In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Data Sources
  • Reference Works, Atlases, and Encyclopedias
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources and Narrative Accounts
  • Post-Abolition Societies in Theory and Practice

African Studies Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
George M. La Rue
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0051


Although slavery and some regional slave trading existed in earlier eras, the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries led to increases in long-distance trading in both the Middle East and Indian Ocean regions, but with initially rather different patterns. Africa became a new source of slaves. The Lake Chad region and the Nile Basin supplied local regional powers with slaves and supplied North African and Egyptian markets via the trans-Saharan trade. These markets were also transit points for the Mediterranean and Red Sea trades that carried slaves into the Ottoman Empire and other parts of the Middle East. The Horn and Eastern Africa (from modern Somalia to Mozambique) supplied slaves to local powers such as Abyssinia, the Swahili towns, and later Zanzibar, as well as to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trades. Africans were sent as slaves to Arabia, to Indian Ocean islands (including Madagascar), and to the Indian subcontinent. Until the early 20th century, these broad patterns were affected by the ebb and flow of local powers and trading networks, the continuing spread of Islam, the changing fortunes of empires (in North Africa, Egypt, the Middle East, Turkey, Abyssinia, Persia, and India), and fluctuating demand for other international goods, from gold, cloth, and ivory to ostrich feathers, cloves, and sugar. Some of these goods were produced or transported by slaves or were marketed by merchants who also dealt in slaves. From the 10th century on, European powers increased their religious, military, and commercial pressures on eastern Mediterranean shores and the Middle East. By 1500 Europe’s global reach extended to the Indian Ocean. By the mid-17th century, European military interventions increased dramatically, with maritime empires established along the Indian Ocean rim. By the 19th century, the European abolitionist movement affected these regions, even as European empires expanded in Africa, the Middle East, India, and the broader Indian Ocean region. To study not only these broad patterns but also the individual lives of enslaved Africans, scholars have considered a wide variety of sources and diverse influences and have used narrative histories, travelers’ accounts, trade documents, feudal charters, court records, genealogies, local chronicles, oral epics, medical records, shipping records, biographies, and slave narratives. These scholars have also examined the lives of royal concubines, court eunuchs, slave generals, soldiers, porters, sailors, prostitutes, holy men, spirit mediums, missionaries, and converts to Islam and Christianity and other religions. A similar diversity of approaches has been enlisted to interpret these sources and to place them in the most relevant contexts.

General Overviews

The Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern slave trades developed due to long interactions between indigenous African cultures and outsiders, initially from the Mediterranean, Middle East, and South Asia, and later from Europe. Hunwick and Powell 2001 introduces the basic Muslim texts and perspectives that initially shaped contacts between Muslims and black Africans, while focusing on the trans-Saharan trade. Lovejoy 2011 describes the transformation within Africa and the historical context of the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades. Austen 1992 estimates the volume of the trans-Saharan slave trades based on European sources. Harris 1971 is one of the seminal works on the African presence in Asia; it is a baseline of information, a starting point for beginning students, and a benchmark for scholarly efforts over the last four decades. Clarence-Smith 1989 drew together scholars studying the African societies from which slaves were drawn into the Indian Ocean trade, the slave-trading networks, and many of the destinations to which slaves were taken in the 19th century. Ewald 1992 warns of the dangers of reifying Islam as an explanation for the differences in slavery between “Atlantic Africa” and “Islamic Africa.” The author contends that Islam was, instead, an ideology that became contested terrain as masters and slaves sought to interpret it for their own purposes. Ewald also suggests a comparative framework for slavery and the slave trades in three settings: regional commercial networks, states, and households. This approach allows for useful comparisons, avoids oversimplifications, and indicates where more work is needed. In keeping with a more recent vision of Indian Ocean world studies, Alpers 2000 surveys the fundamentals of the African diasporas in the Indian Ocean. It begins with the regions that were sources of the slave trade and moves on to the local trades, the broad patterns of demand for labor, and the diversity of cultures in the Indian Ocean world: the Islamic elements; Swahili of East Africa; Hindus, Muslim, and Christians in India; Malagasy culture of Madagascar; and Christians in South Africa. Alpers illustrates his study with references to specific slave narratives and inventories and the diasporic cultural traces across the broader region, up to contemporary times. Jaysuriya and Pankhurst 2001 discusses the Indian Ocean slave trade in the broader context of a long African diaspora into the region.

  • Alpers, Edward A. “Recollecting Africa: Diasporic Memory in the Indian Ocean World.” In Special Issue on the Diaspora. Edited by Judith Byfield. African Studies Review 43.1 (April 2000): 83–99.

    DOI: 10.2307/524722

    A concise introduction to African slavery in the Indian Ocean World with a thoughtful bibliography. Available online by subscription.

  • Austen, Ralph A. “The Mediterranean Islamic Slave Trade Out of Africa: A Tentative Census.” Slavery & Abolition 13.1 (1992): 214–248.

    DOI: 10.1080/01440399208575059

    Estimates of the trans-Saharan and Mediterranean slave trades, with a bibliography. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Clarence-Smith, William Gervase, ed. The Economics of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century. London: Frank Cass, 1989.

    This anthology, based on an academic conference, includes chapters with wide geographic coverage of the Indian Ocean slave trade from East Africa to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Madagascar, and the Mascarenes. Contributors include many of the top names in the field at the time.

  • Ewald, Janet J. “Review: Slavery in Africa and the Slave Trades from Africa.” American Historical Review 97.2 (April 1992): 465–485.

    DOI: 10.2307/2165729

    A reflection on the state of the field at the time, which foreshadows the ongoing debates over the importance of Islam as an explanatory factor in describing slavery. Available online by subscription.

  • Harris, Joseph E. The African Presence in Asia: Consequences of the East African Slave Trade. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

    A classic and influential work in the field. Approachable for beginners but still useful for scholars moving beyond their usual geographic range.

  • Hunwick, John O., and Eve Troutt Powell, eds. The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2001.

    A collection of readings for university students, with insightful introductory essays by the co-editors, explications of relevant Qur’anic passages and hadiths, examples from Islamic law, select primary sources on slavery and the slave trade from capture to emancipation, and broader views of freedom and abolition.

  • Jaysuriya, Shihan de Silva, and Richard Pankhurst, eds. The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2001.

    This anthology aims at a general audience, including college students.

  • Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139014946

    This continent-wide synthesis is an excellent starting point for undergraduates. In its most recent edition, much of the original text remains with some corrections, amendments, and updated statistics. The bibliography has been reduced compared to the first two editions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.