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August 19, 2009

What if Europeans hadn’t ‘discovered’ Africa? (Part 2: Slavery)

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryWhat if Europeans hadn’t “discovered” Africa? What if Africans had been left alone since 1412? What level of human development might they have achieved by now? What was the rate of human development in Africa during the 1,000 years prior to 1412?

These are important questions, especially for Africans because setting the record straight about the past is the first step to building the future.

Africa is attached to Asia at its northeast corner by the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. It is separated from Asia further south by the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The continent thrusts south for 8,000 km separating the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean; due West is South America and due East is Australia, each some 10,000 km away.

Africa is separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, less than 15 km across at Gibraltar.

Africa is the home of one of earliest civilizations, that of Egypt, and today is the home of a billion people; more than one ninth of humanity.

The very notion of “Africanness” is alien to the long history of Africa but it was born of European subjugation, racism and exploitation.

Before 1412, Africa’s influence on both Asia and Europe was significant and well documented.

But Africa’s influence on the Americas and Australia before 1412 is less well known. However there is increasing evidence that Africans came to the Americas long before Columbus (see Professor Ivan Van Sertima’s classic They Came Before Columbus).

Beginning in 711, and for some 700 years, Africans were rulers, academics, scholars, army commanders, and sailors in Muslim Spain. Mixed marriages led to more than 25 generations of African Europeans.

Before 1412, Africa was also heavily influenced by Asians specially the Arabs, before and after Islam, via Sinai, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The relation was based on trade and culture exchange, rarely on wars. These marriages, which Islam accelerated, were a positive social integration factor in the advancement of both Africans and Arabs.

Before Islam, the most famous Queen of Arabia, the Queen of Sheba, was an African and her son sat on the throne of Ethiopia.

According to professor Sonia Cole in her book The Prehistory of East Africa: “[Before 700 BC], the Arab state of Ausan traded with, or perhaps held, the East African coast. Eight hundred years later, when the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea [(a travel guide to the periphery of the Indian Ocean)] was written south-western Arabia was still apparently in control of the coast about Rhapta (East Africa)…The Sabaeans of western Arabia founded the kingdom of Aksum in northern Æthiopia during the first century AD”

For the native Africans the spiritual cannot be separated from other aspects of life, and the adoption of Islam did not greatly disturb this relation.

Islam, with no church, teaches that all humans, irrespective of their gender, skin color, and ethnic origin are capable of doing good; there is no original sin. The One God is the Lord of all, not of special people or tribe.

The old and new religions were integrated in the fully formed African Islamic society. Mixed marriages accelerated such integration, and Islam soon became an African religion, a spiritual, moral and culture force. The African Muslim never had to follow a foreign Church.

“Islam and Africa have made something of each other that is quite extraordinary,” says Rene A. Bravmann in his book African Islam. This was never the case when Europeans introduced Christianity to Africa. Today 50 percent of Africans are Muslims despite the heavy Christian missionary effort over the last 600 years.

Islam teaches that slaves, who were then the result of wars, Africans or not, should be treated well and set free as soon as possible. Islam teaches that going to Heaven is the birthright of no one; this only can be earned by doing good and buying the freedom of slaves is one of the highly ranked good that a Muslim can do.

Islam also teaches that slaves can buy their freedom in-kind. Thus many of them excelled to be teachers and even scholars. In Islam if a woman-slave bears children from her master-husband both her and the children are considered free.

Islam teaches a slave is a victim of circumstances who should be helped to be free and treated fairly in the mean time. Trading in slaves is a sin. This is in contrast to the teachings of the Bible, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” Ephesians, 5-6.

The Arab Muslims called Africans Zanji (hence the island of Zanjibar or Zanzibar), Habashi (from Habasha, Arabic for Ethiopian) or Sudani (Arabic for black).

Such names “were not derogatory but simply ethnographic,” said Professor Graham W. Irwin, former dean of Columbia University in New York. He further explains, in his book African Presence in Early Asia, that African slaves in the Muslim world differ from those traded by the Europeans after 1412:

“The Muslim societies of the Middle East, India and central Asia, throughout their history, adopted the practice of using people from other lands. These people were slaves, but the essential thing about them was that they were people from other lands, who were employed in preference to local people, in certain specialized occupation. Some worked in the military... others were bureaucrats... some were artisans, musicians, dancers... traders, pearl dividers, sailors, fishermen, miners... and some filled a domestic role: house servants, concubines, and so on.

“Some achieved high rank and status, as high as commander or even general in the military, and as high as the rank of prime minister. But why slaves? Basically because if you have a slave that comes from somewhere else, and you put him in a position of authority, he does not have kinship ties with the local people.”

Irwin gives examples of two Africans who reached the top of the social and political ladder in Arabia, one before and one after Islam.

Before Islam, one of the national heroes of the Arabs was Antara (525–615), army commander, intellectual, and poet, whose mother was an African slave.

“There was nobody to equal the valor and strength of Antara,” said Irwin. “He’s rather like King Arthur in the English tradition, but in fact more important because he was a more historical figure.”

The other was Bilal, the first Muezzin, caller of prayer in Islam, during the Prophet’s mission (609–632):

“Africans and person of African descent were prominent in government. Several of the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad were Africans... [There was also an] African ruling line in an East Indian state for seven years at the end of the 15th century. And of course, the most famous of all African rulers in India was Malik Ambar, “King” Ambar, who ruled the Indian Muslim state of Ahmadnagar on the western coast of India from 1607 to 1626.

“People often wonder if there was any equivalent in Asia to the plantation slavery of the New World. There was one, and it led to the revolt of the Zanj in Basra in Iraq [who] were imported to do a special job, which was to dig the salt marches around Basra... their revolt was called the Revolt of the Zanj (868–883)…[Revolts were a] familiar pattern in New World history, but in the Old World, full-scale revolts by plantation slaves were not common.

“The revolt of the Zanj was a special case, a frenzied reaction to cruel oppression. Otherwise how were Blacks in the [Muslim] Middle East and India treated? By and large, one can say, it was better than in the Americas, and there are two reasons why this was so. The first is that a slave in Asia was valuable, whether he was white or back. He was valuable and was relatively expensive. Secondly, there was no identification of slavery with Africa because of the fact of white slaves working alongside black ones.

“The prior existence of slavery in Africa is undeniable fact,” said Howard W. French in his book A Continent for The Taking, “but there can be little comparison between the age-old institution of African slavery, in which captured them, and the industrial scale of Europe’s triangular slave trade, and even less with its dehumanizing impact and brutality… Even the Catholic conventions of the day legitimized the inhuman treatment of ‘pagans.’”

French concludes: “To this day, there has been little willingness to contemplate the true impact of over four centuries of slavery on Africa. Slavery’s cost to the continent did not merely involve the loss of untold millions of souls who died along the bone-strewn footpaths where captives in chain were to the coast, or perished in the horrific Middle Passage. Nor, finally, can it be measured in the 10 million or so hardy survivors who ultimately reached the Americas. There was an immense social impact on Africa, too.”

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, an Egyptian-born African-Canadian, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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