Trans-Saharan Slave Trade: Origin Story, Duration, Effects, & Facts

What was the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade?

History of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade: how, why, and when did it begin?

For many millennia and centuries, Africans have endured slavery. Although the Europeans are mostly seen as the main pioneers of the slave trade, this heinous activity has perhaps existed since time immemorial and transcended cultures. Perhaps other than the continent of Antarctica, there was not a single continent on this blue planet we call home where slavery was not carried out. Take the case of the trans-Saharan slave trade, which existed long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

From the 3rd century BC to the 19th century, the trans-Saharan slave trade was big business for many Arab and Northern African merchants. They relied on cheap slave labor from black Africans to develop their empires and even staff their military forces.

Although not much is known about the trans-Saharan slave trade as compared to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it’s been estimated roughly 10-20 million black Africans were captured and enslaved.

Read on to learn more about this intra-African slave trade, its history, causes, trade routes, and effects on the African continent.

The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade through the Years: History & Causes

There are some accounts that claim that slave trading in the Sahara dates as far back as 3000 BC during the reign of the Egyptian ruler Sneferu. Also known by his Hellenized name Soris, this Egyptian pharaoh of the Old Kingdom is believed to have crossed the Nile River and entered deep into Sudan to capture slaves and send them back to North Africa. In that period, slaves were mostly people who had been captured during raids in their territories.

There have been recorded accounts of slave trade as way back as the 3rd century BC. For example, Pharaoh Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, carried out many successful raids in what is today Sudan. The Egyptian king captured many prisoners of war before returning to Egypt. Image: Limestone statue of Pharaoh Sneferu of the Old Kingdom

For the Garamantes, who were ancient Greek pastoralists that had settled in modern-day Libya, they relied heavily on enslaving people from sub-Saharan Africa. They used these slaves to build many massive structures, including aqueducts.

In the early years of the Roman Empire, there was a North African (Carthaginian) city called Lepcis which had a bustling slave market. Most of the slaves were people from the Bantu region in Africa (mostly from Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa). Centuries before that, when the Romans conquered Carthage in 146 BC, the city served as the transit point for the transportation of slaves to Rome. At that time, the black African slaves captured were seen as exotic, with many of them, especially the women, serving in the homes of wealthy and powerful Romans.

According to Canadian historian Paul Lovejoy, between 650 AD and 1500 AD, roughly 6 million slaves crossed the Sahara. When the Muslims conquered North Africa in the 8th century, it made way for further expansions into sub-Saharan Africa. Tribes like the Berbers and Arabs could now travel to the east through Nubia (modern-day Sudan) or across the Sahara desert to the west.

Did you know?

Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Sneferu, who was the father of Pharaoh Khufu, is credited with the construction of three pyramids: the Red Pyramid, the Meidum pyramid, and the Bent Pyramid. Those architectural feats chalked by Sneferu ultimately inspired Khufu’s Great Pyramid – i.e. the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

Slave markets in North Africa

Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade is also known as the Eastern Slave Trade or the Arab Muslim Slave Trade. The slave trade, which was in full throttle for over 1300 years, affected tens of millions of people in Africa.

During that time, the slave trade was lucrative business, especially since there was a rising demand in the Arab nations, as well as the new capital of the Eastern Roman empire, Constantinople. The slaves were captured through raids and then made to trek across the Sahara Desert before being sold in slave markets. The main slave markets in North Africa were in Marrakesh (Morocco), Tripoli (Libya), Cairo (Egypt), and Algiers (Algeria).

In some instances, slaves were also sold to the Arabs by the rulers. These rulers often aided in the enslavement of their subjects, choosing to raid their neighboring villages and gather as many captives as they could. According to Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1165), some of the Muslim traders used to capture African children by “luring them with dates and leading them from place to place, until they seized them…”

Trans-Saharan Slave Trade - history and major facts

Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1165) on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. The scholar also noted how dates and other confectionaries were used to lure children into the hands of slavers.

Slavery after the Middle Ages

The Trans-Saharan slave trade continued well into the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. In the 1700s, for example, an estimated 1.4 million slaves traveled across the Sahara and were subsequently shipped to other areas in the world, including Europe, Arabia, the Mediterranean, and the Americas.

