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Slavery in Ethiopia

Slavery in Ethiopia has existed for centuries. The practice formed an integral part of the Afro-Asiatic-dominated Ethiopian society, from its earliest days through to the 20th century. Slaves were traditionally drawn from the Nilotic Shanqella populations inhabiting Ethiopia's southern hinterland. War captives were another source of slaves, though the perception, treatment and duties of these prisoners was markedly different.[1] Slaves were also sold abroad as part of the Arab slave trade, serving as concubines, bodyguards, servants and treasurers.[2] In response to pressure by Western Allies of World War II, Ethiopia officially abolished slavery and involuntary servitude after having regained its independence in 1942. On 26 August 1942, Haile Selassie issued a proclamation outlawing slavery.[3]


Main article: Shanqella

Slavery was fundamental to the social, political and economic order of medieval Ethiopia. Racism in the territory was traditionally mainly directed at the Nilotic ethnic minorities, as well as other individuals with similarly pronounced "Negroid" physical features. Collectively, these groups are locally known as Shanqella or barya, derogatory terms originally denoting slave descent, irrespective of the individual's family history.[4][5]

Historically, the Shanqella constituted most of the slave labour in the ruling local Afro-Asiatic societies.[6] The Abyssinians were also noted as having actively hunted the Shanqella during the 19th century.[7] Following the abolition of the slave trade in the 1940s, the freed Shanqella and barya were typically employed as unskilled labour.[6]

Traditionally, racism against perceived barya transcended class and remained in effect regardless of social position or parentage.[8] Although other populations in Ethiopia also faced varying degrees of discrimination, little of that adversity was by contrast on account of racial differences. It was instead more typically rooted in disparities in class and competition for economic status. The Oromo and Gurage were thus, for example, not considered by the highlander groups as being racially barya, owing to their similar physical features and common Afro-Asiatic ancestry.[6]

In terms of traditional perceptions, the Shanqella likewise racially contrast themselves from the Afro-Asiatic populations. The Anywaa (Anuak) Nilotes of southern Ethiopia consequently regard the Amhara, Oromo, Tigray and other Afro-Asiatic groups collectively as gaala ("red") in contradistinction to themselves.[9]



In Ethiopia, slavery was legal and widespread; slave raiding was endemic in some areas, and slave trading was a fact of life.[10] The largest slavery-driven polity in the Horn of Africa before the nineteenth century was the Ethiopian Empire. [11]

In 1880, Menelik II, the Amhara ruler of the Ethiopian province of Shoa, began to overrun Oromia. This was largely in retaliation for the Zemene Mesafint ("Era of the Princes"), a period during which a succession of Oromo feudal rulers dominated the highlanders. Chief among these was the Yejju dynasty, which included Aligaz of Yejju and his brother Ali I of Yejju. Ali I founded the town of Debre Tabor, which became the dynasty's capital.[12]

In 1889, Menelik II became emperor of Ethiopia. He thereafter set out to conquer Oromia, completely annexing the territory by 1900. The Oromo inhabitants were subsequently severely repressed by Menelik's troops, with the majority reduced to tenancy and paying heavy tributes for the use of land. Thousands were killed, and large numbers were also sold into slavery.[13] Menelik II and Queen Taitu personally owned 70,000 slaves.[14]

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Ethiopia provided an ever increasing number of slaves for the slave trade, as the geographical focus of the trade had shifted from the Atlantic basin to Ethiopia, the Nile basin and Southeast Africa down to Mozambique.[10]

The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented growth in slavery in the country, especially in southern Oromo towns, which expanded as the influx of slaves grew. In the Christian highlands, especially in the province of Shoa, the number of slaves was quite large by the mid-century.[10] However, despite the war raids, the Oromo were not considered by the highlander groups as being racially barya, owing to their common Afro-Asiatic ancestry.[1]


