zaterdag 2 december 2017

As old as..

It is stated by many historical authors that “slavery is as old as organized man”. This sounds quite cynical, if not apologetic by itself. After all, also “rape”, “mass killings”, “discrimination”, “torture”, or more general “violence” and “intimidation” are probably as old as organized man.

The matter of modern-day slavery came more to the fore in recent times when news about the slave trade in African migrants in Libya became known. This reminded many of older practices, of – some said – centuries ago. Their enslavers were Libyan Arabs, although often aided by Black Africans, and slave buyers mostly local Libyans. This reminds indeed of the slave trade of Africans to the Americas, in which several European nations engaged (Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, Netherlands, even Denmark and Zweden, albeit in smaller numbers). Even non-unified territories that would later unite to form Germany and Italy are not “off the hook”; Genoese and Venetians traded in African slaves alongside the Portuguese, while some German kingdoms (like Brandenburg) were active in this African slave trade too. Independent American countries like the US and Brazil continued this African slavery for a period too. Brazil (by then independent from African slavery-pioneers the Portuguese) was the last country formally abolishing slavery, in 1888. Some readers may know all this.

Though these facts are historically correct in broad terms, regarding figures – numbers of slaves transported to the Americas, or of who died along the way -, place/region of origin of enslaved Africans, and some other aspects (e.g. reason for abolition) there is more controversy and discussion. This controversy turned out to be fruitful, and also recent studies increased our knowledge of numbers of African slaves transported, their origin (aided by the discovery of DNA genetics, used in study not before the 1950s), and other – less Eurocentric – perspectives on history. I applaud that.

Well, to some the dehumanizing slave trade of powerless African migrants in Libya reminds of this African Holocaust. I agree that it does.


In the margins of the discussion of this topical issue, there is however still much uneven and untruthful information. Every person interprets the news as he/she wants. This is not unlike the controversy some issues studied regarding colonial slavery of Africans in the Americas. Often, biases and emotions, unspoken yet sensed allegiances/identifications, distort the truth. No European nation likes to have an image of “wicked enslavers of Africans”, even if referring to a closed past. For that reason much distortion or avoidance is found, even in academic circles.

There is a professor in the Netherlands, White and Dutch, who kind of specializes in Dutch slavery studies, called Piet Emmer. He became criticized as apologist of slavery, going against claims of extreme cruelty and human rights violations. Emmer diminishes in his rhetoric the Dutch cruelty or even agency, and similar distortions. These, what were seen as “apologies”, understandably enraged some anti-slavery activists, and led to sensible counter-opinions of other scholars.

Early enslaving nations like Portugal, and a time after that Spain, are more of the “evading tactic”, as slavery of Africans is hardly discussed or studied academically as a theme, neither much by activists. Portugal was even a pioneer in slavery of Black Africans, practicing it long and widely in its extensive colony Brazil for centuries, while providing many African slaves for other states (like Spain). Also in several Spanish colonies, African slavery was common in most of its colonies and here and there even quite structurally present (Cuba, Dominican Republic, parts of Colombia and Venezuela). This slavery history receives some attention in academic circles, though also limited. It even begins to reach the political debate a bit, in both Portugal and Spain, if hesitantly. In Spain, Left-wing opposition party Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias mentioned it in passing during a televised debate about another theme. This is as “relatively much” as new attention for this slavery past in Spain.

Not that the academic or political attention in a country like the Netherlands is better, as the mentioned debate around Piet Emmer (a more general colonial historian) might suggest: there is not anywhere a – not even one - scholar active specifically regarding this part of Dutch colonial history. There is thus evasion here too. Distortion thus combines with denial in different European countries.


The slave trade in Libya also brings about another historical parallel, though. Also a matter surrounded with both distortion and denial: the Arab and Islamic slave trade and slavery. Of Africans. Myths, emotions, unspoken allegiances, and biases made many distort this history, again, even in some academic circles, though there is sometimes correction within those circles.

The biases and , let’s say, an unease with this theme – Arab and Islamic slave trade – surround this theme in my opinion. Some are part of what I call “historical Pavlov reactions”. Arabs or Islamicized peoples in Africa are non-Europeans and were colonized too, and are often seen as part of “the coloured peoples of the world” kept back or exploited by Western colonialism.

This is called by some by a French term “Tiersmondisme” – translateable as “Third Worldism” –, with some finding patronizing echoes of Rousseau’s “noble savage” in it, but also of a naïve Orientalism or exoticism.

At the very least, categorizing all non-Europeans as “the coloured peoples” is also Eurocentric, and hopelessly simplifying. Skin tone or ethnic traits are in fact irrelevant, even without the counterargument that many Arabs, Berbers, and Persians have similar features as many people in parts of Southern European countries, like parts of Italy, Portugal, and Spain. There are after all so many differences between cultures world wide, including often within countries and continents.

