THE MEDITERRANEAN SPLASHES ONE SIDE OF TRIPOLI, THE SAHARA rubs the other. The Phoenicians, with their keen eye for commercial real estate, founded the town in the seventh century B.C. It quickly became a trade hub. By 1850 it had absorbed twenty-five centuries of war, commerce, political intrigue, and forced occupation. Greeks were followed by Romans, Carthaginians, various Muslim regimes, Spaniards, the Christian Knights of St. John, and, most recently, the Ottoman Turks, who took control in the sixteenth century.
When Barth and Overweg arrived, the city’s population of about 15,000 was a stew of Berbers, Moors, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Maltese, Italians, and black Africans from various kingdoms and tribes in the south. Tripoli was a swinging door that connected the Mediterranean countries with the interior of Africa. Merchandise from Europe entered through the city’s busy port. Goods from Africa’s interior—ivory, gold, indigo, cotton cloth, animal skins, ostrich feathers, leather goods, kola nuts—left the city for Europe and the Ottoman countries. But the main export moving through Tripoli was slaves.
The amount of human flesh that passed through the slave markets of Barbary was a trickle compared to the torrent from Africa’s west coast. That torrent, directed at the New World, was industrial in scope and purpose, and favored strong young males. In the trans-Saharan trade, the majority of slaves were females—the younger and prettier, the higher the value. Most of them were bound for domestic duties in the houses and seraglios of Barbary, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant. Slave raiders in the Sudan often killed males because they were less docile on the slog to market and less profitable once there.
Some of the captured slaves were retained by the nobles of Islamic kingdoms in the south, but most were sold to Arab traders who took them north to the big markets on the Mediterranean. Many European travelers commented that slaves in Islamic lands were treated relatively well compared to slaves in the West. They had certain rights and privileges. For instance, though the Qur’an permitted masters to enjoy their female slaves sexually, children from such unions were born free and their mothers could not be sold. Once a female slave married, her master lost sexual privileges. The Qur’an encouraged masters to marry their slaves and free them, and forbade the separation of slave mothers from their children before age seven. Some slaves became wealthy landowners and high government officials with slaves of their own. In a few cases the children of royal slaves became kings.
Slaves bound for the markets of Barbary first had to survive the horror of being torn from their villages and marched in coffles across the desert to the sea. Crossing the Sahara on foot, even in the best circumstances, was brutal—choking sandstorms, extreme temperatures, awful thirst. But these conditions were infinitely more taxing for youths recently wrenched from their homes, fettered together, and terrified about their unknown fate. They were often whipped and deprived of sufficient food and water. Those who couldn’t keep up were abandoned. The caravan route between Bornu and Fezzan, in what is now southwestern Libya, was littered with their skeletons. Mortality rates are inexact but historians estimate at least 20 percent and often much higher. In 1849 the British vice-consul in Murzuk, an oasis town on the route between Bornu and Tripoli, reported to the Foreign Office that 1,600 slaves traveling from Bornu had died of thirst after attempting to survive by killing camels to drink their blood and the putrid water in their stomachs. Five months later the vice-consul sent a similar report: en route from Bornu, 795 of 1,770 slaves had perished of thirst.
25 August 2019
Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, 1850
From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 22-24: