"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.

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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.)    

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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:

The spectacular Arab conquests, like those of the earlier Romans, revolutionized geographic boundaries and produced an immense flow of slaves for employment as servants, soldiers, members of harems, eunuch chaperons, and bureaucrats. Thanks to such earlier innovations as the North Arabian saddle and camel caravans, Arabs, Berbers, and their converts made deep inroads into sub-Saharan Africa, thus tapping, through purchase or capture, an unprecedented pool of slave labor. According to some scholarship, this importation of black slaves into Islamic lands from Spain to India constituted a continuous, large-scale migration—by caravan and sea over a period of more than twelve centuries, beginning in the 600s— that may have equaled in total numbers all the African slaves transported to the Western Hemisphere. One French scholar, Raymond Mauny, estimates that as many as fourteen million African slaves were exported to Muslim regions.

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The Zanj

But who exactly were the Zanj? Some identify them specifically as black slaves from east Africa—think Zanzibar—but it was a much looser term than that (“Zanj,” an Arabic word, is often translated as “black”). The best book on the subject is The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9th Century by Alexandre Popovic. (I had the pleasure of writing the introduction to the French-to-English translation in 1999.) As Popovic explains, Zanj was a label used for black slaves, specifically those tasked with the hardest, plantation-style work.  

Key information on the Zanj work sites within Mesopotamia comes to us through Popovic by way of ninth-century Arab historian al-Tabari, who remembered the Zanj as black slaves who were forced to undertake the massive field project to drain the salt marshes of Lower Mesopotamia. It was backbreaking work, and the men were underfed and stuffed into labor camps of 500 to 5,000. While most slaves in Islamic countries were domestic workers, the Zanj toiled at the bottom of society at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula.

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Over time, their presence reinforced Arabs’ negative stereotypes of blacks in general. Davis explains:

[R]egardless of their continuing enslavement and purchase of white Christian infidels, medieval Arabs came to associate the most degrading forms of labor with black slaves—with the Zanj whom the medieval Arab writer Maqdisi described as ‘people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.’ In fact, the Arabic word for slave, abd, came in time to mean only a black slave and, in some regions, referred to any black person whether slave or free. Many Arab writers echoed the racial contempt typified by the famous fourteenth-century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun when he wrote that black people ‘are, as a whole submissive to slavery, because Negroes have little that is essentially human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.’

Throughout history, the hardest work has had a way of landing on the lowliest workers, who, in turn, are bestialized by the master class in order to justify the very conditions they imposed. It is important to remember that this process, historically throughout the world, has not always been based on differences of color or “race,” though it became color-coded early on in the history of the British colonies, just as it had in the Middle East. And many white immigrant groups—such as the earliest Irish immigrants—were demeaned and stereotyped in very similar ways to the treatment of black people. The quickest way to justify exploiting an entire race, nationality or religious group is to represent them as subhuman. As Georgia congressman John Lewis recently tweeted about the United States, “In many ways this country was built by slaves and immigrants, something we should not forget in our ‘debate’ about immigration.” Except that we always do.

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The Caliphate

What the caliphate of the ninth century failed to remember, to its detriment, was that however long and cruelly a master might use his slaves as “tool[s] or instrument[s],” he can never erase their will to survive—and be free. As Davis writes, “The slave is of course an independent center of consciousness, a unique human mind often aware of an owner’s weaknesses and capable of defiance, retaliation, or subtle triumphs that uncloak a master’s pretensions to godhood.”  

In other words, the Zanj camps were a powder keg.  

According to Popovic, two Zanj insurrections failed under the previous Umayyad Caliphate: One in 689-690 was small and local, and the prisoners were beheaded. Another, in 694, led by the “Lion of the Zanj,” took two military offenses to defeat. It was followed by two centuries of silence.

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When the Umayyad Caliphate was cast out by the rival Abbasid Caliphate in 750, slavery persisted. A confluence of factors made the year 869 ripe for another push for freedom. The central government was mired in divisions among Turkish military leaders, Arab lawmakers and Persian civil servants, Popovic explains. The empire also was increasingly spread thin defending its positions abroad, while, internally, independent governors were becoming ever more independent. “[A]ll that was lacking,” Popovic writes, “was a leader capable of stirring up the Zanj and lighting the fire.”