I think that the fact that Libya is an Islamic country also plays a role with this unease from bias. Islam is a major world religion, like Christianity, likewise spreading and converting – or rather: conquering -, but did not become the emblem of Europe, but outside it: the Middle East, and after that Third World territories. It has therefore a better image among Tiersmondistes, one might say.

However.. do these so-called “Third Worldists” perhaps have a point in this case? Did Islam spread less violently, or imperialistic when compared to Christianity? The answer is difficult.

Important for this post is to stress the role of slavery in the early spread of Islam. According to religious laws, the first Muslims could only enslave non-Muslims, or those refusing to convert. So they did, and in quite large numbers. These included many Black Africans as Islam spread throughout Northern Africa. Sudan, Chad, Cameroun, Ethiopia, and other areas, became “sources” for slaves for Arabs and later Islamicized Berbers or Arab-Berbers too. These included relatively many women for harems, also male domestic servants, and eunuchs.

Castrating male African slaves was quite common, not only for eunuch’s (being after all harem guards), but also for genetic – well, racist – reasons of rulers. Some racial mixture still took place in Islamic areas though. There are Afro-Turks for instance, people with African blood in Iran , as result of this slave trade, while in parts of South Morocco –around the city of Essaouira - there are part-sub-Saharan population groups, such as the Gnawa, with different ethnic and cultural features from other Moroccans. Also, there is a historical community of about 2 million Afro-Iraqi’s (mainly around Basra), as a result of the Arab slave trade.


This may be an unpleasant truth to Islam adherents who connect with Black Africa – the US-based Nation of Islam for instance -, Islamic Black Africans, or those supposed “Tiersmondistes” among liberal white people.

Moreover, its legacies continue in the present times in several Islamic countries. Until recent decades (after 1950), a country like Mauritania had at least 10% of its population living as enslaved workers, generationally passed. These were generally the people with more sub-Saharan African blood in them, enslaved by lighter-skinned Arab-Berber groups. In 1956 it was outlawed officially, but continued for decades after it.

The treatment of African workers, from Ethiopia or Somalia for instance, in wealthy oil states like Saudi Arabia, Quwait, and Qatar includes abuse and situations of semi-slavery too. Racial discrimination of the darker “Gnawa” people is also still a social problem in Morocco, as well as of “darker” Africans in Egypt or Sudan, where many prefer to uphold an “Arab” national identity.

All unpleasant truths for some, but I prefer historical veracity, over distorting the truth for ideological reasons, or vague emotional preferences and identifications.


Such distortions are quite common, also regarding other historical epochs. Especially interesting is, I think, in this regard the discussion of slavery in Islamic Iberia: the period between the 8th and 15th c. when large parts of Spain and Portugal were under Moorish, Islamic rule.

This followed on the spread of Islam in North Africa, and by then included many Berbers alongside Arabs and other people. Arabs were highest in the hierarchy, but many soldiers in Spain and Portugal were Berbers or mixed.

Simple and plain: I find that quite some nonsense has been written about this historical epoch, though to varying degrees. The Islamic Moorish society brought several innovations (like paper, related to agriculture, architecture a.o.) to Iberia, and was relatively advanced and “modern” for the time. It was, however, also an unequal society.

I am aware that Internet is a source of ideology, bias, interests, fake news, and is not a reliable scholarly resource. Not unfiltered, anyway.

Yet, even a more “serious” website like Wikipedia includes some strange biases regarding Moorish Iberia (though of course by contributors, not by Wikipedia itself). More impartial historians (Iberian and outsiders) have studied the area, describing how there was slavery by the Moors in Spain and Portugal, that included relatively many Black Africans, like in North Africa, alongside slaves of other origins.

There was a hierarchy in Moorish Iberia: Arabs on top, Berbers below them, and converted local people, and Africans at the bottom as servants and slaves (along with slaves of other races in lesser proportions). Non-Muslims (Christians and Jews) were further second-class citizens, having also to pay special taxes, perhaps a reason why early Islamic rulers did not always convert them immediately (though this remained a goal).

The two photos above I took in the mid-1990s, and are of the Alhambra (Moorish) palace in Granada, Spain. This was said to have been built by Christian slaves.

Within all this, there was not always a sharp distinction – must be said, and there was occasional flexibility. Some “darker-skinned” Muslims could reach an higher position, and so did some converted Muslims of local origins (for instance Galician, Basque, Castilian, Valencian or Basque) , such as as kings of certain kingdoms, called Taifa’s. Racial and ethnic mixture was also quite common, with resulting changes of social position.