Slavery was mainly domestic but as practiced within Ethiopia differed depending on the class of slaves in question. The "black" (Negroid) Shanqalla slaves in general sold for cheap. They were also mainly assigned hard work in the house and field.[1]

On the other hand, the "red" Oromo/Galla and Sidama slaves had a much higher value and were carefully sorted according to occupation and age: Very young children up to the age of ten were referred to as Mamul. Their price was slightly lower than that of ten- to sixteen-year-old boys. Known as Gurbe, the latter young males were destined for training as personal servants. Men in their twenties were called Kadama. Since they were deemed beyond the age of training, they sold for a slightly lower price than the Gurbe. A male's value thus decreased with age. The most esteemed and desired females were girls in their teens, who were called Wosif. The most attractive among them were destined to become wives and concubines. Older women were appraised in accordance with their ability to perform household chores as well as their strength.[1]

Arab slave trade

Main article: Arab slave trade
File:Map Slave Routes Ethiopia.jpg
Historical routes of the Ethiopian slave trade.

The Indian Ocean slave trade was multi-directional and changed over time. To meet the demand for menial labor, slaves sold to Muslim slave traders by local slave raiders, Ethiopian chiefs and kings from the interior, were sold over the centuries to customers in Egypt, the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, the Far East, the Indian Ocean islands, Somalia and Ethiopia.[15]

During the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, slaves shipped from Ethiopia had a high demand in the markets of the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere in the Middle East. They were mostly domestic servants, though some served as agricultural labourers, or as water carriers, herdsmen, seamen, camel drivers, porters, washerwomen, masons, shop assistants and cooks. The most fortunate of the men worked as the officials or bodyguards of the ruler and emirs, or as business managers for rich merchants. They enjoyed significant personal freedom and occasionally held slaves of their own. Besides Javanese and Chinese girls brought in from the Far East, "red" (non-Negroid) Ethiopian young females were among the most valued concubines. The most beautiful ones often enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle, and became mistresses of the elite or even mothers to rulers.[16] The principal sources of these slaves, all of whom passed through Matamma, Massawa and Tadjoura on the Red Sea, were the southwestern parts of Ethiopia, in the Oromo and Sidama country.[2]

The most important outlet for Ethiopian slaves was undoubtedly Massawa. Trade routes from Gondar, located in the Ethiopian Highlands led to Massawa via Adwa. Slave drivers from Gondar took 100-200 slaves in a single trip to Massawa, the majority of whom were female.[2]

A small number of eunuchs were also acquired by the slave traders in the southern parts of Ethiopia.[17] Mainly consisting of young children, they led the most privileged lives and commanded the highest prices in the Islamic global markets because of their rarity. They served in the harems of the affluent or guarded holy sites.[16] Some of the young boys had become eunuchs due to the battle traditions that were at the time endemic to parts of southern Ethiopia. However, the majority came from the Badi Folia principality in the Jimma region, situated to the southeast of Enarea. The local Oromo/Galla rulers were so disturbed by the custom that they drove out of their kingdoms all who practiced it.[17]


Initial efforts to abolish slavery in Ethiopia go as far back as the early 1850s, when Emperor Tewodros II outlawed the slave trade in his domain, albeit without much effect. Only the presence of the British in the Red Sea resulted in any real pressure on the trade.[10] To gain international recognition for his nation, Haile Selassie formally applied to join the League of Nations in 1919. Ethiopia's admission was initially rejected due to concerns about its slave-holding, slave trade and arms trade. Italy and Great Britain led the opposition, implying that independent Ethiopia was not yet civilised enough to join an international organization of free nations. It was eventually admitted in 1923, after signing the Convention of St. Germain to suppress slavery.[18][19] The League later appointed the Temporary Slavery Commission in 1924 to inquire into slavery worldwide. Despite the apparent measures to the contrary, slavery continued to be legal in Ethiopia even with its signing of the Slavery Convention of 1926.[3]


