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Slavery in Ethiopia

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Slavery in Ethiopia existed for centuries, going as far back as 1495 BC and ending in 1942. There are also sources indicating the export of slaves from the Aksumite Empire (100–940 AD). The practice formed an integral part of Ethiopian society. Slaves were traditionally drawn from the Nilotic groups inhabiting Ethiopia's southern hinterland as well as from the Oromos.[1] War captives were another source of slaves, though the perception, treatment and duties of these prisoners was markedly different.[2] Although religious law banned Christian slave masters from taking part in the slave trade, many Muslim Ethiopian slave traders took part in the Arab slave trade. Slaves usually served as concubines, bodyguards, servants and treasurers.[3][4]

The abolition of slavery became a high priority for the Haile Selassie regime which began in 1930. International pressures forced action, and it was required for membership in the League of Nations. During Italian rule, the occupation government issued two laws in October 1935 and in April 1936 which abolished slavery and freed 420,000 Ethiopian slaves. After the Italians were expelled, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to power and officially abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, by making it a law on 26 August 1942.[5][6][7] Ethiopia later ratified the 1926 Slavery Convention in 1969.[8] Following the abolition of the slavery in the 1940s, freed slaves were typically employed as unskilled labour by their former masters.[9]

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Aksumite Empire

The Aksumite Empire seems to have been in contact with a darker skinned people or peoples who lived in its peripheral western territories, from which it captured many slaves from. The Aksumites referred to these people as barya, centuries of slave raiding against the barya peoples would result in the word becoming synonymous for slave in the Amharic and Tigrinya languages. This term is first recorded by Hiob Ludolf in his Lexicon Amharico Latinum of 1698.[10][11]

The earliest mention of slave raiding against the barya comes from an undated inscription at Adulis, in which an unidentified ruler of Aksum went on an expedition against two different groups on "the borders of Egypt". After successfully defeating them, the ruler writes that he "took what I wished of their young men and young women and of their youths". A later campaign is recording in the inscriptions of Ezana of Aksum which tells of a punitive expedition carried out against the Noba near the vicinity of the Nile. In the course of this campaign 629 slaves were captured. Another indication that the baryas were serving as slaves is found in the fourth century land charter of Abreha and Atsbeha, it states that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion had been given "baryas". The phrase seems to suggest that baryas were of servile status in Aksum.[12]

Medieval era

During the conquests of Emperor Amda Seyon, he would make use of "black" soldiers in his army who were led by a certain Angotay. [13]

The Ethiopian Christian state was at around this time established contact with another "black" people known as the Shanqellas, who lived around the lower stretches of the Blue Nile. Similar to the baryas, the country of the Shanqellas would become the target of frequent slave raids by the Abyssinians. According to a fifteenth-century soldier's song of Emperor Yeshaq I, the Shanqellas were forced to pay tribute to the Abyssinians. At around this time, a code known as the Fetha Negest (The Law of the Kings), was translated into Ge'ez and had begun to serve as the traditional law for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Based on this law, freeborn Christians were of free status and off limits, while non-Christians captured in war could be enslaved. Slavery was therefore caused by unbelief, and yet the conversion of pagan slaves to Christianity subsequent to the establishment of the right of ownership by masters did not extinguish slavery. In this way, the code provided the ground for a religiously justified exclusion and enslavement of non-Christians and Christians whose slavery was caused by previous unbelief.[14][page needed] [13]

Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi's conquests led to a significant enslavement of Abyssinians. He reportedly captured large groups of Christians, resulting in each soldier in his army possessing no fewer than two hundred slaves. Following the Imam's death and defeat at Wayna Daga, Emperor Gelawdewos initiated a campaign against Adal. During this campaign, he liberated numerous Christian slaves while also taking many Muslim slaves in return.[15][16]

During the reign of Sarsa Dengel, many pagan southern peoples had converted to Christianity to avoid further slave raids. Among those who requested conversion were the Gafat people in the former district of Shat in Damot; Sarsa Dengel granted their request in 1581. Similarly, the people of Ennarea had requested to be converted, which Sarsa Dengel also accepted in 1587. During the Oromo migrations of 16th century many indigenous peoples made into Gabaros (serfs).[17][18] The Oromos adopted the Gabbaros in mass, adopting them to the qomo (clan) in a process known as Mogasa and Gudifacha. Through collective adoption, the affiliated groups were given new genealogies and started counting their putative ancestors in the same way as their adoptive kinsmen, and as a Gabarro they are required to pay their tributes and provide service for their conquerors.[18][19] such as in Damot, where according to Bahrey, the Boran clan surrounded the province "enslaved the men and carried off the livestock".[20]

