Essays

Persian Gulf

Southern Iraq

As early as the fifth century Arabs brought Africans to southern Iraq to work their date plantations and salt marshes. But not all the enslaved were of African origin; some were white, namely Circassians and Georgians from the Caucasus. With the growth of salt mining in the area of Basra, however, the African presence increased throughout the Gulf Coast of Iran and led to a series of violent uprisings beginning in the seventh century and culminating with the Zanj rebellion.

During the late ninth century tens of thousands of enslaved Africans from the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and other parts of Eastern Africa (Nubians and Bantu), as well as non-Africans—groups that were all largely employed in the salt marshes surrounding Basra—took up arms against the Abbasid slaveholders. Their revolt was not the first: an enslaved black man, Rabah Shir Zanji (the "Lion of the Zanj"), had led a rebellion in Basra in 694-695. Armed revolts continued to erupt, and the Zanj rebellion was of unprecedented scale.

Led by the free Persian 'Ali ibn Muhammed, the bulk of rebel soldiers were African in origin. The uprising led to the creation of a new government in southern Iraq. In defiance to the Abbasid caliphate, the black rebels, taking over several cities, organized their own state with its own standing army, and even minted coins. The rebellion-turned-state lasted 14 years until the Zanj forces were overwhelmed by the Abbasid army. The Zanj's military skills and prowess spurred the interest of Muslim rulers who for centuries thereafter recruited Africans into their own armed forces.

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Southern Iran

Africans in southern Iran appear sporadically in the historical record until the 17th century. By that time, the evidence of those serving in military capacities becomes more regular. In 1622, Africans helped the Portuguese during an Anglo-Persian attack at Hormuz. Enslaved Bantu threw firebombs from their ramparts onto English and Persian forces who were trying to gain access to the strategically located fortress on the Gulf Coast. Although the Portuguese lost Hormuz, the record of Africans defending them remains. Africans also defended the interests of the Dutch and British, as well as of indigenous rulers.

People from Eastern Africa were brought to Khuzistan in southwestern Iran to work in sugarcane plantations. African males were sometimes employed in households as nurses; and some commanded a certain degree of respect for teaching a range of subjects, including science and good manners, to the children of nobility. Females were employed as wet nurses and nannies. Many also served as concubines; under Islamic law their own children, called khanazad (house-born), became members of the slaveholder's family.

Africans also served as minstrels, stone breakers, woodcutters and bodyguards, and worked in royal courts. Shah Sultan Husayn, on visiting the markets at Isfahan, purportedly brought some 200 eunuchs as part of his retinue, half of whom were black. Some Africans rose to positions of authority during the early 18th century. In 1717 an African named Ya'qub Sultan became the governor of Bandar 'Abbas, the principal port serving central and southern Iran.

Countless African boys were castrated as they were sold into slavery; only a minority survived the operation (most bleeding to death or dying from complications). Those who became ghulams—soldiers and bodyguards of princes—were a select group, and some gained close access to the highest levels of Persian society. In 1821, the African Ali Akbar Khan served as the commander of the ghulams at the court of the Shiraz prince. As in other parts of the Middle East, eunuchs were particularly valued as harem guards.

Although Africans were brought to Iran over the course of several centuries, as elsewhere in the western part of the Indian Ocean world, the number increased during the 19th century as the trade in Georgians and Circassians became limited in 1828 due to the Russian military victory in northern Iran and the treaty that followed. A sharp rise ensued in the enslavement of fellow Persians—in particular, Baluchis and Khorasanis—and a renewed demand for Africans.

Lingah, Bushehr, Bandar 'Abbas and Qeshm Island became the major slave trading ports for Africans during this period. In 1842, more than 1,200 Africans disembarked, in addition to hundreds of men and women bought and brought by Iranian pilgrims on their return from Mecca and Karbala (a holy site for Shia Muslims). Along the coast, Hormuz had a sizable African population, coming mainly from Madagascar.

Resistance to slavery among Afro-Iranians, largely in the form of flight, rose as abolitionists began to apply pressure from within and from outside Iran. Instances of marronage grew in the early 20th century; and it was not until that time that the Gunabadi, a group of the Ni'matullahi Sufi order, called for emancipation by issuing a fatwa.

After slavery was abolished in 1928, Africans and their descendants formed their own distinct communities, where they continue to celebrate and commemorate their heritage through music, dance, and passing along their oral history. The settlements of the descendants of the people who mostly arrived in the 19th century may be seen along the Gulf Coast today. They include Zanjiabad and Deh-Zanjian in Baluchistan and Kerman Province, as well as a black community near Bandar 'Abbas comprising Africans who worked as either sailors or agricultural workers on date plantations.

As in Oman, Dubai and Kuwait, Africans and their descendants in Iran practiced spirit possession (zar). Additionally, they had ceremonies, such as liwat, gowa and al-nuban, serving specific purposes—almost always having to do with driving out or appeasing spirits, usually African, that traveled with the wind. In southern Iran, spirits in general are referred to as pepe (from pepo in Swahili); some are called mature (from matari in Swahili); yet others denote African origins further inland, such as chinyase (from Cinyase, the language spoken by the Nyasa in southern Malawi).

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