Although slavery was abolished in the 1940s, the effects of Ethiopia's longstanding peculiar institution lingered. As a result, former President of Ethiopia Mengistu Haile Mariam was virtually absent from the country's controlled press in the first few weeks of his seizure of power. He also consciously avoided making public appearances, here too on the belief that his "Negroid" appearance would not sit well with the country's deposed political elite, particularly the Amhara.[8] By contrast, Mengistu's rise to prominence was hailed by the southern Shanqella groups as a personal victory, with one of their own having made good.[5] Racial discrimination against the barya or Shanqella communities in Ethiopia still exists, affecting access to political and social opportunities and resources.[4]


  1. ^ a b c d Abir, Mordechai (1968). Ethiopia: the era of the princes: the challenge of Islam and re-unification of the Christian Empire, 1769-1855. Praeger. p. 57. 
  2. ^ a b c Clarence-Smith, edited by William Gervase (1989). The Economics of the Indian Ocean slave trade in the nineteenth century (1. publ. in Great Britain. ed.). London, England: Frank Cass. ISBN 0714633593. 
  3. ^ a b Ethiopia : the land, its people, history and culture. [S.l.]: New Africa Press. ISBN 9987160247. 
  4. ^ a b Uhlig, Siegbert (2003). Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C, Volume 1. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 489–490. ISBN 3447047461. 
  5. ^ a b Thomson, Blair (1975). Ethiopia: The Country That Cut Off Its Head: A Diary of the Revolution. Robson Books. p. 117. ISBN 0903895501. 
  6. ^ a b c Congrès international des sciences anthropologiques et ethnologiques, Pierre Champion (1963). VIe [i.e. Sixième] Congrès international des sciences anthropologiques et ethnologiques, Paris, 30 juillet-6 août 1960: Ethnologie. 2 v. Musée de l'homme. p. 589. 
  7. ^ Fisher, Richard Swainson (1852). The Book of the World. p. 622. 
  8. ^ a b Newsweek, Volume 85, Issues 1-8. Newsweek. 1975. p. 13. 
  9. ^ Katsuyoshi Fukui, Eisei Kurimoto, Masayoshi Shigeta (1997). Ethiopia in Broader Perspective: Papers of the XIIIth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Kyoto, 12-17 December 1997, Volume 2. Shokado Book Sellers. p. 804. ISBN 487974977X. 
  10. ^ a b c d Hinks, edited by Peter; editor, John McKivigan ; R. Owen Williams, assistant (2006). Encyclopedia of antislavery and abolition : Greenwood milestones in African American history. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 246. ISBN 0313331421. 
  11. ^ al.], edited by Keith Bradley ... [et. The Cambridge world history of slavery. (1st ed. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 71. ISBN 0521840686. 
  12. ^ Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes; The Challenge of Islam and the Re-unification of the Christian Empire (1769-1855), (London: Longmans, 1968), p. 30
  13. ^ "Faqs - Oromo of Ethiopia". Retrieved 9 June 2013. 
  14. ^ Stokes, Jamie; Gorman, editor; Anthony; consultants, Andrew Newman, historical (2008). Encyclopedia of the peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts On File. p. 516. ISBN 143812676X. 
  15. ^ Gwyn Campbell, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, 1 edition, (Routledge: 2003), p.ix
  16. ^ a b Campbell, Gwyn (2004). Abolition and Its Aftermath in the Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Psychology Press. p. 121. ISBN 0203493028. 
  17. ^ a b Abir, Mordechai (1968). Ethiopia: the era of the princes: the challenge of Islam and re-unification of the Christian Empire, 1769-1855. Praeger. p. 56. 
  18. ^ Markakis, John. Ethiopia : the last two frontiers. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey. p. 97. ISBN 1847010334. 
  19. ^ Vestal, Theodore M. The Lion of Judah in the New World Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans' Attitudes Toward Africa. Westport: ABC-CLIO. p. 21. ISBN 0313386218. 

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