Susenyos I would conduct six major slave raids against the Shanqellas on the western lowlands, which resulted in the capture of many slaves both female and male. His chronicler deprecatingly describes the color of the slaves as "black" and not "red like the normal people". Susneyos would come into the possession of vast numbers of black slaves whom he relocated to the Gondar area. According to Manuel de Almeida, many of these slaves would be appointed to the "highest offices" of the court, and that the Emperor trusted him more than his free born subjects. Almeida quotes that the Emperor once declared that the only men who were faithful to him were the ones he "created and made from dust".[21]

Gondarine period

Further slave raiding against the western Shanqellas took place under Emperors Fasilides, Yohannes I and Iyasu I. As a result, Gondar and others parts of the Christian empire had a considerable west African population, mostly from Shanqellas and other "blacks" from the far west. James Bruce states every department was "full of them" and that boys and girls were taken in by the king and "instructed early in the Christian religion". Many of these slaves became soldiers, these slave troops were known as the Welajoch. The Welajoch, like many other slave troops in history, soon gained significant political power. After Dawit III's death in 1721, the “black” servants at the palace had attempted to seize power. Emperor Bakaffa subsequently ordered the banishment of all black slaves in Gondar and proclaimed that anyone found with one in their houses should receive a severe punishment. However, the Welajoch ignored the command and began to pillage the countryside. The chronicles condemns the Welajoch and states that they were murderers who had seized wives in the presence of their husbands, and virgins in front of their mothers and their "wickness was known to the whole world." Baffaka then dispatched a force and ambushed the Welajoch just south of Gondar. Many were killed and those that were captured were banished. The chronicler states that this victory led to much rejoicing in Gondar, whose citizens he claims, would of all been victims had the Welajoch succeeded.[22]

Anestasyos launched an expedition against the Tulama in Shewa, where he was said to have captured thousands of Oromo slaves.[23]

18th to 20th centuries

Before the imperial expansion to the south Asandabo, Saqa, Hermata and Bonga were the primary slave markets for the kingdom of Guduru, Limmu-Enaria, Jimma and Kaffa.[24] The merchant villages adjacent to these major markets of southwestern Ethiopia were invariably full of slaves, which the upper classes exchanged for the imported goods they coveted. The slaves were walked to the large distribution markets like Basso in Gojjam, Aliyu Amba and Abdul Resul in Shewa.[25] The primary source of slaves for the southern territories was the continuous wars & raids between various clans and tribes which has been going on for thousands of years, and it usually follows with large scale slavery that was very common during the battles of that era.[26][25][27][28][29] Slaves were often provided by various rulers who raided their neighbors.[25] According to Donald Levine, it was common to see Oromos making slaves of Konso people. Famine was another source of slaves, and during times of recurrent drought and widespread cattle disease, slave markets throughout the country will be flooded with victims of famine. For instance, the Great Famine of 1890-91 forced many people from the Christian north (modern-day Tigray and Eritrea) as well as southern Ethiopia to even sell their children and, at times, themselves as slaves to Muslim merchants.[30] Since religious law did not permit Christians to participate in the trade, Muslims dominated the slave trade, often going farther and farther afield to find supplies.[31]

In southern Ethiopia the Gibe and Kaffa kings exercised their right to enslave and sell the children of parents too impoverished to pay their taxes.[32] Guma is one of the Gibe states that adjoins Enarea where Abba Bogibo rules and under his rule inhabitants of Guma were more than those of any other country doomed to slavery. Before Abba Rebu's adoption of Islamism the custom of selling whole families for minor crimes done by a single individual was a custom.[33][34]

