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Paper Trails: Exploring World History through Documents and Images

Marc Jason Gilbert


The "End" of the African Slave Trade: The Case of East Africa

    World historians have an abiding interest in the place of slavery in world history. If the early work of Philip Curtin on plantation economies is any measure of the emergence of modern world history, the subject of slavery can be said to have served as one of the field's midwives. However, while the origins and impact of the slave trade in the early modern era have received close attention and have hence generated resources for teaching, scholarship on the decline of slavery has yet to be translated into effective ways for teaching the subject. This is unfortunate, because despite decades of decline, slavery remains a part of the human experience, from the Niger River basin to the Sudan and from the sex shops of Thailand to the streets of Bulgaria. Students might thus benefit from a leavening of the standard meta-narratives of the rise of the African slave trade and its "abolition" in the nineteenth century with some exposure to both its slow decline and also its continuing survival. The resources section that follows offers some means by which this goal can be achieved. Primarily, however, this column is designed to place graphic evidence of world historical processes directly in the hands of instructors. It will initially do so by offering a document that many teachers requested when its existence was made known on the H-World Listserv a few months ago. It is a certificate of manumission issued by the German Imperial government in 1911 that is alleged to be the last such certificate issued: no further certificates were deemed necessary due to the purported end of the slave trade in East Africa. The document is supported by other illustrative materials also suitable for classroom use.

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[Translation of Document]

Imperial Government of East Africa

Certificate of Liberation No. 59

1. Name of Person Liberated: Juma `bin [son of] Sudi

2. Place of Birth: Chole [Most likely a village near an anchorage in Mafia Bay of the island of that name north of Kilwa]

3. Sex: Male

4. Age: 25

5. Marital Status: Not noted

6. Place of Residence: Kyegeani

7. Occupation: Room Cleaner [Room work]

8. Person to whom he was in thrall (literal meeting): Mwanngura, binti (daughter of) Hatibu of Kyegeani

Liberated by virtue of his having been let go by his (female) owner and by virtue of being entitled to his freedom via this certificate of liberation according to the Law of September, 1891.

Dated: Kilwa on the 9th of February, 1911

(Signed by) Imperial District Officer Richter




    This certificate of manumission was issued to Juma `bin Sudi at Kilwa, 135 miles south of Dar es Salaam in what today is the United Republic of Tanzania. Settlements at or near this site (Kilwa Kissiwani, Kilwa Kivinje) occupied an important place in world history. From the 13th to the 16th century, Kilwa served as an important urban center for Omani and Shirazi merchants who contributed to the evolution of the culture of "coast," i.e. Swahili, culture. They traded for gold, fur, beeswax, and ivory with Great Zimbabwe and for slaves further north in today's Tanzania. Omani and Shirazi merchants sold Middle Eastern crockery and Ming and other Chinese porcelain. This exchange offers evidence of the place of both Africa and Islam in the development of a world economy. Kilwa's central mosque, then the largest in East Africa, was visited in 1331 by Ibn Battuta, the famous Arab traveller, who found the island city of interest. It may also have been visited by Admiral Zheng He [Cheng Ho], whose Chinese Treasure Fleet visited Swahili lands almost a century later. 2
    Kilwa was sacked and temporarily eclipsed as an Arab trading center by the Portuguese in 1505. However, by 1868, the Omani traders recovered and drove the Portuguese out. With the exception of a brief Portuguese interregnum in 1725, Kilwa was a leading Arab center of the East African slave trade for more than a century. This trade grew with the concurrent spread of European plantation economies as close as Mauritius and as far away as Brazil. Kilwa was eventually absorbed into the Sultanate of Zanzibar (1841-1884) which controlled the lion's share of the East African trade. By 1874, Zanzibar (whose very name is derived from the Arabic word for slave, i.e. zanj) attracted the attention of European imperial and anti-slavery interests which forced the Sultan to close its then-famous slave market. Even so, the trade for a time remained brisk and a slave was allegedly sold there as late as 1935. 3
    In 1885-1886, when Juma `bin Sudi was born, the British and German imperial governments partitioned between themselves the mainland territories of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The partition was a classic example of the process of "informal empire." Neither European state took possession of the land: this was given in each case to a private company "chartered" to exercise ruling powers over the domains in which they ostensibly traded. They did this to avoid the costs of direct colonial administration (which would ostensibly have to be responsible for the welfare of the subject peoples) and also to reduce the chance of a collision between European states. In so doing, they were pursuing the pattern of royal charters employed in the initial stages of the so-called Age of Discovery. The Royal Charter of the British East India Company of 1600, which granted it the right to coin money, build forts and wage war, was typical of that period and served as one of the models for the charters employed in the so-called Age of Imperialism and "scramble for Africa" in the late nineteenth century. Much of eastern Africa was divided between the Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft (the German East Africa Company) and William McKinnon's private British East Africa Company. 4
    By 1888, the German East Africa Company had established a capital north of what today is Dar es Salaam, and immediately introduced land ownership laws that inspired fears of a European land grab. This led to an "Arab Revolt" in 1889-1890. Since the potential African allies of the leaders of that revolt were active in the slave trade, part of the German pacification strategy was to demonstrate to these Africans that it had no intention of interfering with the slave trade. The strategy worked. The revolt was crushed. 5
    The Arab revolt, however, prompted the German government to take direct control over the colony. Perhaps seeking a moral justification for the assumption of state authority, the new German imperial regime suddenly reversed the company's policy and began to dismantle the slave trade. First, it confiscated the human cargo of slaver caravans and began issuing certificates of liberation (the first in 1891). This was followed in 1906, by the abolition of the slave trade, though domestic slavery was allowed and the Germans reserved the right to demand compulsory labor for public works projects. Children of slaves born after December 31, 1905 were declared free. Two years later, British East Africa (the formal colony that succeeded the bankrupt British East Africa company), took similar steps to end the slave trade. Compensation payments were offered by British colonial authorities to former slaves until 1911. In that same year, the last certificate of manumission in German East Africa was issued to Juma `bin Sudi. 6
    Juma `bin Sudi, now free, could only watch as the Swahili coast drifted into slow decline over the remainder of his life, but he may have also witnessed that region's ability to remain part of the larger pageant of world history. During the First World War, the German garrison at Kilwa surrendered to British naval forces on September 7, 1916. The entire region had by then became a distant battleground of the Great War in which thousands of Africans perished. After the war, German East Africa was made a British mandate and then a British colony (Tanganyika). Finally, Kilwa was selected as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for its contribution to Swahili culture and its role in the making of the African diaspora. 7