The Master of the Zanj

Enter Ali bin Muhammad, the matchstick of the Zanj revolt. Muhammad was not Zanj himself, but of Arab or Persian descent. Little is known about his early life except that he was a poet who claimed to have a direct line to the Almighty with instructions to lead a great crusade. He also was clever enough to assure his followers that his family tree included connections to the Prophet Muhammad. According to Popovic, Ali bin Muhammad moved restlessly around the empire searching for a people to lead. He found them in the lower canal region of Mesopotamia in September 869.  

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What began as a local revolt escalated when the fearful word spread from Basra to the central government. Heading to the fray was Ali bin Muhammad, who established himself as leader by promising the Zanj freer, better lives. Muhammad wrapped his message in a strain of Islam at once stark and egalitarian. According to Britannica Online, “Alī’s offers became even more attractive with his subsequent adoption of a Khārijite religious stance: anyone, even a black slave, could be elected caliph, and all non-Khārijites were infidels threatened by a holy war.”

Before long, Muhammad became known ironically as the Master of the Zanj. Popovic, via the historian al-Tabari, returns us to a fateful first encounter: “Ali b. Muhammad assembled his followers, whose numbers continued to grow, under the flag for prayer. In an address to them, he spoke of their miserable condition and assured them that God had chosen him to be the instrument of their deliverance. He also told them that he, ‘Ali b. Muhammad, wanted to improve their lot so that one day they, too, might have beautiful homes and slaves. After the oath, and before leaving, he asked those who had understood to translate for anyone who did not speak Arabic.’ ”

Muhammad’s flag became the flag of the Zanj, and unlike future slaves who failed to show up for John Brown at Harpers Ferry (Brown’s 1859 rebellion was so close to the capital in Washington that it was easy to telegraph for help and send troops before the uprising had a chance to breathe out), the Zanj rallied, wave after wave, and they weren’t interested in abolition, but in taking their masters’ places. That included enslaving others in their wake.  

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Was Muhammad using them? On some level, yes. He was an ambitious leader, Popovic writes. But the Zanj’s response and resiliency indicate something much larger at play. In fact, in one early episode, according to al-Tabari, a rumor spread that Muhammad had been approached by an Abbasid general who offered him clemency and five dinars for each slave returned to bondage.  

Here’s how Popovic describes Muhammad’s response to quell his followers’ anger:

That very night he assembled his men and, through an interpreter, swore that none of them would ever be returned to their former masters. ‘May some of you remain with me and kill me if you feel that I am betraying you.’ Then he called together those who spoke Arabic and solemnly promised to lead them in battle personally and risk his life with them. He assured them that it was not for the wealth and honor of this world that he had rebelled. The Zanj were calmed down by his words.

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The Revolt of the Zanj

The Zanj formed a rag-tag, yet relentless, army. In the initial fighting, Popovic writes, “[a] troop of four-thousand men attacked the rebels. The Zanj ‘army’ was poorly equipped to fend them off with only three sabers in its arsenal. One rebel was seen dashing into battle carrying only his plate as a weapon.

“Nevertheless, the Zanj won another victory and put the enemy to fight. One member of the attacking force was killed; others died of thirst. On orders from Ali b. Muhammad, prisoners were beheaded. The Zanj carried away the severed heads on their own mules.” 

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There were great victories and terrible defeats along the way, but as the Zanj revolt spread, the port city of al-Uballa fell into their hands in 870. Then, dramatically, in 871, Basra fell under their control, with the Zanj massacring most of the city’s residents. By 873, the Master of the Zanj had consolidated the making of an independent state in Lower Mesopotamia. According to Kent Krause, author of the entry on the Zanj rebellion in Africana, Muhammad “controlled the canal region of southern Iraq. He built a capital in al-Mukhtara and set up an independent government that collected taxes and minted its own coins.”

But, of course, as in Star Wars, the empire struck back. In 880, the Abbasid Caliphate’s military brother, al-Muffawaq, assembled a second army to crush the rebellion. They set out from al-Firk and built a city of their own from which to lay siege to the Zanj stronghold, al-Mukhtara. For two years, al-Muffawaq’s army, including his son Abu l-Abbas, tightened the grip.  

The Zanj revolt ended for good in 883 for a variety of reasons: promises of amnesty, offers to the Zanj to join the other side and, most consequently, the death of Ali bin Muhammad (either by suicide, beheading or in battle). Three years later, other Zanj leaders were executed—their bodies crucified. All told, Krause estimates, “[b]etween 500,000 and 2.5 million people died during the fourteen-year war.” No slave rebellion on American soil ever came close to matching the intensity or duration of the Zanj.