In the centralized Oromo states of Gibe valleys and Didesa, agriculture and industry sector was done mainly by slave labour. The Gibe states includes Jemma, Gudru, Limmu-Enarya and Gera. Adjacent to western Oromo states exists the Omotic kingdom of Kaffa as well as other southern states in the Gojab and Omo river basins where slaves were the main agrarian producers.[35] In Gibe states one-third of the general population was composed of slaves while slaves were between half and two-thirds of the general population in Kingdoms of Jimma, Kaffa, Walamo, Gera, Janjero and Kucha. Even Kaffa reduced the number of slaves by mid 19th century fearing its large bonded population.[36][37] Slave labour in the agriculture sector in southwest Ethiopia means that slaves constituted higher proportion of the general population when compared to the northern Ethiopia where agrarian producers are mainly free Gabbars.[37][38] Gabbars owns their own land as “rist” and their legal obligation is to pay one fifth of their produce as land tax and asrat, another one-tenth, with a total of one third of total production paid as tax to be shared between the gult holder and the state. In addition to these taxes, peasants of north Ethiopia have informal obligations where they will be forced “to undertake courvéé (forced labour)" such as farming, grinding corn, and building houses and fences that claimed up to one-third of their time.[38] This same Gabbar system was applied to South Ethiopia after the expansion of Shewan Kingdom while most of the southern ruling classes were made Balabates (gult holders) until emperor Haile Selassie abolished fiefdom (gultegna), the central institution of feudalism, in the south and north Ethiopia by 1966 after growing domestic pressure for land reform.[39][40] The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented growth in slavery in the country, especially in southern Oromo towns, which expanded as the influx of slaves grew. In the Christian highlands, especially in the province of Shoa, the number of slaves was quite large by the mid-century.[41] However, despite the war raids, the Oromo were not considered by the highlander Amharas groups as being ethnically 'barya', owing to their common Afro-Asiatic ancestry.[2]

East African slave trade

Historical routes of the Ethiopian slave trade.

Ethiopian slaves show up in Arab records as early as the mid-seventh century. Slaves shipped from Ethiopia had a high demand in the markets of the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to Francisco Álvares they were much esteemed by the Arabs, who would "not let them go at any price". Arabia, Persia, India and Egypt were full of slaves from Ethiopia, specifically from the southern non-Christian provinces who, upon converting to Islam, made "very good Moors and great warriors".[42] They were mostly domestic servants, though some served as agricultural labourers, or as herdsmen, seamen, camel drivers, masons, etc. The most fortunate of the men worked as the officials or bodyguards of the ruler and emirs, or as managers for rich merchants. Besides Javanese and Chinese girls brought in from the Far East, young Ethiopian females were among the most valued concubines. The most beautiful ones often enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle, and became mistresses of the elite or even mothers to rulers.[43] A small number of eunuchs were also acquired by the slave traders in the southern parts of Ethiopia.[44] Mainly consisting of young children, they led the most privileged lives and commanded the highest prices in the Islamic global markets because of their rarity. They served in the harems of the affluent or guarded holy sites.[43] The large numbers of Ethiopian slaves that were exported to Arabia was generally reflected in the dark complexion of the Tihamah population, as Umara ibn Abi al-Hasan al-Yamani commented in the 12th century: "The Arabs of Tihamah are children by black concubines, and a black skin was common to both slave and free."[45]

Adal Sultanate

The number of slaves being exported from Ethiopia significantly increased in the late fifteenth and first half of the sixteenth centuries, when local Muslim merchants and slave raiders captured and sold them or send them as gift to Arabs to Arabia and Egypt. The port of Zeila on the Somali coast (modern Somaliland) was the largest market for slaves in the Horn of Africa, where merchants from Arabia acquired slaves. The main source of Abyssinian slaves for the Arab world seems to have originated from the Adal Sultanate, who captured them from war. According to Francisco Álvares, Imam Mahfuz attacked the Christian Abyssinians when they were physically weak during Lent and was able to carry off no less than 19,000 Abyssinians to which he immediately sold off to his friends in Arabia.[46] Alvares claims that the Adalites made constant war on the Christians and sent the spoils of their battles as offerings to their allies in Mecca and Cairo.[47] Ludovico di Varthema, who visited Zeila in 1503 wrote that the port was an immense place of traffic, especially of Ethiopian slaves. He declares:

Here are sold a very great number of slaves, which are the people of Prester John (Ethiopia) whom the Moors take in battle, and from this place they are carried into Persia, Arabia Felix, and to Mecca, Cairo and into India.

Zeila seems to have been the southernmost port frequented by Arab merchants, whose chief center for these regions, however, was Aden, where the commercial, and also the climatic conditions were more favorable. Through Zeila, and to a lesser degree Berbera, there passed the main stream of slaves from the Ethiopian hinterland.[48]

The conquests of Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi resulted in even more considerable numbers of Ethiopian slaves being sold to the Middle East. As a local Ethiopian chronicle states, where ever him and his men went "They carried off the young men, the maidens, boys and girls even to the extent that they sold them abroad for the task of miserable enslavement." According to Richard Pankhurst, almost all of the Ethiopians captured by Imam Ahmad were subsequently sold to foreign merchants in exchange for firearms and cannons. A Portuguese Jesuit reported that Adal managed to sell "thousands" of Abyssinian slaves to traders from across the sea such as Arabs, Turks, Persians and Indians.[49] Among the people sold was Menas the son of Emperor Dawit II, and an unnamed niece who was sold as a concubine. In 1543, Emperor Gelawdewos finally defeated the army of Adal and killed its leader, with the help of a small contingent of Portuguese soldiers, Menas and two other high-ranking captives were eventually ransomed in 1544.[50]

