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Benjamin Reilly, Slavery, Agriculture and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula

Ohio University Press, 2015, 216 pages
Magdalena Moorthy Kloss
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Slavery, Agriculture and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula / Benjamin Reilly.- Ohio : Ohio University Press, 2015, 216 pages. ISBN : 978‑0821421819

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1This book investigates agricultural slavery on the Arabian Peninsula, a previously unexplored topic, through a novel interdisciplinary approach. The author believes that

“the African contribution to the agriculture of the Arabian Peninsula can be fully understood only within the context of environmental history, in particular the interaction between economics and geography, epidemiology, and human biology.” (p. 1).

2The book is divided into five chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusions. Chapter one gives an overview over traditional Arabian agricultural methods. In chapter two, the author sets out to prove that

“African slave or servile labor did play an important role in agricultural production throughout the Peninsula.” (p. 50).

3Anecdotal evidence suggests that slaves played supplementary roles in agriculture throughout the peninsula’s history, mostly in labour-intensive tasks such as the construction and maintenance of artificial springs (sg. qanā) and the operation of draw wells (sg. jalib). Stronger evidence exists for large-scale communities of African agricultural slave labourers. Reilly uses the term “colonies” to describe these groups, since they were usually set apart physically and by social conventions such as marriage restrictions. Furthermore, they were characterized by unequal power relations between the labourers and a dominant group,

“usually either Arab urban elites or a sharif camel-breeding tribe” (p. 58).

4Such colonies were most frequent in Najd and the Ḥijāz. Drawing upon British manumission documents from 20th century Jiddah, the author concludes that in the “traditional Arabian Peninsula”, an estimated 20 percent of African slaves were deployed to agricultural tasks. This assertion is not wholly convincing, given the extrapolation from such a small dataset to a much broader and vaguely defined timespan. In fact, a rather undifferentiated approach to history can be detected throughout the book, as the term “traditional Arabian Peninsula” is used as a catch-all phrase for any time period before “modernity”. This vagueness unfortunately compromises the clarity of analysis.

5African servile agricultural colonies shared a number of common features. They were usually cultivated by both slaves and former slaves, who, sharing the same condition, were often difficult to tell apart. Reilly thus usefully introduces the term “servile” to describe both slaves and freed slaves (sg. mawlā, pl. mawālī). He states that

“slave status was more difficult to escape in Arabia – not because manumission was rare, but because a manumitted slave assumed the status of a mawla, who continued to be a dependent of his or her former owner, and owed that owner certain obligations.” (p. 49).

6It would have been useful to mention here that Islamic law also confers obligations on the former owner. The patronage (walāʾ) relationship resulting from manumission is modelled after kinship relations, requiring the patron and his family to perform duties usually performed by relatives (e.g. marriage tutelage). Despite its inherent inequality and wide potential for exploitation, the walāʾ relationship could also be a means for integrating former slaves into the local kinship system and securing them the protection of a powerful patron.

7African servile workers were mostly employed in date plantations. Many of them lived among free Arabs, but a number of independent colonies existed. Such colonies were usually owned by Arab urban elites or camel-breeding tribes, who were absent most of the year. This enabled the servile workers to exercise some degree of everyday autonomy. Nearly all the slave colonies described by Reilly were located in malaria-infected regions.

8Chapter three presents a case study of the Khaybar oasis in today’s Saudi Arabia, which in the 19th century displayed many of the typical features of an agricultural servile colony. Its inhabitants, the Khaybara, were mostly mawālī or their descendants.

“Socially, the Khaybara represented a distinct, subordinate caste, which rarely intermarried with Arab populations” (p. 101).

9They worked as sharecroppers for nomadic tribesmen who, fearing malaria, only paid short visits to the palm groves to retrieve part of the harvest.