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The big question remaining, though: Was this technically a slave revolt? David Brion Davis uses that term. Others point out that it wasn’t a war fought for abolition: The Zanj enslaved others and were brutal in their attack. Instead, Popovic says he thinks the rebellion was closer to a “political (power struggle) and social (betterment of certain class living conditions) revolt.” And it wasn’t strictly racial or for racial ends.  

That last point was advanced in a landmark 1977 article in The International Journal of African Historical Studies, “The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered,” by Ghada Hashem Talhami, who argued:

[T]he Zanj Rebellion was not restricted to slaves of East African origin; in fact, it was not even a slave rebellion in the strict sense of the word. Ali ibn [bin] Muhammad was definitely head of a religious uprising with social overtones in which slaves provided much of the manpower. In return, as individual converts and as soldiers of the religious cause of Kharijism, they were able to win their freedom. The protest made no concerted attack on the institution of slavery as such. Moreover, its participants included Bahranis,  Bedouins, and lower-class artisans as well as black slaves, some Arabic-speaking and some still speaking their native tongues.  

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I, however, agree with Davis’s usage. Operationally, the revolt involved masses of slaves, even if part of a diverse lot; the rebellion was distinguished by the Zanj’s willingness to fight; and they helped give the revolt’s leaders the numbers they needed to fend off the military for 14 years. We also must bear in mind, as Popovic does, that “to be surprised that the Zanj revolt did not aim at abolishing slavery is perhaps asking too much. I do not see how it would have been possible, in the Muslim Middle Ages, to contemplate suppression of an institution that was tolerated by the Qur’an and accepted by custom.”

You can read more about these historical debates in a useful survey by Emily Martha Silkaitis, “Modern Takes on Motivations Behind the Zanj Rebellion,” in the spring 2012 issue of the Lights journal.

One thing, however, is certain. The Revolt of the Zanj was violent. It involved beheadings, enslavement, sacking and burning, and it was particularly gruesome after the Zanj massacre in Basra, where the starving survivors resorted to cannibalism. You can read all of the grisly details in Popovic’s book. Suffice it to say, the revolt brought out the worst on both sides.

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And, in the aftermath, did slavery persist? Of course it did, but there were important temporary consequences. As Krause explains:

Despite its ultimate fate of the rebellion, the Zanj uprising had a lasting significance. The work camps of southern Iraq were abandoned and the living conditions of slaves in the region improved. The large-scale Abbasid importation of slaves from East Africa was effectively halted. Moreover, those Africans who had defected to the caliph’s army were not returned to slavery. A precursor to the slave rebellions in Latin America and the Caribbean centuries later, the Zanj rebellion demonstrated the powerful potential of a captive population that rises up in solidarity.

Other consequences were damaging and long lasting, I’m afraid, well after the Mongols sacked the caliphate in the 13th century. Davis puts it this way: “While much further research is needed, it seems probable that racial stereotypes were transmitted, along with black slavery itself, from Muslims to Christians and from the eastern Mediterranean to that melting pot of religions and cultures, the Iberian Peninsula.” And as we learned in last week’s column, the Portuguese and Spanish had no qualms about exporting race-based slavery to the New World.

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Conclusion 

So, why does this matter? After all, slavery, as an institution steeped in racial difference, only strengthened with time and space. And because the Zanj were based in and around the canals of Lower Mesopotamia, archeology holds little hope of discovering their physical footprint 1,400 years later. Many mysteries remain. 

Still, Davis writes that the Zanj revolt does matter, and that is more than good enough for me. Here’s what he concludes: “Though the Zanj revolt must be understood within an Islamic social and political context, the Arabs and their Muslim allies were the first people to develop a specialized, long-distance slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa. This fact widens the geographic boundaries for a full understanding of racial slavery in the New World.”

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It also serves as a reminder that the human quest for freedom is strong; so, too, the will of the oppressed to dominate once they gain the upper hand. This is a history lesson urgently relevant to the current crisis in Iraq—and to a troubled world. Thanks to the New York Times, we know that history matters to the current ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and, as the struggle over control of Iraq and Syria continues, it should matter to all of us with an interest in the future. From the Revolt of the Zanj in 869 to the tragic death of Army Spec. David Hickman in 2011, the operation for freedom is thousands of years old and continues.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.