Transatlantic Slave Traders enter the market

When the demand for labor increased in the New World, it led to the decline in the trans-Saharan slave trade. The Portuguese, and many other Europeans,  realized they could sail directly to Africa instead of dealing with the Arab merchants who acted as middlemen. Financiers of the Transatlantic slave trade also built castles, forts, and other settlements to assert their dominance in Africa, especially on the West African coast. Coupled with the discovery of natural resources like gold and silver in the Americas and the untiring efforts of abolitionists, the demand for African resources was much lower than before.

Popular Trade Routes in the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

There were several routes that facilitated the transportation of slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to the Arab regions and Europe. Also, the routes plied depended on the final destination.

For slaves going to Egypt, they were shipped along the Nile, Africa’s longest river. Those heading to Arabia transited through ports at the Red Sea. Port cities like Suakin (located in modern-day Sudan) and Assab (located in modern-day Eritrea) were popular transit destinations.

The slaves going to other parts of North Africa used trade routes that had long been in use. Some of the popular routes were Tripoli-Ghadames-Ghat-Hoggar-Gao (Libya-Nigeria), Tripoli-Fezzan-Bornu (Libya to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon), and Kanem-Bornu-Zawila. Arab traders that wanted to capture slaves from the Ghana, Mali and Songhai Empires had to travel along the east-west route.

Read More: History and Major Facts about the Songhai Empire

Traveling across the Sahara

Known as the longest slave trade in history, the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade witnessed tens of millions of black Africans sold into slavery in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Captured slaves were transported across the hot and vast unforgiving Sahara desert to those destinations. It was often the case that only a small percentage survived the perilous journey. Image: Trans-Saharan Slave Trade – routes and cities used

Crossing the Sahara was no easy feat and for groups that had no experience living in dry, hot and arid weather conditions, these expeditions weren’t successful. Bear in mind, the Sahara is a massive desert that spans an area of over 9 million square kilometers (more than 3.5 million square miles), making it the third-largest in the world. As a result, trading across the Sahara was often conducted by tribal groups that had the skills to adapt to the harsh weather conditions.

Nomadic groups that lived in the Sahara regions like the Tuaregs and other groups like the Berbers and Bedouins played a critical role in helping foreigners and slavers cross the desert. Known for being nomadic pastoralists, the Tuaregs occupy what is today’s southwestern Libya, southern Algeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Northern Nigeria. At the height of the Arab Muslim Slave Trade, the Tuaregs served as guides, offered protection to slave caravans to help them reach their destinations.

However, crossing the desert was still very dangerous, and there were several instances where slavers and their ‘human cargo’, even under guidance and protection, would disappear forever without any trace. Many of them also died during the passage – often of thirst or freezing conditions at night.

What types of goods were traded in exchange for slaves?

The Arab slave traders often exchanged several types of goods for slaves during the trans-Saharan slave trade. According to the Muslim scholar Mutahhar ibn Tahir-al-Maqdisi (c. 1057-1113), during the 10th century, the Muslim traders often exchanged food and clothes for slaves, coconut, and gold.

Traders from Morocco who would arrive in Sudan would trade items like horses, European fabrics, books, sugar, and clothes for slaves, gold, as well as animals like civets. According to Andalusian historian Leo Africanus (c. 1494-1554), the sultan of the Bornu Empire (located in north-east Nigeria) preferred to be paid in horses and would even give one slave away in exchange for 20 horses.

Life of a slave in the Arab World

The slaves sent to the Arab world and other areas often worked several jobs, including construction, mining, transportation, and pastoralism. The black male slaves were mostly servants or laborers, while the female slaves were domestic servants or concubines.

At the slave markets, eunuchs were seven times more expensive than regular slaves. These were people who had been castrated, and they were extremely rare. Many of these eunuchs worked in higher positions such as secretaries, tutors, and administrators. Because Islamic law and culture prohibited castration, the slaves were castrated at the slave markets before being sent to the Arab world.

Several black African slaves were sent to work in mines. In Basra (in present-day southern Iraq), they worked as salt miners in very harsh conditions. Eventually, the slaves, who were mainly of Bantu-speaking people from Central, Southern and Southeastern Africa, staged an insurrection (from 869 until 883) called the Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasid Caliphate. The rebellion, which claimed several thousands of lives, was ultimately crushed.

The Qarmatians from eastern Arabia also reportedly enslaved 30,000 black people to work as laborers. Some of the slaves also joined North African military groups.

Trans-Saharan slave trade

Image : The Slave Market of Marrakesh in the Kingdom of Morocco as depicted on the cover of the French newspaper Le Petit Parisien of June 2, 1907.

How dangerous was the journey across the Sahara desert?

