Working in intolerably humid conditions clearing the salt marshes of southern Mesopotamia, fed on a poor diet of dates and semolina, frequently racially abused, the ‘Zanj’ – east African slaves in 9th Century Iraq – rose in their hundreds of thousands in a revolt which lasted for 15 years. They conquered large parts of Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, held the city of Basra for a decade, established their own capital, and even minted their own currency.
As labour intensive activities such as mining and plantation agriculture had expanded in the Muslim empires, so the slave trade had developed, especially the commerce in African slaves. Simultaneously, cultural justifications for the enslavement of Africans multiplied, with many classical writers depicting blacks as slow-witted and bestial. One writer who did not rehearse the stereotype was Jahiz of Basra, himself perhaps of African origin, who wrote:
“Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth…
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