Usually Black History Month focuses on the accomplishments of African-Americans or the past glories of African civilizations. When the issue of slavery is explored, the focus is almost always on slavery in the United States. Seldom do we ponder the history of slavery in Africa or the Arab slave traders who exploited the continent long before the 15th century, when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to buy and sell Africans.

Most Black Iraqis who number over two million are descended from sailors and slaves who were brought from present-day Sudan and Ethiopia and elsewhere in East Africa. Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania gave the name Zanj to the descendants of these slaves. Slave trade begun by early Arab traders began in 9th century and lasted over millennium. Most of these slaves were imported to work in large dates and sugarcane plantations. To protest their treatment, Zanj slaves from Basra staged a successful revolt against Baghdad the Muslim capital for 15 years. During this period they created a city called Moktarra in 883, the Army from Baghdad was able to put the revolt down. But as a consequence locals did not engage in large scale plantation type slavery after that. But slavery lasted up until the 19th century. There were reports of dark skinned slaves in Iraq in 2008.

People here still see African Iraqis us as slaves,” says Jalal Diyaab, civil rights activist. “They even call us abd, which means slave.”

Diyaab is the general secretary of the Free Iraqi movement. He sits with more than a dozen other men in a narrow, high-ceilinged room in a mud-brick building in Zubair, talking about a history of slavery and oppression that he says dates back to at least the ninth century.

Black people worked on the plantations around Basra, doing the hard labor, until there was a slave uprising in the mid-800s. Black people ruled Basra for about 15 years, until the caliph sent troops. Many of the black rebels were massacred, and others were sold to the Arab tribes.


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