The Hidden Black Iraq

Enter the words "black," "city" and "fuel" into the search engine of the American psyche and you'll conjure up the image of a Chevron station in Detroit. But add a historical element into the equation and you come up with Basra, Iraq.

In the three-card hustle of American foreign policy, the port-city of Basra is the elusive Queen. (The other two bluff cards say "Saddam Hussein" and "War on Terrorism.") Recently, Iraq's delegation to OPEC gleefully reported that 2.1 million barrels of crude oil were flowing from the Basra wells daily. The city's contemporary significance centers around its oil production; historically, though, the city was a commercial and governmental center that rivaled Baghdad for wealth and influence. It is also home to the little-discussed populations of black Iraqis.

Thirty years of black and Diaspora studies have shed light on the scale, intensity and impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade -- the 400-year traffic of Africans between the continent, Europe and the colonies of the alleged new world. Less attention has been paid, though, to the millennium-long slave trade that scattered African slaves throughout present-day Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan and India. Emerging European capitalism and the labor requirements of cash crops like sugar, cotton and tobacco drove the Trans-Atlantic trade; the Trans-Saharan trade, which flourished from the eighth century AD through the 1840s, brought African labor to the hazardous enterprises of pearl diving, date farming and the raw, brutal work of clearing Iraqi salt marshes. African boys were commonly castrated to serve as eunuch guards of royal harems. Unlike those who were enslaved in the West, however, blacks enslaved in the Arabic-speaking world also served as guards, sailors and high-ranking soldiers. In the 19th century, Basra was one of the most profitable slave ports in the region, commonly offering slave traders as much as 50% returns upon their "investments."

There has been a black presence in Basra -- present-day Southern Iraq -- as early as the 7th century, when Abu Bakra, an Ethiopian soldier who had been manumitted by the prophet Muhammad himself, settled in the city. His descendants became prominent members of Basran society. A century later, the writer Jahiz of Basra wrote an impassioned defense of black Africans -- referred to in Arabic as the Zanj -- against accusations of inferiority which had begun to take root even then.

The Zanj, who were primarily persons of East African descent, were to have a significant impact upon Iraqi history. They had been traded from ports along the African coast (Zanzibar, which is derived from the term "Zanj," was a major slave exporting center during the era) to clear salt marshes. Laboring in miserable, humid conditions, the Zanj workers dug up layers of topsoil and dragged away tons of earth to plant labor-intensive crops like sugarcane on the less saline soil below. Fed scant portions of flour, semolina and dates, they were constantly in conflict with the Iraqi slave system. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Zanj staged three rebellions, the largest of which occurred between 868 and 883 AD.

Led by an Iraqi poet named Ali Ibn Muhammad, the Zanj uprising of 868 galvanized thousands of black slaves who laid siege to and eventually overran the city of Basra. In short order, black soldiers in the army of the ruling Abbasid emperors based in Baghdad began to desert and swelled the ranks of the rebellion. Similar to later rebellions that created liberated "maroon" communities throughout the new world, the 15-year conflict, known as "The Revolt of the Zanj," led to the establishment of an independent Zanj capital city, minting of currency and the decade-long control of Basra -- one of the most important trade ports in the Abbasid empire. At their zenith, the Zanj armies marched upon Baghdad and got within 70 miles of the city.

The Zanj uprising was crushed in 883 by the Abbasids, but doing so required vast amounts of the empire's extensive resources. African slavery in Iraq continued to exist throughout both the Ottoman and British empires which incorporated the region into their holdings. In the mid-19th century, decades after the Trans-Atlantic trade had been (technically) outlawed, the Arab trade persisted. As historian Joseph Harris writes in his African Presence in Asia:


From Kuwait, slave parties were dispatched in small groups on land and sea to Zubair and Basra, where brokers sold slaves in their homes. The surplus was marched along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Baghdad.
British officials during the era noted how widespread slave ownership was among the Iraqi families.

The descendants of the Zanj exist in the region today in (often self-contained) communities with names like "Zanjiabad, Iran" that hint at the history of the peoples living there. The status of these black Iraqis is little discussed -- though Iranians have written of persistent racism and stereotypes directed at the Zanj in their country. One can only wonder, though, what the addition of hundreds of oilmen will do for a black minority community living in Basra -- because word-association for the terms "oil" "money" and "slavery" yields the following results: Texas; see also: Presidential Politics.

William Jelani Cobb is a professor of history at Spelman College and editor of The Harold Cruse Reader.
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