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Jerzy Zdanowski, Speaking with their Own Voices. The stories of Slaves in the Persian Gulf in the 20th Century

Cambridge,Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, 185 pages.
Magdalena Moorthy Kloss
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Speaking with their Own Voices: The stories of Slaves in the Persian Gulf in the 20th Century / Jerzy Zdanowski.- Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.- 185 p.

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1Jerzy Zdanowski’s Speaking with their Own Voices sheds light on slavery and manumission in the Persian Gulf during the first half of the 20th century. Its main strength lies in the source material examined, around 1,000 statements made by slaves in order to obtain British manumission certificates. These personal accounts are quoted at length throughout the work, offering striking insights into the lives of slaves at the time.

2The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter one gives an overview of slavery in the Persian Gulf at the turn of the 20th century. The task of reconstructing the historical and political backdrop of this study is largely left to the reader, but Zdanowski offers a detailed account of British efforts to abolish the slave trade in the Gulf. After almost 250 years of intense involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, Britain banned slave trading everywhere in 1807, and then slavery in 1833. Thereafter, the aim was to curtail the trafficking of slaves not only on British territory, but in all areas under British influence.

3A number of treaties and agreements reached with the Trucial States and Persia outlawed the abduction and transportation of slaves. They also enabled the British to detain and search merchant vessels and to free any slaves encountered on board. Domestic slaves already residing in the Gulf did not fall under these agreements, and British attempts to introduce additional treaties securing their freedom were fiercely opposed by local rulers. Yet, the Government of India granted British representatives in the Persian Gulf the authority to manumit domestic slaves if they had been abused and upon the consent of the Sheikh. This policy was to have wide-reaching consequences. Slaves could now apply for manumission at the British Residency in Bushire or at one of its agencies in the Trucial States. If successful, they received a British manumission certificate declaring their freedom. Based on his research in the archives of the India Office at the British Library, Zdanowski found that 960 slaves were manumitted through this procedure between 1921 and 1949.

4The following two chapters highlight different ways in which individuals became slaves: through kidnapping and sale (chapter 2), and by being born into slavery (chapter 3). Most incidents of kidnapping occurred on the East African coasts; but people were also taken from the shores of the Arabian Peninsula and Persia, especially at a young age. Individuals of African origin seem to have been a primary target for kidnapping all over the Persian Gulf region. This finding indicates a racialization of slavery, yet is not commented by the author.

5The majority of slaves whose manumission statements have survived were born into slavery and raised in their masters’ houses. In the early 20th century, Zdanowski writes, slavery was an integral part of Persian Gulf society. In addition to providing free labour, slaves endowed their owners with social prestige. Unlike plantation slavery in the Americas, slavery on the Gulf was generally small-scale. Many slaves “had been bound to the same families, with whom their relationships were often not without personal sentiment, sometimes for generations.” (p.50). Therefore, domestic slavery on the Persian Gulf has often been considered harmless in comparison. Citing many manumission statements that speak of abuse and hardship, Zdanowski refutes this assumption.

6Cited estimates for the number of slaves “imported” to the Persian Gulf vary greatly (from 6,000 to 20,000 annually in the 19th century), but indicate that the slave population must have been significant. However, the author does not explain why, despite the suffering endured by many slaves, few sought manumission by British authorities. A closer reading of the published statements offers some clues. Manumitted slaves were in an extremely vulnerable position; many were recaptured and resold. Freedmen struggled to make a living as divers, sailors or workers in the emerging oil industry. Many returned to the British authorities, begging for support. A quote by the British Agent in Bahrain in 1938 is telling: “There seems to be a sort of impression amongst the slaves of the Trucial Coast that once they are manumitted they become quasi-British subjects and entitled to protection from us. This, of course, is not so.” (p.138). This statement emphasizes the key difference between a slave manumitted according to Islamic practice, and a slave manumitted by British decree. The former would become a mawlā, remaining (at least in theory) under the patronage of his former owner. A slave who initiated his own manumission by British decree severed all ties to his former master: he was free, but on his own.

7It is important to consider the gendered impact of these factors. Zdanowski mentions that the number of female slaves in the Gulf was at least as high as that of male slaves, if not higher. Why, then, were only 288 out of 960 statements made by women? Zdanowski states that “(t)he majority of female slaves, especially those who were born in slavery, accepted their status and were, in fact, relatively well off.”(p.199). This contradicts earlier passages revealing the harshness of the female slaves’ lives. A more likely reason might be that, in a society where women were excluded from wage labour and most realms of public life, it was virtually impossible for a freedwoman to fend for herself without male guardians or patrons.

8Chapter four describes the conditions of slaves employed as divers and offers a detailed account of the pearl industry, the region’s main source of wealth until the mid-20th century. It is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the historical development of the economy in this region. Of the estimated 7,000 divers employed yearly in the pearl diving industry, around 1,000 were slaves.

9Chapter five provides ample room for female slaves to “speak with their own voices”. Scholars working on the history of Islamic slavery can rarely draw upon first-hand accounts by slaves, let alone female slaves. Rather, they must rely on rare and biased mentions of slaves in sources, and on Islamic legal texts on the matter. As a result, many works on this subject emphasize doctrine over practice. This book, by contrast, presents the lived experiences of slave women, which often stand in stark contrast to Islamic ideals of slavery. Yet, it may be difficult for the non-specialist reader to see this contrast, as Islamic legal principles on slavery and concubinage are not sufficiently discussed. For example, according to Islamic law, a slave who bears her master’s child acquires the position of umm walad: she can no longer be sold, is automatically manumitted upon her master’s death, and the child is born free. Zdanowski mistakenly states that the umm walad "becomes free the moment her master engaged in intercourse with her" (p.60), and later claims that she is freed if she bore her master a son (p.116).

10Chapter six introduces the Makranis, the second largest group of applicants for British manumission. Most of them were slaves of African descent born on the Arabian coast who had escaped to Makran, the coastal region of Persian Baluchestan. There, they were recaptured by slave traders and trafficked back to Arabia.

11In sum, the uniqueness of this work lies in the fascinating first-hand accounts which Zdanowski presents to the reader. While the quotes could have benefitted from more critical framing and analysis, this book is a treasure trove for anyone interested in historical slavery or in the socio-economic history of the Persian Gulf.

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Magdalena Moorthy Kloss, « Jerzy Zdanowski, Speaking with their Own Voices. The stories of Slaves in the Persian Gulf in the 20th Century », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2015, consulté le 21 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Magdalena Moorthy Kloss

Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vienna, and researcher at the Austrian Academy of Science’s Institute for Social Anthropology.

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