Study Questions

  • Where did most slave traders in East Africa originate?
  • Why did the slave trade become more important after the late 1600s?
  • Who controlled the East African coast from 1600-1885?
  • Could a woman own a slave?
  • Where were most slaves involved in the East African slave trade captured?
  • What commodities from Asia played a role in the East African slave trade?
  • What role did "chartered" European trading companies have in paving the way for eventual European colonial expansion?
  • After the abolition of the slave trade, how did Europeans exploit African labor without compensation?
  • What role did Kilwa play in the First World War? How did it figure in the post-war "mandate" system? What were some other "mandates" and how did they fare?
  • What would an Internet search of such terms as "slave trade Sudan, Mali, Thailand, Eastern Europe" reveal about the current nature of the slave trade? Does it remain an issue in Africa? Is slavery still an international issue with implications for multinational corporations and even possibly St. Valentine's Day?

Teaching Applications

    Juma `bin Sudi's Certificate of Liberation (or manumission) can be shown via an overhead projector or distributed as a handout. My students prefer the handout as it connects them physically with a former slave and hence raises both the emotional stakes and quality of classroom discussion. Students can be assigned any or all of the sample study questions offered above. They may also make presentations on their search for parallel documentation of slave manumission. European efforts to end of the slave trade can be examined as a humanitarian and/or self-serving venture. Kilwa can function as a case study in world history. Students can choose to explore the various roles it played as a receiver of Chinese goods (via central Asia, India and Persia) as center of the slave trade, as a colonial city or as an aspect of Africa's participation in the First World War. It can perhaps best be used to serve a larger exercise that compares slave ports such as El Mina and Zanzibar. 9
    Students can also engage the question as to whether African slavery, or slavery generally, has come to an end. Resources that can support these efforts are provided below. Happily, in the last two years, the Web's fearless premier antislavery homepage has been collecting student learning activities at and These resources include maps, in-classroom activities and even guides to holding school assemblies whose content can easily be morphed into serving the topics above. For a web page dedicated to a lesson plan for teaching about slavery in present day Mali see 10
    It should be noted that all the teaching materials presented here were gathered as a result of a Fulbright Seminar in Tanzania that included secondary and post-secondary instructors. All teachers are encouraged to utilize this means of enriching their teaching of world history. 11