Historians estimate that about half of the slaves that were transported during the Trans-Saharan Slave trade died in transit. Owing to how vast the Sahara desert is, it was not uncommon for slaves as well as merchants to pass away due to dehydration and exhaustion. If those things did not blight the slave caravan, disease and hunger often finished the few that survived.

What kinds of works did slaves do?

For starters, persons in captivity could be asked to do pretty much any job. The male slaves were often sent to toil and sweat in mining, irrigation and construction projects. In some cases they were used as soldiers by their masters.

On the other hand, women slaves were often deployed as domestic servants and concubines. They were seen as reliable sources to replenish an Arab ruler’s harem.

For slave Eunuch, he could serve as a harem guard, tutor, or even an administrator in the estate of his master.

Slave markets continued to exist in the Middle East and other parts of Africa well in to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Image: A slave market in Cairo. Drawing by David Roberts, circa 1848.

The Abolition of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

Despite the decline in the slave trade, it was still relatively lucrative that even when it was abolished in Tripoli in 1853, it still continued. Around that time, close to 10,000 slaves were still being sent to North Africa on an annual basis. Many early 20th-century explorers like Ahmed Hassanein Bey, Knud Holmboe, and James Richardson, all shared their encounters with slaves during their travels.

In 1839, a British organization formed the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society to eliminate slavery in the Mediterranean. The Tunis ruler at the time, Ahmad I ibn Mustafa, heeded to the directive and banned slavery in 1846. While under French rule, Algeria was also required to abolish slavery in 1848. For the Northwest African country of Mauritania, slavery wasn’t abolished until 1981.

How the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade affected Africa

The Trans-Saharan slave trade played a critical role in Africa’s future, specifically in West Africa. Here are some of the effects:

The Birth of Powerful Empires

Several powerful empires were established in West Africa due to the trading activities along the trans-Saharan trade routes. The two most powerful empires were the Mali (c. 1230-1672) and Songhai (c.1464-1591), and because of the amount of wealth trading activities brought, its leaders continued to support trade.

Read More: 10 Mightiest African Empires of All Time

Islam & Islamic Cultural Practices Heightened in West Africa

Islam spread into West Africa through the trans-Saharan slave trade, which witnessed the arrival of Muslim enslavers and merchants. For example, in the 14th century, rulers in the Mali Empire practiced Islam, and during the reign of Mansa Musa, it became the empire’s main religion in 1324. For several years, Islam was mostly practiced by the elites, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that other West Africans converted to the religion.

As more West Africans converted to Islam, so did they begin to adopt Islamic culture. In certain areas, Arabic was adopted as the main language, which in turn facilitated trading activities with the rest of the Arabic world. West Africa also became a hub for education and enlightenment, especially in Djenne and Timbuktu. Many other institutions of higher learning also opened, where students could study the Quran.

Read More: Sundiata Keita, the Lion King of Mali Empire

Modern-day slavery: does it still exist in Africa?

In 2011, Libya’s president, Muammar Gaddafi, was overthrown and killed after a military intervention led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations (UN). Since then, the North African country has been plunged into a state of chaos and become a dangerous place for migrants hoping to settle in Europe. This situation has been exploited by many people smugglers and armed groups, whose activities have been described as nothing short of what was seen during the trans-Saharan slave trade era.

In 2017, international news agencies revealed that many of the migrants, predominantly from West Africa, who remained in Libya were being captured and sold as slaves. Slaves who were more educated and had a range of skills typically sold for much higher than slaves that didn’t.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IMO), some of the enslavers also demanded ransoms from their captives’ families; and if their families failed to pay, the captives were subjected to torture and executions. Female migrants were often sold as sex workers. It was reported that not even children were spared from this horrible practice, as many of them were subjected to rape and many other forms of abuse, including whipping, burning and electric shocks. In some gruesome cases, the captors slashed the Achilles tendons of their captives to prevent escape.

In 2018, the UN indicted four Libyans and two Eritreans for their participation in modern-day slavery.

Read More: Life and Major Achievements of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, the African slave who rose to become one of Russia’s most prominent generals

The Curse of Ham, and how some Muslims used religious scriptures to justify the enslavement of Black Africans

Considered by Abrahamic religions as a distinguished patriarch and prophet, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan because Ham had “seen his nakedness”. Image: Noah damning Ham, 19th-century painting by Russian painter Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov

No doubt that the main driving force behind the trans-Saharan slave trade was purely for economic purposes, especially as the Muslim groups and empires started to dominate the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean beginning around the 7th and 8th centuries.

