by Runoko Rashidi
The subject of African bondage anywhere is one of the most sensitive historical issues to be discussed, and all too often it is asserted that most, if not all, of the great international movements of African people in history occurred only in the guise of slavery and servitude. Obviously, as we have seen, this has not at all been the case. The period of bondage is in fact dwarfed by the ages of magnificent African civilizations, glory and splendor, not just in Africa itself but throughout the whole of the global African community – including early Iraq.
It was in early Iraq where the largest African slave rebellions occurred. Here, well over a millennium ago, were gathered tens of thousands of East African slave laborers called Zanj. These Africans, from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Malawi and Zanzibar (an island off the coast of mainland Tanzania that gave the Zanj their name) and other parts of East Africa, worked in the humid salt marshes of Southern Iraq in conditions of extreme misery.
Laboring in terrible, humid conditions, the Zanj laborers removed layers of topsoil and stripped away tons of earth to plant labor-intensive crops like sugarcane on the less saline soil below. Poorly fed with tiny rations of flour, semolina and dates, they were regularly in contention with the Iraqi system of enslavement.
Conscious of their large numbers and oppressive working conditions, the Zanj rebelled on at least three occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries. The largest of these rebellions lasted for 15 years, from 868 to 883, during which time the Africans inflicted defeat after defeat upon the Arab armies sent to suppress their revolt.
This rebellion is known historically in Arab and Persian histories as the Revolt of the Zanj or the Revolt of the Blacks. In the year 871, the Zanj sacked Basra, Iraq.
It is significant to point out that the Zanj forces were rapidly augmented by large-scale defections of Black soldiers under the employ of the Abbassid Caliphate at Baghdad. The rebels themselves, hardened by many years of brutal treatment, repaid their former masters in kind and are said to have been responsible for great massacres in the areas that came under their sway.
At its height the Zanj revolt spread as far as Iran and advanced to within 70 miles of Baghdad itself. The Zanj even built their own capital, called Moktara (the Elect City), which covered a large area and flourished for several years.
They even minted their own currency and actually dominated Southern Iraq. The Zanj rebellion was ultimately only suppressed with the intervention of large Arab armies and the lucrative offer of amnesty and rewards to any rebels who might choose to surrender.
African people have always defied subjugation, and the Revolt of the Blacks is in and of itself a glorious page in African history and Black resistance movements. Through the Revolt of the Blacks, a now relatively little known episode in a part of the world that until very recently some of us regarded as foreign and strange, we see African people doing what they have always done – asserting their basic and essential dignity and standing up for and demanding their inalienable human rights.
Runoko Rashidi is a noted historian and anthropologist based in Los Angeles and Paris. This essay is excerpted from his book, “African Star over Asia: The Black Presence in the East,” published by Books of Africa (London) in 2012. For more about Runoko Rashidi and to order the book, go to http://drrunoko.com/.