When the history of Africa and its violent interaction with the outside world is told, very little is said about the Arab world. Many people in the English-speaking world believe that the attack, kidnap and enslavement of Africans started in the 1600s, with the Europeans, but that is far from the truth.
For hundreds of years before the Europeans engaged in the slave trade, Arabs were already attacking African cities, villages, and settlements and taking slaves to suffer and die in the Arab world.
The Zanj rebellion is documented to be the greatest resistance and rebellion carried out by enslaved Africans, who were dominantly from East-Africa.
The rebellion was a bloody and ruthless uprising against the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate. Historians and scholars have classified the rebellion as one of the bloodiest and most destructive in the history of Western Asia.
A Background Of The Enslaved Zanj People Of Africa
The Zanj are a Bantu speaking people who inhabit the South-Eastern region of Africa. Zanj is sometimes also called Zenj or Zinj, and means “Country of the Black” OR “country of the dark-skinned people”. The territory of the Zanj people stretch from Present say Ras Kamboni in the South, to the Pemba Islands in Tanzania.
They were used for agricultural labor by the people of southern Iraq, to boost the plantation economy of the region. Just like every part of the world where Africans were stolen and imprisoned against their will, the elites wanted to be richer but didn’t have any plans to pay for the labor to cultivate the land.
With more lands to farm, and more elite greed, the Zanj people were sort after by the elites of the port city of Basra, and more of them were imported from South-East Africa.
The elites of the port city of Basra acquired an extensive and large area of abandoned marshland, which stretched outside the city. Due to repeated flooding, the lands were abandoned. But the elites wanted to revive the lands, and they embarked on the tedious task with the sweat and blood of the Zanj, among other enslaved people.
The enslaved Zanj people and other enslaved Africans were placed in camps and forced to remove the topsoil which was covered with nitrous, in a process to revive the land. Some other Zanj people were sent to work and toil in the salt flats of lower Iraq, and the areas surrounding the city of Basra.
The elites who enslaved the Zanj and other Africans did not care for their working and living conditions. It was a filthy and miserable place for humans to be. The poor living conditions and oppressive system in Basra caused the enslaved Africans to revolt from 689-694, but it was not successful.
By 861, the Abbasid government which upheld the enslavement of Africans started to have impactful chaos within its ranks. In a power struggle known as the Anarchy at Samarra, between the caliphs and the military, the central government was crippled. This also led to a civil war between 865-866.
The instability in the Abbasid regime was what created the enabling environment for the Zanj rebellion. The government was losing money from tax because of the chaos, and so they could not pay for the military to suppress the rebellion when it started.
The Account Of The Rebellion
The Zanj rebellion by the Bantu speaking people of South-Eastern Africa, together with other Africans, started in September of 869. They concentrated their revolt in the districts of Iraq and Al-Ahwaz, which is today’s Khuzestan Province. These districts were the central regions of the Abbasid caliphate and held much of the slaves.
The Zanj rebels launched all forms of military attacks on the Abbasid government for 14 years. They were skilled in guerilla warfare. They raided towns and cities of their enemies and enslavers and seized food, horses, and weapons. After each raid, they would burn the town, to delay and prevent retaliation. They also freed other enslaved Africans who joined their course.
As the years passed by, the Zanj rebels grew in military and organizational strength. They began to build fortresses and large bases. They built ships/boats and trained naval officers who would transverse the canals and rivers of the region they controlled. They also went as far as collecting tax in the regions they controlled and minted their own coins.
When the rebellion started, it was focused only in and around the port city of Basra and the Blind Tigris. The Abbasid government tried its best to crush the Zanj rebels, but they failed. The more the government tried, the more the Zanj rebels seized more towns and cities. In 870, the Zanj rebels seized the town of al-Ubulla, and in 871, they seized the town of Suq al-Ahwaz.
The rebels set up and imposed a protracted blockade on the city of Basra, which led to the fall of the city in September of 871. The Zanj rebels burnt the city to the ground and massacred the elites who inhabited it.
The sacking of the city of Basra angered the Caliphate regent, Abu Ahmad ibn al-Mutawakkil, to organize a huge force in 872, in retaliation, but they failed to cripple the Zanj rebellion. The Zanj rebels continued their offensive for years to come.
The Zanj Rebels advanced their campaign to the Northern part of the Abbasid territory. In 876, they occupied the marshlands between Basra and Wasit, and after that, they advanced into the district of Kaskar.
By 879, the Zanj rebellion was so powerful that it threatened the entire Arab region. They grew in number, strength, and tactical advantage. They went on to sack the cities of Wasit and Ramhurmuz, after which they matched on to the Northwest area of the Tigris river. This particular advance got them very close to Baghdad.
In that same year, the Abbasid government started to make some progress against the Zanj Rebels, who had overstretched their limits. The caliph, al-Muwaffaq, sent his son Abu al-‘Abbas, with a mighty force of their military to crush the rebels.
The caliph himself also joined the offensive the next year, and for the months that followed the Abbasid forces made serious successes in pushing back the Zanj rebels and taking back the districts of Iraq and al-Ahwaz. The Zanj rebels had no option than to return to their capital in al-Mukhtarah, which was in the south of Basra.
While the African Zanj rebels were boxed in inside of al-Mukhtarah, the Abbasid government forces laid siege on the city in the February of 881. This siege continued for another two and a half years, forcing some of the tired rebels to surrenders to the terms of peace of the Abbasid government.
Al-Mukhtarah fell in August of 883. The rebel leaders were arrested, killed or imprisoned by the Abbasid government. Many historians have accounted that the Zanj Rebels were led by ‘Ali ibn Muhammad, who is said to be a relative of the prophet Muhammed. Much about him is not captured in this article, but he is said to be a major force in the rebellion.
At the end of the rebellion, both sides counted their losses, both in human, social, and economic resources. Some historians who have written on this rebellion have said that the death toll reached over 2.5 million people.
Historians have placed the Zanj rebellion at the very top of the rebellions by Africans while they were enslaved in foreign lands. Although there were more elongated rebellions in the Americas, this one stands out because of its components and the government that the rebels established to power such a rebellion.
It would be somewhat difficult for many Africans to believe that Africans were sold into slavery in the Arab world, for almost 1,000 years before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade started in the 1600s.
While Africans have focused on speaking about the events of the Trans-Atlantic slavery and the horrors on the plantations of the Americas and Europe, less attention has been given to the events of the enslavement of Africans in the Arab world.
One of the reasons for this might be the language barrier. Since many Africans home and abroad speak English or French, the possibility of this story to be translated and shared across continents is hindered.
This account of history shows that for more than 1,000 years Africans have been battling forces within and without. Forces that seek to subdue the people and lay waste to the man-power and resources of a whole generation.
We tell this story with pride. We tell this story to praise the resilient African spirit that has always resisted the oppression of all kinds. Never in the history of the world have Africans accepted slavery wholeheartedly. African men and women have fought and died to resist the suppressive behavior of the Arab and European people.
Even as we speak, slavery still goes on in various forms. It is important that we draw strength from the bravery and victories of our ancestors and take decisive actions in resisting the enemy.
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