Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Iraq's Black Slaves

U.S. soldiers in southern Iraq add their bootprints to those of Xenophon's 10,000 and the Prophet's army. So many historical footprints mark this stretch of sand and mud that historical accounts lose track of them all.

For instance, a couple of pages in Ronald Segal's "Islam's Black Slaves" tells a story I'd never read before from the Mesopotamian marshes of one of the most massive and successful black slave uprisings in history.

I wrote a few days ago that the nature of Islamic society discouraged large-scale agricultural slavery of the kind that flourished in the Americas. That's true, but the picture is more complex than that. Islamic society, like any religious society, has been flexible over time, especially when morality and money cross. The failure of Islam to develop slave plantations also probably has much to do with the devastating slave revolt in what is now southern Iraq.

Not long after the Muslims conquered this region, records began to tell of black slaves from the East Coast of Africa put to work in the Southern Marshes. They probably were from modern Kenya and Tanzania, and their Arabic name -- Zanj -- perhaps has a connection to the place name Zanzibar.

They worked on sugar and cotton plantations in the steamy climate. As many as 500 or 5,000 lived together in slave quarters. The work was hard and the conditions poor. As early as 694 C.E. they rose up in revolt, but the Muslim authorities crushed it.

In 868-9 C.E. they tried it again, with better success. This time they had a spiritual leader, 'Ali ibn Muhammad, who claimed he was the new prophet. He quickly drew a following among the Zanj in and around Basra, by promising them power and property. He organized perhaps 15,000 of them into an army, under commanders, and within a year they had begun to capture important towns in the marshlands region and adjoining parts of western Persia.

The caliph in Baghdad took notice by this time, and he sent a large force down to suppress the rebellion. Instead, the Zanj defeated the caliph's army and sent it flying back to Baghdad. Part of the caliph's trouble stemmed from the presence of many Zanj in his own ranks, who defected to the other side with their weapons.

Basra panicked, and its rich citizens began to flee. In the autumn of 871, the Zanj captured the city and pillaged it thoroughly. Fire burned much of what remained, and the records say 300,000 inhabitants died.

The rebels kept their heads, however, and instead of staying in the city they withdrew back to their strongholds deep in the marshes and continued to fortify them, remaining mobile among the canals and reeds, raiding Arab cities, riverboats, and caravans. 'Ali ibn Muhammad made his headquarters in the fortified marsh town of Mukhtara, and from there he effectively ruled a black African-dominated state in southern Iraq. The Arab and Persian peasants in the region mostly welcomed the Zanj overlordship, since it meant a break from the crushing taxes of the caliphate.

By 878 the Zanj were strong enough to make a military thrust toward Baghdad and they captured the city of Wasit. But the new military leader of the caliphate, a man named Muwaffaq, appreciated the power of this rebellion at the same time he determined to smash it. He assembled a fleet of small boats to penetrate the marshes and he began to welcome Zanj deserters (instead of torturing and killing them as his predecessors had done).

The number of deserters was growing, because the accretion of power and property had turned the Zanj rebel leadership into a dictatorship. Their own taxes were as repressive as those of the caliphs, and the disruption of trade damaged the livelihood of artisans and merchants. Worse, 'Ali ibn Muhammad began to act out his messianic fantasies and proclaimed himself caliph, ordered prayers said for him in the mosques, and had money struck with his image.

Slowly Muwaffaq chipped away at the Zanj territory till he had them penned in in the marshes. He sent his fleet in after them. The capital, Mukhtara, withstood a three-year siege, but in 883 it fell at last. 'Ali ibn Muhammad was beheaded and his head thrown down at Muwaffaq's feet. The caliphate ordered many of the remaining Zanj slaughtered (along with the Arabs who had taken their side) and dispersed the rest back into slavery.

The use of large numbers of African slaves as agricultural plantation labors in Islamic lands began to decline about this time, and historians make the reasonable conjecture that the lesson of the rebellion of the Zanj had sunk in.