Culturally, they also associated black Africans with slavery and defended that belief by citing the story of the Curse of Ham in the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament (Genesis 9:22-29). According to the story, the patriarch Noah cursed his grandson Canaan because Ham (i.e. Canaan’s father) had “seen the nakedness” of Noah. In a twisted interpretation of the story by some ancient scholars, the curse blackened Ham’s complexion, with Noah declaring that his descendants would be slaves forever.

What is even more interesting is the fact that the story can’t be found in the Quran, the holy book of Muslims. So how did the story come to be believed by some Muslims. It turns out that there was a bit of cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian stories into Islam in the 7th century. Those foreign imports, also known as Isra’iliyyat, were then picked up and misinterpreted by some Muslims to in order to justify the trans-Saharan slave trade and the racial discrimination against black Africans.

Interestingly, these connections (i.e. between Ham, the black race, and slavery) and the resultant false narratives were not used only by Muslim slavers. European Christian slave owners and Southern slave owners in America fell on this false interpretation to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade and general institution of slavery.

Does the Quran support slavery?

Although some Muslims used that story of Ham and Noah to defend their reasoning behind enslaving black Africans, including black Muslims, it’s worth mentioning the fact that nowhere in the Quran is slavery supported. Indeed in Mohammad’s farewell message to his followers, the prophet admonished Muslims against the evil of such practices. He concluded by stating that all human beings were created equally as we all are descendants of Adam, who is seen in Islam as the first prophet.

Muhammad’s Farewell Sermon in 632. The sermon was given in the Uranah valley of Mount Arafat, 20 km (12 mi) southeast of Mecca

Other important facts about the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

Trans-Saharan Slave Trade - history and major facts

The Arab world and Mediterranean region would receive black African slaves and other rich minerals, like gold, coconuts and wild animals from the interior of sub-Saharan Africa. In return, those sub-Saharan rulers would receive fine European cloths, sugar, books, and even horses.

As time progressed, slavers that plied the Sahara desert introduced camels to aid their journey through the hellishly dangerous region. It’s been estimated that between the 7th century and the 16th century, more than 5 million black slaves were transported across the Sahara desert.

Here are a few more important facts about the trans-Saharan slave trade:

  • The Tanzanian archipelago region of Zanzibar was one of the major hubs in the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. Slavers would ship the ‘human cargo’ up the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf.
  • Other coastal regions of East Africa also served as important hubs for the trade.
  • The Niger Valley was one of the important hubs the Trans-Saharan trade caravan went through. Sometimes, slaves from the interior of the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa would be made to journey all the way to the Nile basin.
  • There were four primary routes for the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade: Egypt to the Middle East; the Maghreb to the Sudan; East to West; and Tipoitania to Central Sudan.
  • Some of the most famous towns and cities that served as hubs for slave trade include: Algiers in Algeria; Tripoli in Libya; Aswan and Tripoli in Egypt; and Marrakesh and Tangier in Morocco.
  • In West Africa, they were Gao and Timbuktu in Mali; Blima in Niger; and Kano in Nigeria.
  • It must be noted that although black Africans formed the majority of the slaves traded, there were some Muslim slaves. Berber explorer and historian Ibn Battuta noted that he once saw an enslaved Arab woman in Mali in the 14th century. Often times, West African rulers bought Arab women to ‘complement’ their harem of concubines.
  • As stated above, the Arab world and the Mediterranean region were often the destination of black slaves captured from Sub-Saharan Africa. Cities like Constantinople and Alexandria were known to have slaves serve the upper echelons.
  • After Europeans began settling in the coastal regions of West Africa, the Trans-Saharan slave trade began to fall.


For many people in the West, the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade is not a topic that is talked about, compared to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. However, some historians state that the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade was almost as massive as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Therefore, as part of our untiring commitment to cover history from all parts of the world, the article above aimed to explore all the major facts and origin story of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade.

To this day, the ramifications of the barbaric practice continue to reverberate across the entire continent of Africa. Those awful infractions against humanity simply cannot be swept under the carpet; instead they should be talked about so that concerted efforts can be made to permanently eradicate the practice in whatever shape or form that it exists in today’s Africa.

FACT CHECK: At World History Edu, our experienced historians and academic researchers strive for utmost accuracy and objectivity. But if you come across something that doesn’t look right, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

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