Harsh circumstances apparently provoked three rebellions between the seventh and ninth centuries. What is now called the Zanj Rebellion was the largest of these.
Long before kidnapped Africans were ever brought to North America, they incited a rebellion in the Middle East and went head to head with an empire. The insurrection began in 869 A.D. when Zanj slaves—an Arabic term used to describe East Africans—joined with an Arab revolutionary named Ali bin Muhammad and rose up against the Abbasid Caliphate. Spurred on by promises of land and freedom, the Zanj began conducting night raids on nearby cities in order to seize supplies and liberate fellow slaves.
What began as a humble revolt slowly grew into a full-scale revolution that lasted 15 years. Slaves, Bedouins and serfs all joined with the rebels, who at their height supposedly numbered over 500,000. These revolutionaries even amassed a navy and controlled as many as six fortified cities in modern-day Iraq. The Zanj Rebellion would finally end in the early 880s after the Abbasid army mobilized and conquered the rebel capital. Ali bin Muhammad was killed in the battle, but many of the Zanj were spared and were even invited to join the Abbasid military.
Over the course of the next 15 years, the Zanj were able to combat the superior arms of the Abbasid government by waging guerrilla warfare against their opponents. They became adept at raiding towns, villages and enemy camps (often at night), seizing weapons, horses, food and captives and freeing fellow slaves, and burning the rest to cinders to delay retaliation. As the rebellion grew in strength, they also constructed fortresses, built up a navy for traversing the canals and rivers of the region, collected taxes in territories under their control, and minted their own coins.
Zanj (Arabic: زنج; from Persian: زنگ zang, meaning “Land of the Blacks” ) was a name used by medieval Muslim geographers to refer to both a certain portion of Southeast Africa (primarily the Swahili Coast), and to the area’s Bantu inhabitants. This word is also the origin of the place name Zanzibar.
Division of Africa’s coast
Geographers historically divided the eastern coast of Africa at large into several regions based on each region’s respective inhabitants. In Somalia was Barbara, which was the land of the Eastern Baribah or Barbaroi (Berbers), as the ancestors of the Somalis were referred to by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively. In modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia was al-Habash or Abyssinia, which was inhabited by the Habash or Abyssinians, who were the forebears of the Habesha.
Arab and Chinese sources referred to the general area south of the Abyssinian highlands and Barbara as Zanj, or the “country of the blacks”. Also transliterated as Zenj or Zinj, this Southeast Africa area was inhabited by Bantu-speaking peoples called the Zanj. The core area of Zanj occupation stretched from the territory south of present-day Ras Kamboni to Pemba Island in Tanzania. South of Pemba lay Sofala in modern Mozambique, the northern boundary of which may have been Pangani. Beyond Sofala was the obscure realm of Waq-Waq, also in Mozambique. The tenth-century Arab historian and geographer Abu al-Hasan ‘Alī al-Mas’ūdī describes Sofala as the furthest limit of Zanj settlement, and mentions its king’s title as Mfalme, a Bantu word.
The Zanj traded with Arabs, Persians and Indians, but according to some sources, only locally, since they possessed no ocean-going ships. According to other sources, the heavily Bantu Swahili peoples already had seafaring vessels with sailors and merchants trading with Arabia and Persia, and as far east as India and China. Through this fusion, some Arabs intermarried with local Bantu women, which eventually gave rise to the Swahili culture and language—both of which are Bantu in origin, but significantly influenced by foreign elements (e.g. clothing, loan words, etc.).
Prominent settlements of the Zanj coast included Malindi, Gedi, and Mombasa. By the late medieval period, the area included at least 37 substantial Swahili trading towns, many of them quite wealthy. However, these communities never consolidated into a single political entity (the “Zanj Empire” being a late nineteenth-century fiction).
The urban ruling and commercial classes of these Swahili settlements were made up of Arab and Persian immigrants. The Bantu peoples inhabited the coastal regions, and were organized only as family groups. The term shenzi, used on the East African coast and derived from the Swahili word zanji, referred in a derogatory way to anything associated with rural blacks.
The Zanj were for centuries shipped as slaves by Arab traders to all the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs recruited many Zanj slaves as soldiers and, as early as 696 AD, we learn of slave revolts of the Zanj against their Arab masters in Iraq (see below). Ancient Chinese texts also mention ambassadors from Java presenting the Chinese emperor with two Seng Chi (Zanji) slaves as gifts, and Seng Chi slaves reaching China from the Hindu kingdom of Sri Vijaya in Java.
The term Zanj apparently fell out of use in the tenth century. However, after 1861, when the area controlled by the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar was forced by the British to split with the parent country of Oman, it was often referred to as Zanj. The sea off the south-eastern coast of Africa was known as the Sea of Zanj, and included the Mascarene islands and Madagascar. During the anti-apartheid struggle it was proposed that South Africa should assume the name Azania, to reflect ancient Zanj.
It was in early Iraq where the largest African slave rebellions occurred. Here were gathered tens of thousands of East African slave laborers called Zanj. These Blacks worked in the humid salt marshes in conditions of extreme misery.Conscious of their large numbers and oppressive working conditions the Zanj rebelled on at least three occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries. The largest of these rebellions lasted for fifteen years, from 868 to 883,during which time Arab armies were sent to suppress the revolt.
This rebellion is known historically as the “Revolt of the Zanj” or the “Revolt of the Blacks.”It is significant to point out that the Zanj forces were rapidly augmented by large-scale defections of Black soldiers under the employ of the Abbassid Caliphate at Baghdad. The rebels themselves, hardened by years of brutal treatment, repaid their former masters in kind, and are said to have been responsible for great slaughters in the areas that came under their sway.
At its height the Zanj rebellion spread to Iran and advanced to within seventy miles of Baghdad itself.The Zanj even built their own capital, called Moktara (the Elect City), which covered a large area and flourished for several years. The Zanj rebellion was ultimately only suppressed with the intervention of large Arab armies and the lucrative offer of amnesty and rewards to any rebels who might choose to surrender.
Abuse of African women would continue for nearly 1, 200 years.
Some historians estimate that between A.D. 650 and 1900, 10 to 20 million people were enslaved by Arab slave traders. Others believe over 20 million enslaved Africans alone had been delivered through the trans-Sahara route alone to the Islamic world.