Reprisals under Gelawdewos

On February 1548, Emperor Gelawdewos issued an edict banning the sale of Ethiopian Christians to Arabs under the penalty of death. Arab and local Muslim merchants appear to have been particular targets, the Emperor found the idea of selling an Ethiopian Christian to an Arab Muslim so offensive that he condemned any transgressor to death. A foreign merchant was under the obligation to avoid buying a Christian. A captive could not be sold unless he or she was proven to be non-Christian. The intention of Gelawdewos was not to end trade in Christian slaves completely, but it was their export abroad which he regarded as outrageous.[51] A Jesuit missionary reported an instance in where a Muslim merchant broke this law and was subsequently executed:

A rich Muslim trader was accused of exporting slaves from Ennarya, and on being found guilty was executed, his head being stuck on a pole in the marketplace as a warning against future lawbreakers. The emperor reiterated his opposition to the trade, declaring that anyone caught trading in slaves with either an (Arab) or a Turk would be sentenced to death and have all his property confiscated. At the same time, he summoned all his governors, the ministers of the court, and instructed them, on pain of severe penalty, to enforce the law, as God wished to protect the unfortunate Ethiopians, who, we are told, were then being transported in large numbers to Arabia, India, Cairo and Constantinople.[52]

Gelawdewos also launched a number of campaigns into Adal territory in which he freed Christian slaves that that had been seized in previous conflicts. In 1549, he marched into the region of Adal where he devoted his time freeing numerous Christian slaves and in turn enslaved countless Adalite Muslims.[53] The Ethiopians would sell many Muslim prisoners they captured to their Portuguese allies, the greater part of whom would end up in India, although a very small number of them would make their way to the New World. The Dutch merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten reportedly saw many "Muslim Abyssinian" slaves in Goa. He said that they were often “beaten like dogs" and treated very horribly by their Portuguese masters. The Portuguese generally had a bad reputation for being cruel slave owners.[54]


After the Oromo migrations, the Ethiopian Empire had lost control over most of its pagan southern territories, allowing them to became targets for slave raiding by the local Muslims. Despite the fall of the Adal Sultanate, the Emirate of Harar most principal export remained slaves. According to Richard Pankhurst, they were virtually all from the pagan Oromo people. When slavery in the Black Sea area (the traditional source of female slaves for the Arab market) dried up, it triggered an even greater demand for Oromo female slaves, on account of their "unquestioned beauty and willing sexual temperament". Although, the export of slaves from Ethiopia to Arabia significantly declined during this period. A French agent in Arabia noted that blacks from West Africa made up the largest contingent of slaves as the traffic from Ethiopia had become very difficult. The port of Zeila significantly declined due to a reduction in the slave exports. Isenberg and Krapf found it "for the most parts in ruins" and assumed correctly that it had been formerly of great importance, although Krapf did notice a handful of Oromo slaves in the port. The main slave port of Ethiopia by the 19th century was Tadjoura, which was described as "the city of the slave merchant" and was noteworthy as the place where many slaves from the Ethiopian interior would see their "last of Africa".[55][56]

Beginning in the 19th century, the British backed by their superior naval power, pursued an anti-slavery campaign along the Red Sea and contributed much to significantly reducing the export of slaves from Africa into Arabia. After the completion of the Suez Canal, abolishing the slave trade in this region was subordinated to the political imperative of safeguarding the transportation lines from the British Raj. In 1875, the Emirate of Harar would be annexed by the Khedivate of Egypt. Following the Egyptian annexation, the export of slaves from the Ethiopian interior would abruptly end, and was officially banned in 1877 after the Anglo-Egyptian Slave Trade Convention.[57][58]

Forms of slavery

Multiple forms of slavery and servitude have existed throughout African history, and were shaped by indigenous practices of slavery as well as the Roman institution of slavery[59] (and the later Christian views on slavery), the Islamic institutions of slavery via the Muslim slave trade, and eventually the Atlantic slave trade.[60][61] Slavery was a part of the economic structure of African societies for many centuries, although the extent varied.[62][61] In Sub-Saharan Africa, the slave relationships were often complex, with rights and freedoms given to individuals held in slavery and restrictions on sale and treatment by their masters.[63]

