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Obama and the Islamic slave trade

Paul Trewhela on the curious blind-spot of the outgoing US President

Obama’s slave trade problem

A major problem in Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from my Father (first published 1995, new edition 2004), is summed up in the title of the last book by the banned South African historian, editor and publisher, Ronald Segal: Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora.

Published in New York in 2001, between the first and second editions of Obama’s autobiography, Segal’s book reveals a history of East Africa which Obama’s book fails to disclose - a history of Islamic slave trade and slavery.

Dreams from my Father has a sub-title: A Story of Race and Inheritance. But while the issue of race is explored with sensitivity, intimacy and care – given the brief marriage of his white American mother and his black Kenyan father, whom he knew for only one month when he was aged ten – the issue of “inheritance” is largely negated by Obama’s almost complete avoidance of his own African Islamic family background.

This is not a subject which he wished to explore, despite the Islamic family inheritance of his Luo great-grandfather Obama, his grandfather Hussein Onyango (born about 1895) or his father Barack (meaning “the blessings of Allah” in Arabic, and in the Qur’an). Despite, also, major complexities in the relation of his alcohol-drinking, Harvard-educated father to the faith in which he was brought up.

The result is that one of the most important global subjects of the modern world is missing in this autobiography, first published by the now-outgoing US President when he was 33, which together with his subsequent book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), has sold more than 3 million copies.

Instead of providing education and information for a vast, world-wide reading public about a crucial reality in the history of black people, this book by the most powerful black person in modern history conceals it.

In a total of roughly 450 pages in the 2008 paperback edition (issued in the year he became President), I find fewer than ten references to the words “Muslim” or “Islam”, despite the whole of Part Three, “Kenya” - the final third of his book – being situated with his late father’s family in Kenya.

In his Epilogue, seven pages from the end, he describes visiting the former slave-trading port of Mombasa with his half-sister Auma on the last weekend of this visit to Kenya., writing how “we visited Mombasa’s Old Town and climbed the worn stairs of Fort Jesus, first built by the Portuguese to consolidate trade routes along the Indian Ocean, later over-run by the swift Omani fleets, later still a beachhead for the British as they moved inland in search of ivory and gold…”. (p.436)

What is not explored here, or elsewhere, in the book is what Segal accurately and honestly calls “The Other Black Diaspora” – in this case, the East African slave trade, the Indian Ocean slave trade … in Segals’ brave and bold title, Islam’s Black Slaves. Obama permits those “swift Omani fleets”, as he describes them, to sail onward on their journey, their human cargo unrecorded.

Yet it is not as if Obama is entirely silent in this book about the enslavement of black Africans for the profit of others.

He records an earlier discussion as a younger man in New York with an Iranian (presumably, like most Iranians, of Shia Muslim background), where “I took up the attack, asking the Iranian if he knew the names of the untold thousands who had leaped into the shark-infested waters before their prison ships had ever reached American ports…”. (p.116)

Justified anger. But what about those East Africans who reached, or never reached, Omani ports… or those other major slave trade destinations across the Indian Ocean, at which Muslim slave traders, including Iranians, off-loaded the human commodities that survived the voyage, stretching all the way to modern Pakistan?

It’s as if there is a deeply structured, wide-spread denialism in modern black political discourse, shared by Obama in this best-seller, with its explicit reference in its title to his father (not his mother), which runs like this:

White, Christian, European slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean – bad.

Arab (and Iranian) Muslim slave trade across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East, Arabia and north India – sssshhhhh! No mention. Close your eyes. Shut your ears. Block your mind.

It’s the re-writing of history.

Very specifically, he makes the following statement in the second-last page of this book about his half-brother, Malik Obama: “The person who made me proudest of all, though [at Obama’s marriage in the US to his wife, Michelle, in 1992], was Roy. Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam, and has sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol.” (p.441)

The point is not that Roy, now Malik, took the decision to convert to his father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s religion. It is that Barack Obama describes this choice of religious faith as the way in which his half-brother “decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam…”.

African heritage is equated very closely here with Islam, while the slave-hunting history of that heritage is kept hidden.

He continues in the next paragraph, that Abongo (best man at the time of Obama’s and Michelle’s Christian marriage) was “prone to making lengthy pronouncements on the need for the black man to liberate himself from the poisoning influence of European culture…”.

This “poisoning” is given a single, European source. The Islamic inheritance is left unexplored and ignored.

In fact, the Islamic slave trade in black people from East Africa continued for almost three times as long as that by white, Christian Europeans of people from West Africa to white slave-owners in the Americas, beginning not long after the death of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century and continuing until the 20th century. Beginning centuries before and finished decades after the “Atlantic” slave trade, this “Oriental” slave trade – conducted by Muslims – remains greatly under-studied.

“Omani Arabs had been trading for slaves along the East African coast for centuries,” writes Segal, who escaped into exile from South Africa in 1960 together with Oliver Tambo, going on to become the most important publisher in the world of books by Govan Mbeki, Ruth First, Professor Jack Simons and others banned in South Africa.

“An Italian physician, serving at the royal court in Muscat [the capital] from 1809 to 1814, wrote that almost its entire revenue came from the tax on slave imports; and of Oman’s eight hundred thousand inhabitants around 1840, an estimated one in three were black.” (pp.145-46)

He continues: “The Omanis on the coast were based at Zanzibar, and after taking control of Kilwa [half way down the coast to present-day Mozambique] in the mid-1780s, diverted to that island the bulk of the trade in slaves and ivory. …Some of these slaves were destined for Zanzibar, where the labor-intensive cultivation of cloves had begun soon after 1810 and was expanding rapidly in response to the growing world demand for cloves.

“By the 1850s, the island’s population might have included no fewer than sixty thousand slaves.” (p.146)

“At Zanzibar, the slaves were unloaded hurriedly,” Segal continues. “The dead were thrown overboard to drift with the tide, until they rotted in their passage. The sick and weak were left to lie on the beach, to save the customs-house tax, in case they died before they could be sold.” (p.148)

Segal notes it was only in 1897, after Britain had established its protectorate in Zanzibar, that slaves on the island were given the right to claim their freedom, and “even then, the concubines were exempted and would remain so until 1909.” (p.190)

Among slave-trading states and recipients of African slaves, slavery was legally abolished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen only in 1962, following its abolition in Iran in 1929. In Oman slavery was made illegal only as late as 1970. Black people are still referred to there by the derogatory Arabic term, “khedaam”.

Barack Obama was one of the most academically accomplished men ever to serve as President of the United States, having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University in New York in 1983, and a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School in 1993, where he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review.

If he had wanted to know more about his father’s East African heritage, there was no difficulty. Slaves, Spices & Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770–1873, a study by Professor Abdul Sheriff of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, was published by James Currey (London), Heinemann (Nairobi), Tanzania Publishing House (Dar es Salaam) and Ohio University Press (Athens, Ohio, in the US), in 1987.

True, the Luo – living on the coast of Lake Victoria in the west of Kenya and speaking a Nilotic language, having been driven south 800 years previously by the Arab Muslim conquest of South Sudan – do not seem to have been affected, or greatly affected, by the East African slave trade. Its victims were drawn principally from the Bantu-speaking peoples of the “Zanj” nearer the east coast in present-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.

But this was no reason for Barack Obama to ignore this great fact of his father’s national heritage, with a direct moral relation to his own “inheritance” as an African American.

With this blocked view of a tragic East African history, he has done black studies, and black people generally, no favours.