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Salah Trabelsi: Putting Arab-Muslim slave trade impact in context

May 27th, 2020
topic:Slavery
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, Libya, Mauritania
tags:Salah Trabelsi, Slave Route Project, slave trade, UNESCO

As conversation about slavery and its impact on a people more than 400 years ago intensifies, drawing researchers, media, international community and governments, the debate has largely focused on the Trans-Atlantic trade. Yet the less discussed Arab-Muslim trade has been described as the most inhumane, having taken the longest time and the largest population of Africans. Scholars have christened it ‘veiled genocide’ owing to the degree of atrocities it meted to those captured.

Salah Trabelsi, an academic, has written extensively on this subject and is a member of the International Scientific Committee of the Slave Route Project, a UNESCO initiative that has been shining a spotlight on the causes, operations and consequences of slavery to the world with a view to cultivating a culture of peace. He spoke to FairPlanet

FairPlanet: A lot of literature on slavery heavily focuses on the "white" narrative and rarely presents an African point of view. How has this affected the discourse and conversation on slavery and ethnic relations? 

Salah Trabelsi: Speeches relating to the image of black African communities in the Arab world bear witness to the violence of racist prejudice and the extent of the stigma. It is a rhetoric, inherited from the long history of slavery and which largely permeated intellectual habits with regards to black populations in the Arab word. 

It should be noted that these stereotypical representations still continue today to impact school curricula and educational systems. It is enough to take a quick look at the content of the books recommended in the context of teaching, whether in middle or high school, to realise the damage caused to mentalities. This largely explains the intensification of discrimination and prejudice against black minorities and sub-Saharan Africa in general, especially in the Maghreb countries.

Is that also a  reason why the Arab-Muslim* slave trade remains understudied compared to the Transatlantic trade? 

The study of slavery as well as those of the Eastern and Trans-Saharan trafficking were rarely the subject of systematic and nuanced works. The approach to it is most often struck with silence and denial. This deficit in thinking of slaves as matter and stake in the field of knowledge generated intellectual habits and speeches reducing the extent of slavery in the Arab world. Very little work has been devoted to exploring the life of slaves with their Arab and Muslim "masters". The pattern that dominates today at the level of research and academic authorities is that of a repression of this long history. 

What unique aspects about this trade remain ignored but form a key part of the slavery debate that the world should know about? 

In general, the question is slow in finding a secure path in the field of scientific research on the side of Arab as well as Western universities. There are still no museographic, ethnographic or iconographic collections; there are no foundations or institutions that can stimulate research in this area. If the study of slavery has long been neglected, then there are many reasons for this.  

Modern day researchers should therefore re-evaluate existing knowledge on the Trans-Saharan slave trade - no matter how limited - in order to enrich the body of research on this crucial part of history, which is important for closure of the descendants of the slave trade. Researchers owe them this closure.

The Trans-Saharan slave trade has been billed as having been devastating and inhumane to Africans than Trans-Atlantic trade. Some scholars have even christened it ‘The veiled genocide.’ How accurate are these assertions? 

The scandalous narratives of auctions of young sub-Saharans in Libya and the incessant testimonies of violent and sometimes murderous attacks against blacks show the extent of the ravages which affect all spheres of social life in the Maghreb.

It is a long history of plunder and predation which ravaged immense territories for centuries. Arab documentary sources clearly show that the havocs caused were as devastating and brutal as the Transatlantic slave trade.

How would you quantify this brutal impact of Trans-Saharan slave trade on contemporary Africa and its people?

Clearly, the scale of the Trans-Saharan slave trade has been appallingly disastrous for the African continent both in terms of its human and material wealth. It is undoubtedly difficult to quantify its impact precisely. But the few figures, delivered by the testimonies of travellers and the national archives indicate a monstrous and considerable human haemorrhage. Several million women, men and children, who were the subject of abominable trafficking, had been terribly uprooted from their families and their lands to be transferred to the countries of the Maghreb and the Near East where they were enslaved.

Have these events of ancient slavery affected or contributed to what is now known as modern day slavery?

You cannot de-link the impacts of slavery with modern day prejudices based on ethnicity. And because the last stages of slavery happened in Africa long after it had been abolished elsewhere, the idea of treating black people as inferior to the rest of the other ethnics has been pronounced to date. Having said that, I believe we should proceed in a reasoned manner by distinguishing the different practices of enslavement, domination and colonial expansion by placing them in their specific historical and geographical frameworks. We would also have to vary the way we read documentary sources in order to determine more precisely their historical, economic and social consequences.

In that regard, has the international community done enough to tame modern day slavery?

For several years, human rights information and awareness campaigns have been widely launched around the world. This great mobilisation made it possible to call on governments to carry out the legal, penal and social measures necessary to fight against modern forms of slavery and trafficking of human beings.

It must be said that this scourge continues, unfortunately, to spread throughout the world. More effort should be exerted to alert international opinion and public authorities and to step up the fight against all forms of contemporary slavery. In many countries, including some Arab countries, laws have been developed to combat forced labour, the exploitation of children, domestic servitudes and treatment that violate human dignity. However, in most cases these laws are not followed up, hence the strong resurgence of racism, discrimination, forced labour and violence directed against the most vulnerable populations.

You have been a member of the International Scientific Committee of UNESCO’s Slave Route Project. What does the project entail and to what extent has it achieved its purpose?

The Slave Route Project launched under the aegis of UNESCO has in recent years carried out formidable work of awareness and information around a long human tragedy, long remained under the weight of silence and taboo. Its objectives aim above all at a better understanding of the world and a shared recognition of the common past of our humanity.

The International Scientific Committee plays a vital scientific and educational role in the development of research and new approaches. Through the establishment of new pedagogical methods, it contributes to the promotion of the teaching of the history of the slave trade and slavery. It also tends to identify and preserve written, oral archives and intangible heritage related to this history. 

Let me conclude by warmly thanking Ali Moussa Iyé who, before his retirement and for several years, devoted all his energy to this great project.

*Arab-Muslims are adherents of Islam who identify as Arabs by language and culture. The notion of Arab-Muslim trade slave essentially refers to the great slave trade practiced for more than fourteen centuries by Maghrebi and Eastern merchants across the Saharan routes, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean.

Article written by:
Bildschirmfoto-2014-10-08-um-19.29.13
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Tunisia Algeria Morocco Western Sahara Libya Mauritania
© UNESCO
The film presents the diverse histories and heritages stemming from the global tragedy of the slave trade and slavery.
© UNESCO
2019 marks the 25th anniversary of UNESCO's Slave Route Project: On this occasion, watch the message from Marcus Miller, renowned American jazz musician, composer and producer, who is UNESCO Artist for Peace and Spokesperson for the Slave Route Project.