Further Resources for Teaching

    An excellent overview of the African role in global trade suitable for ninth grade and above is the "Land of the Zanj" chapter in Margaret Shinnie, Ancient African Kingdoms (New York: New American Library, 1965): 130-144. The chapter contains not only virtually all the maps and photographic images necessary for instruction (though dark black and white), but has drawings of coins and porcelain that are essential to the discussion of Africa's place in the world economy. Also useful at all levels of instruction is a selection from The Voyage and Acts of Dom Francisco, Viceroy of India describing the sack of Kilwa that is available on-line at 12
    Accessible works on the history of East Africa before and after the coming of the Europeans include Ronald Oliver, The Dawn of African History (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), M. N. Pearson, Port Cities and Intruders (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998), Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), and G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, The French at Kilwa Island (London: Oxford University Press, 1965). 13
    For trade patterns in the Indian Ocean littoral before 1750, see essays by Abu Lughod and Janet Lippman as well as Richard Eaton in Michael Adas (ed.), Islamic and European Expansion: The Forging of a Global Order (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993) and K. N. Chaudhuri, "The Unity and Disunity of Indian Ocean History from the Rise of Islam to 1750: The Outline of a Theory and Historical Discourse," in the Journal of World History 4 (1993): 1-21. For the later period, see Erik Gilbert, "Coastal East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean: Long-Distance Trade, Empire, Migration, and Regional Unity, 1750-1970," which is available on-line at 14
    Peter Stearns, Michael Adas, Stuart Schwartz and Marc Jason Gilbert, World Civilizations, The Global Experience, New York: Longman, 3rd revised edition, 2000) offers a useful survey with documents and slave narrative accounts of both the Atlantic and East African slave trade which includes a table showing annual slave exports from the Red Sea, Trans-Sahara, trans-Atlantic and East Africa. It also provides an annotated bibliography on African slavery in world history. The rise and decline of the slave trade in Africa and beyond is explored in two somewhat detached and scholarly works by Robin Blackburn (The Making of New World Slavery (New York: Verso, 1997 and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (New York: Verso, 1988) and by John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1994). The impact of the slave trade in Africa is illuminated in Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (1983) and Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life 1990). Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) offers an accessible introduction to the subject. Currently, the sections of this work that define the place of slavery in the Islamic world, including East Africa, can be found on-line at 15
    The controversies over the impact of the replacement of the slave trade by Europeans in Africa with so-called "legitimate trade" (i.e. whatever its intent, it served to mask or justify greater European penetration) are explored in Robin Law, "The Transition from the Slave Trade to `Legitimate' Commerce" in Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, I, 1 (1996) available at: This and the larger question of the pace and impact of abolition as well as other post-secondary issues for study can be explored utilizing the Special Issue of the journal Slavery & Abolition (Volume 19, Issue 19.2) on "Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa" edited by Suzanne Miers, Emeritus Professor of History, Ohio University and Martin A Klein, University of Toronto. The issue includes articles on "The International Context: Slavery and the Slave Trade as International Issues 1890-1939," by Suzanne Miers; "No Liberty, Not Much Equality, and Very Little Fraternity: The Mirage of Manumission in the Algerian Sahara in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century," by Dennis Cordell; "The 'Freeing' of the Slaves in German East Africa: The Statistical Record, 1890-1914," by Jan-Georg Deutsch and "Slavery in Colonial Cameroon, 1880s to 1930s," by Andreas Eckert. 16
    Observations on and interviews relating to current slave-keeping among the Tuareg, justifications for the practice, and denials of its existence by the government of Mali can be found at,, and 17


Web Resources for Student Activities/Research and Illustrative Images

    The starting point for student activities is Useful narratives and images for East Africa, Kilwa, and the slave trade in world history can be found at, and For the on-line excerpt of the Portuguese sack of Kilwa mentioned above, see Juma `bin Sudi's birthplace at Chole can be visited at A good map showing Kilwa and Mafia Island as part of the Sultantate of Zanzibar is provided at A typical entry on European chartered companies can be found at Imperialism in East Africa is explored at,,,,
    For slavery in Africa today, see,3,48750.jsp,,,,,,,,,
,,, and, and
    For International Slavery today, see,7792,950179,00.html,,,,,,, 20

Biographical Note: Marc Jason Gilbert is Professor of History at North Georgia College and State University and a University System of Georgia Regents Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning.

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