Did Black Slaves Revolt in Iraq?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The Revolt of the Zanj was a very different kind of operation for freedom in Iraq.

"A Slave Gang in Zanzibar"
"A Slave Gang in Zanzibar" The Illustrated London News (March 16, 1889), vol. 94, p. 343. Engraving based on sketch by W.A. Churchill. 

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 88: Which event in black history took place in what is now Iraq?

Most days bring anguished headlines from Iraq—of rivalries so deep, so fierce and longstanding that even the noblest interventions merely halt, but never heal, the divide. As we debate the legacy of our own eight-year intervention, we remain ever mindful of the sacrifices of the more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers who, to quote Lincoln at Gettysburg, “gave the last full measure of devotion” to Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the last to die there in a roadside bombing in Baghdad on Nov. 14, 2011. His name was David Emanuel Hickman, a 23-year-old Army specialist from Greensboro, N.C., and he was a month shy of returning home.

He also happened to be black. When I think of Hickman and the other African-American soldiers killed in Iraq, I wonder whether they knew that long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought the African people to the New World, eastern trade routes carried others to the Arabian Peninsula, or that within the borders of where they were deployed, 1,150 years before, thousands of enslaved Africans rebelled against the ruling class whose ancestors had built Baghdad into the capital of a vast Islamic empire.  

The Revolt of the Zanj (869-883 A.D.), as it is called, was a very different kind of operation for freedom a thousand years before our own Civil War, and it lasted more than three times as long—and nearly twice as long as the Iraq War. Although scholarship at least since Herbert Aptheker’s pioneering research has documented slave revolts in this country, few of us have heard of the Zanj, even though many schoolchildren are familiar with the much earlier gladiator-led slave insurrection against the Roman Republic, immortalized in the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus.

Middle East Slavery

“But, wait!” you say. “Black slaves in Iraq? The Middle East?” Today, American children—thanks to the revolution fostered by the institutionalization of black studies starting in the late 1960s—mainly learn about slavery starting with the Middle Passage, the tens of thousands of slave ships that headed west from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries. But, it turns out, there’s a good chance the European powers that backed those ships learned to link slavery and race from the eastern powers that once occupied the same lands. That’s what the dean of the history of slavery, David Brion Davis of Yale University, posits in his 2003 book Challenging the Boundaries of SlaveryTo be sure, Iraq wasn’t called Iraq back then (its current borders weren’t established until after World War I). It was known generally as Mesopotamia, the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, and was part of a sprawling caliphate empire that stretched from southern Asia to North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.  

As old and as violent as the conflict is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, slavery is even older. It predates the written historical record, Davis writes, and at critical turns was supported legally by the major religions of Judaism and Christianity. Islam followed. And as the teachings of the Koran spread from Mecca to the conquered lands of Africa and beyond, beginning in the seventh century, the lucrative slave trade expanded from Africa back to the Middle East. (For those who don’t know, there are only 20 miles from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula at its closest point, across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, linking the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean by way of the Red Sea.)    

Don’t get me wrong: Africans were not just slaves in Mesopotamia. Some played key roles in the formation of Islam, as Leyla Keogh notes in her entry on the Middle East in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. But, over time, the enslavement of African men and women went hand in hand with the maturation of Islam, and the caliphate’s reliance on foreign, non-Arabic-speaking slaves, black and white, intensified as the empire grew.

Davis writes: