capital, called Moktara (the Elect City), which covered a large area and flourished for several years. They minted their own currency and actually dominated Southern Iraq. The Zanj rebellion was ultimately only suppressed with the intervention of large Arab armies and the lucrative offer of amnesty and rewards to any rebels who might choose to surrender.
African people have always defied subjugation, and the Revolt of the Blacks is a glorious page in African history and Black resistance movements. Through the Revolt of the Blacks, a now relatively little known episode in a part of the world that until very recently some of us regarded as foreign and strange, we see African people doing what they have always done–asserting their basic and essential dignity and standing up for and demanding their inalienable human rights.
*Runoko Rashidi is a historian, writer, lecturer and researcher based in Los Angeles, California. He has written extensively on the Global African Presence and leads tours to various sites around the world. This essay is culled from his most recent work, African Star over Asia: The Black Presence in the East, published by Books of Africa in 2012. His upcoming tours include the African heritage in Mexico in July 2014, the African heritage in Europe in August 2014 and Nigeria and Cameroon in December 2014. For more information write to [email protected] or go to www.travelwithrunoko.com