Nature and characteristics

Slavery, as practiced within Ethiopia, differed depending on the class of slaves in question. The "Tiqur " (literally "black," with the connotation of 'dark-skinned') Shanqalla slaves in general sold for cheap. They were also mainly assigned hard work in the house and field.[2]

On the other hand, the "Qay " (literally "light," with the connotation of 'light-skinned') Oromo and Sidama slaves had a much higher value and were carefully sorted according to occupation and age: Very young children up to the age of ten were referred to as Mamul. Their price was slightly lower than that of ten- to sixteen-year-old boys. Known as Gurbe, the latter young males were destined for training as personal servants. Men in their twenties were called Kadama. Since they were deemed beyond the age of training, they sold for a slightly lower price than the Gurbe. A male's value thus decreased with age. The most esteemed and desired females were girls in their teens, who were called Wosif. The most attractive among them were destined to become wives and concubines. Older women were appraised in accordance with their ability to perform household chores as well as their strength.[2]


Initial efforts to abolish slavery in Ethiopia go as far back as the early 1850s, when Emperor Tewodros II outlawed the slave trade in his domain, albeit without much effect. Only the presence of the British in the Red Sea resulted in any real pressure on the trade.[41] Both Emperor Tewodros II and Emperor Yohannes IV also outlawed slavery but since all tribes were not against slavery and the fact that the country was surrounded on all sides by slave raiders and traders, it was not possible to entirely suppress this practice even by the 20th century.[64] By the mid-1890s, Menelik was actively suppressing the trade, destroying notorious slave market towns and punishing slavers with amputation.[65] According to Chris Prouty, Menelik prohibited slavery while it was beyond his capacity to change the mind of his people regarding this age-old practice, that was widely prevalent throughout the country.[66]

To gain international recognition for his nation, Haile Selassie formally applied to join the League of Nations in 1919. Ethiopia's admission was initially rejected due to concerns about slavery, the slave and arms trade in the country. Italy and Great Britain led the nations opposing Ethiopia's admission to the League of Nations, citing slavery in Ethiopia as a primary reason for their opposition. Ethiopia was eventually admitted in 1923, after signing the Convention of St. Germain, in which they agreed to make efforts to suppress slavery.[67][68] The League of Nations later appointed the Temporary Slavery Commission in 1924 to inquire into slavery around the world. Despite the apparent measures to the contrary, slavery continued to be legal in Ethiopia even with its signing of the Slavery Convention of 1926.[7]

The abolition of slavery then became a high priority for the Haile Selassie administration which began in 1930.[6] His policy was to announce abolition while gradually implementing it to avoid disrupting the rural economy.[69] The main international pressure was mobilized by the West with such civil rights figures as Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariyam spearheading the abolitionist movement while working through the League of Nations.[70] Under the pretense of abolishing slavery (and a border incident), Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Italy ignored international condemnation and demands by the League of Nations to depart. During Italian rule, the occupation government issued two laws in October 1935 and in April 1936 which abolished slavery and, freed 420,000 Ethiopian slaves. After the Italians were expelled, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to power and quickly abolished the actual practice in 1942.[5]


Although slavery was abolished in the early 1940s, following a ban under Italian occupation in 1936, the effects of Ethiopia's longstanding peculiar institution lingered. As a result, former President of Ethiopia Mengistu Haile Mariam was virtually absent from the country's controlled press in the first few weeks of his seizure of power. He also consciously avoided making public appearances, here too on the belief that his appearance would not sit well with the country's deposed political elite, particularly the Amhara.[71] By contrast, Mengistu's rise to prominence was hailed by the southern Shanqella groups as a personal victory.[72] Ethnic discrimination against the 'barya' or Shanqella communities in Ethiopia still exists, affecting access to political and social opportunities and resources.[73]

Some slaves of Ethiopia or their descendants have also held the highest positions. Abraha, the 6th century South Arabian ruler who led an army of 70,000, whom was appointed by the Axumites was a slave of a Byzantine Merchant in the Eritrean port of Adulis.[74] Habte Giyorgis Dinagde and Balcha Abanefso were originally slaves taken as prisoners of war at Menelik's court who ended up becoming powerful members of the government. Especially Habte Giorgis, became war minister and first prime minister of the empire who later became king-maker of Ethiopia after Menelik's death.[75][76] Ejegayehu Lema Adeyamo, mother of Emperor Menelik who actually founded modern Ethiopia, is said to be a slave.[77][78][79] Mengistu Haile Mariam, who declared a republic and ruled Ethiopia with Marxist–Leninist ideology, is also said to be the son of a former slave.[80]


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External links

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