10Chapter four looks more closely at malaria as a factor in agricultural slavery on the Arabian Peninsula. The region has long been home to a variety of mosquitoes carrying malaria, especially the fertile lowlands where most agriculture is practiced. References suggestive of malaria on the Arabian Peninsula reach back to the 1st century CE. Today, thalassemia, a blood disease thought to provide a form of malaria protection, is widespread in the region. But two other genetic traits that can protect their carriers from malaria are inexistent on the peninsula: haemoglobin S and Duffy negativity. Interestingly, all servile agriculturalists mentioned in Reilly’s sources were identified as of Sudanese or West African origins — regions where Duffy negativity is between 80 and 100 percent. Slaves of Ethiopian origin, who were also common on the Arabian Peninsula, were never mentioned as working in agriculture. They were not only more expensive, but probably possessed lower levels of Duffy negativity. Hence, Reilly concludes,

“Arab popular knowledge about the disease resistance of different African populations may have influenced decisions about the employment of slaves in agriculture in the Arabian Peninsula.” (p. 117).

11The author also discovers that those settlements of the Ḥijāz and Najd where his sources mention African labourers possessed particularly shallow wells - which he considers to be an indicator for high malaria probability. He takes this as further evidence of a link between malaria and African servile agriculturalists in the area.

12Chapter five explores the longue durée of agricultural slavery on the Arabian Peninsula. Reilly deplores at length the dearth of local sources and their uselessness for slavery research, although documents such as medieval Yemeni chronicles and administrative texts do offer dispersed but rich evidence on the institution of slavery at the time. Granted, references to agricultural slavery specifically are rare. But subtle hints can be found, for example, in Ibn al-Mujāwir’s 13th-century Tārīkh al-Mustabṣir. Having missed the opportunity to explore such evidence, the author turns to alternative data sets. First, he reviews existing estimates on the volume of the historical slave trade out of Eastern Africa and concludes that they

“probably conceal dramatic and important short-term variations caused by war, drought, or increases in demand” (p. 130).

13Agricultural colonies were presumably only established in times of easy availability of slaves, rather than continuously throughout history. Drawing next upon ethnographic evidence, Reilly speculates that gradually,

“African slave colonies sustained by imports would have transformed themselves into subordinate but autonomous farming communities, sustained by local population growth as well as exogamous marriages with neighboring Arab groups, and distinguishable from other Arabian Peninsula farming towns only by the social stigma of African or servile ancestry.” (p. 143).

14To prove this hypothesis, Reilly discusses the Nakhāwila and the Banū Khaḍīr, two communities of African ancestry which he considers to be highly assimilated, and thus presumably very old, as well as several communities of supposedly more recent establishment. His conclusion is that these groups

“strongly, if indirectly, support the notion that the employment of African slaves in Arabian agricultural landscapes is of considerable pedigree.” (p. 138).

15As a final body of evidence, recent genetic studies shed light on the timeframe, extent and nature of African contributions to the gene pool of the Arabian Peninsula. Such contributions are confirmed from 500 BCE onwards, but cannot be easily linked to slavery. However, research also found that the African female contribution to the genetic pool of the Arabian Peninsula is on average triple that of the male contribution. This imbalance might be indicative of slavery. Due to the institutions of concubinage and polygamy, female African slaves were much more likely to pass on their DNA to offspring on the Arabian Peninsula than male slaves, who faced much stronger marriage restrictions and were frequently castrated. Only in Saudi Arabia do male African contributions to the gene pool seem to have been much larger than female ones. This finding emerges from a limited data sample, but seems to confirm Reilly’s central thesis that more male African slaves were “imported” to the Ḥijāz and Najd than to other areas,

“since both the Bedouins and Arab townsmen of these regions used Africans as proxy farmers in the highly malarial wadi landscapes and bustan gardens of Arabia.” (p. 142).

16Finally, Reilly traces the decline of African servile agriculture on the Arabian Peninsula, and describes its eradication - prematurely, as the phenomenon persists in today’s Yemen.

17The history of slavery in the Middle East remains under-researched in general, and its relevance for agriculture in particular is virtually unexplored. This book finally places African agricultural slaves at the heart of an academic study and convincingly argues that they were important contributors to subsistence on the Arabian Peninsula. Retracing the histories of low-status individuals often requires experimental research approaches, and Reilly has been particularly resourceful in drawing upon diverse disciplines and datasets. The result is a bold, stimulating study that will hopefully provoke further scholarly engagement with this important topic.

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Magdalena Moorthy Kloss, « Benjamin Reilly, Slavery, Agriculture and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 6 | 2016, mis en ligne le 06 septembre 2016, consulté le 21 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Magdalena Moorthy Kloss

Ph.D. researcher at the Austrian Academy of Science’s Institute for Social Anthropology

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