Overall, however, the Arab image of the Black African as slave and servant, was noticeable in the general social structure of Moorish Spain and Portugal. The name of a documentary I once encountered: “The Moors in Spain: when Blacks ruled Spain” is therefore somewhat, well, mistaken, or distorted.


Some authors go further. Tidiane N’Diaye is a French-Senegalese economist and anthropologist who wrote about the Arab slave trade in his work ‘Le genocide voilé’ (‘The veiled genocide’), first published in 2008. N’Diaye was indeed kind of groundbreaking regarding this taboo matter of Muslims enslaving Africans. His work was largely based on historical facts, and could therefore hardly be reasonably disputed.

With such an emotional theme, that includes a sensed, by now multiracial identification – Islam –of course this book has come under close scrutiny. Quite some predictable apologist nonsense by pro-Arab and pro-Muslim critics, who couldn’t bothered to be impartial, and some more sensible critique the work has received, but the main historical facts remain there. Perhaps, like all authors, even scholarly ones, N’Diaye, might have some blind spots, but overall it was a balanced work, with the historical facts on its side.

N’Diaye and other authors – and current reports – confirm moreover the continued – but hidden - existence of slavery or semi-slavery in the Islamic and Arab world, often also of African people, even before the world heard about the slave trade in African migrants in Libya. Many relate this to the continued existence of racist views toward Blacks and Africans in many Arab and Muslim countries. Racism dehumanizes by definition, demeaning those affected to subservient, inferior roles in society. Human history more than proved this.

Some other intellectuals and authors were neither afraid to discuss the matter of the Arab slave trade openly. One difference is maybe that N’Diaye came himself from a (Senegalese) Muslim background.


Marcus Garvey jr. is one of the sons of the early Jamaican Black Power advocate Marcus Mosiah Garvey. He continues his father’s work and movement more or less; promoting Black and African self-respect and pride, against the historical and continued White and western colonial denigration and discrimination, keeping Black people in inferior positions. To this Black empowerment agenda – or as part of it -, he added attention also to what has been done to Africans, not just by the British, French, Portuguese etcetera, but also by the Arabs. This lecture – based on written material and scholarly sources – is to be found on YouTube, and is more about “facts” than anything else: hardly any “activist” or biased distortions.


Also, in works on overall other themes the issue is discussed without fear. This is the case in the work ‘Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo’ (2004), by Ned Sublette (who is also a musician). I referred to this work in other blog posts of mine, then in relation to cultural or musical issues. Yet, it has a general historical introduction.

That the author Sublette discusses the Arab slave trade in a book about Cuban music is not so strange. This relates to Spain’s Moorish, Islamic past, just prior its colonial ventures. Cuba was of course a Spanish colony, and the colonizing Spaniards were just recently under Islamic influence. This would feed partly into Cuban music, along with several influences from sub-Saharan Africans imported as slaves into Cuba.

Sublette looks from a musical perspective, and as part of that discusses the fact that many Arabs enslaved Africans, of whom many served also as musicians (and as prostitutes, domestic servants, workers and otherwise of course) in the Arab and Islamic world. He argues that with that inevitably traditional Arab music became more “rhythmical” and here and there even polyrhythmic, bringing that influence also to Spain and eventually Spanish music, and from that to other parts of Europe. Some Spanish folk music genres, like Fandango, Flamenco and Jota, are indeed relatively rhythmic (for European standards, at least). This can have other causes too, of course (earlier African migrations, colonial influences coming back to Spain etcetera), but Sublette examines all possible cultural relations.

Specifically about this Arab slave trade, anyway, Sublette even argues in this work that historically the Black African as “slave” was first “framed” in the minds as such by Arabs and early Muslims, even before the Portuguese.

He, and other authors, even go so far as to argue that the Iberians – at first the Portuguese – got the idea of “Blacks as (natural) slaves” during their Moorish period, from the Moors, and indirectly thus from Arab enslavement of Africans. Arabs and other Muslims not only enslaved Africans, but seemed to have a relative preference for them. This racist idea then would shape the Portuguese slave trade, and after that the African slavery in Portuguese and Spanish colonies. The British and Dutch (and others) later expanded and modernized plantation-based slavery in the West (the Americas), etcetera etcetera.


It is quite plausible, but on the other hand a bit too simple, perhaps. One can “copy” or adopt” practices of others by one’s own choosing. Those practices that fits one’s interests and prejudices are then copied, others not. It is documented that racist stereotypes - e.g. as supposed animal-like - of Black Africans existed for a long time in the Arab world. It is however likewise documented that such negative stereotypes existed in Europe before colonialism. Even in places where actual Africans were at that time hardly seen (Northern France, Northern Italy, Germany, Britain, Eastern Europe etcetera).

