Royal Naval Museum

East African male named 'Cupid'

The East African Slave Trade

Although the Preventive Squadron concentrated its activity on the West Coast of Africa, an equally active trade in enslaved Africans also flourished on the East African coast. 

An ancient trade

From as early as the first century AD, sultans (a sultan is a ruler of a Muslim country) in the Middle East led the trade in enslaved Africans and ivory from the East African coast.  The people taken became soldiers, sailors, even pearl divers in the Gulf, as well as being used as labourers in the saltpans of Mesopotamia (known today as Iraq) and on clove plantations in Zanzibar and oil palm groves at Mombasa.  The traders took many Africans to work in wealthy households as unpaid domestic servants.  However, in the second half of the eighteenth century – just as the trade on the West coast of Africa was beginning to decline  - traders on the East coast became more organised.

Who was involved in the East African slave trade?

French merchants bought enslaved Africans from East Africa for the growing sugar plantations on the French owned islands in the Indian Ocean. After 1800, Brazilian merchants also began to buy from the same area to provide labour for the sugar plantations in Brazil. By the early 19th century, traders in East Africa sold about 30,000 people into slavery every year. The slave traders bought African adults and children from the Arab traders or, as they had on the west coast of Africa, encouraged the African chiefs to round up members of African tribes on the coast or further inland, to be sold directly to them. As was the case in the West African slave trade, wars between various tribes fed the trade in slaves, especially in the southern regions.

One of the most famous slave traders on the East African coast was Tippu Tip, who was himself the grandson of an enslaved African.  His real name was Hamed bin Mohammed and he was born in Zanzibar.  Tippu Tip and his men took African people from their homes to sell them, from an area that stretched over one thousand miles from inland to the coast.

The Portuguese preferred to trade on the West coast of Africa, as this was cheaper and more convenient.  However, as the preventive squadron stopped ships from carrying out their trade in West Africa, the traders began to find it more and more difficult to operate there.  In order to continue trading, they travelled instead around the Cape of Good Hope, to buy enslaved Africans from the East coast, including from Mozambique, the Zambezi Valley, and also from further inland, including the modern countries of Mali, Chad, Somalia and Ethiopia.  As the British Navy defeated the slave trade in the Atlantic, the East African slave trade increased. 

“A piteous spectacle” - The experience of enslaved Africans

Merchants and tribal leaders traded enslaved Africans for a variety of different objects, including guns, cloth, horses, copper, pottery, and even Venetian glass beads.  Often, all that was paid for the slaves was one bead.  The merchants transported the enslaved Africans in traditional Arab vessels called dhows, known for their sailing speed.  Conditions on the slaving dhows were often even worse than those endured by captured Africans during the Middle Passage.  Although the journeys were often shorter (on average 24 hours in duration), the enslaved Africans on board were treated more harshly.  They were packed very tightly together and often died from starvation or suffocation.  It was impossible to separate the dead from the living until the end of the journey.

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