Broadly said, anyway, it can be impartially concluded that the seafaring Portuguese, Genoese, and soon after other Europeans, were influenced in trading in preferably Black Africans by earlier examples by the Arabs, when Islam “conquered” parts of Africa. This can hardly be denied, but does of course not rid the Europeans from own responsibility.

The current unfortunate reviving of slave trade of Black Africans by Lybians with an Arab identification is therefore “nothing new”, but because of that extra tragic. Not just that slavery still exists is a scandal, but that specifically Africans are targeted (including racial motivations) makes it extra painfully reminiscent, rendering it a sad “continuity” .


With this essay I do not want to say –even if it might seem this way – that not only Europeans traded in African slaves, but also Arabs. Neither is it solely a “diss” of Islam, to use modern speak. That is not my main point. My main point is that I call for open recognition and excuses to sub-Saharan Africans populations. By both European states as Arab states, and others involved (in the Muslim world). Beyond stated excuses, even reparation is not out of the question in my opinion, especially in light of the relative wealthy that certain European countries and Arab countries nowadays are, when compared to most African countries. While it is true that Africans participated – some would say: collaborated – with this enslavement, this still seems just.


At the very least “open recognition” of these dark pages in history as severe human rights abuses and dehumanization, and factual genocide, seems to me nothing more than reasonable and just.

Persisting racism in several Islamic countries, as well as in Europe and North America, and among White Latin Americans, also relates to this denial, I think.

In the Netherlands, for instance, Black inhabitants object for some time now against the folk festivity (when children receive gifts) of Sinterklaas, taking place every 5th of December. As part of this folk tradition, Sinterklaas has traditionally Black helpers/servants, with White people wearing blackface and dressing up for the occasion. Some of these still put on fake Black people’s (e.g Surinamese or Curaçaoan) accents, making it even more offensive and, well, racist. Recognizing the dark epoch of African slavery also part of Dutch colonial history, really openly recognizing it, might help White Dutch people understand the sensibilities and argumentation of Black inhabitants of the same country, feeling demeaned by Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete” as these Blackface servant is popularily known).

Likewise and more broadly, this open recognition and knowledge about it, might limit negative stereotypes about Blacks still existing more generally throughout Europe. More blatantly known in parts of Eastern Europe, but certainly also present among some Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Britons, Germans, Belgians, Dutch, or Scandinavian people.

The greatest misconception is, I think, that this making excuses about the enslavement of Africans would taint the image of the national identity. I am Dutch and can only be good, also historically is a strange, disturbed, and megalomaniac way of viewing the world. It is found among other Europeans as well, and is caused by an irrational identification with a country and one’s known national origins.

Of course, each nation and culture or even religion (though I personally am not a believer in such large-scale, politically dominant World religions like Islam or Christianity) has an interesting history, with intriguing aspects, teaching potentially all humanity about human development, power play, human interaction, civilizations, and cultural mixture and change.. That is what makes travelling to and visiting other places interesting for many: differences in culture and history.

The way Dutch “handled” water is for instance interesting globally – and still outstanding today -, and likewise the interesting interplay between Celtic, Roman and other cultures in what would become France, Germanic, Celtic, Roman interplays in historical Britain, or the broad Mediterranean, Moorish, Roman and other historical influences that shaped a country like Spain. Also, Arab and Islamic history has interesting aspects, that even helped shape broader human history (e.g. influencing Europe through Spain, but reaching also all the way to Indonesia)..

Recognizing the wrongs committed as part of that same history – e.g. affecting another group - only shows the continuous dynamic of an open, educational, and humanitarian zeal, also present within those countries or cultures/religions. It would not taint their image, but rather improve it.

Moreover: knowing and recognizing history helps to avoid repeating the wrongs..


Maybe the misinterpretation - mixed up, as Bob Marley sang on Stiff Necked Fools - “with vane imagination”, is that when some proud (patriotic) Portuguese, Englishmen, or Arabs hear “your people once enslaved Africans”, they hear more than what is said. They understand that “your people/nation is the “kind of” people that owned African slaves”. This is hardly the main message, since – as I said at the start of this essay: “slavery is as old as organized man” (not just “some kind” of man).

Despite this, it certainly can be argued that Arabs and Muslims began partly “racializing” slavery, even if they had slaves from different races (also European ones, but proportionally less than Black African ones), toward an association with Black Africans. This racialization was taken to even more extremes by European colonizers later, with the Portuguese and British having and trading in numerically the most African slaves overall up to and into the 19th c.. across the Atlantic. The total number of enslaved Africans that Arabs and other Muslims transported, before that, is however not much lower than that by Europeans to the Americas.

From this perspective, the current practices of slave trade in Africans in Libya – often also by criminals – beyond being just incidental, does in fact follow a cruel historical pattern. I see no sense in denying this.