East African Trade and the origins of the name Azania
In the year 862 AD, Africans enslaved in Iraq, alongside other local people, rose up against the Abbasid Caliphate. The uprising began in the old city of Basra and has come to be remembered as the Zanj Rebellion. The word ‘zanj’ is an Arabic word which largely referred to the East African coast or to Black-skinned Africans, in general, around this period.
While South Africans are more familiar with the modern slave trades across the Atlantic to the Americas, Indian Ocean slavery, notably that which drew slaves from East Africa to Western Asia, is less known in popular discourse.
It may surprise some people that the Zanj Rebellion took place 900 years before the more commonly commemorated Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804). While the Zanj slaves and their allies of 862 AD did not manage to form a new republic as the Haitian revolutionaries did, the Zanj rebels did manage to establish a kind of ‘free territory’ for about 15 years in the old city of Basra.
Slavery was commonplace in the ancient world, including societies in Western Asia (the Middle East). Around 950, traveller Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, detailed how Zanj slaves were bought (in Sofala and Zanzibar), and sold mainly to Oman. As common as slavery was in the ancient world, so were slave rebellions as evinced by the Greek revolt led by Spartacus, the enslaved Roman gladiator in 72 BC. The young Islamic world had also experienced minor uprisings in the late 600s and 700s.
The demand for African slaves in bourgeoning trade centres like Iraq grew with the expansion of Islamic civilization. Hugh Kennedy writes in his paper The feeding of the five hundred thousand: cities and agriculture in early Islamic Mesopotamia “the first two centuries after the Islamic conquest saw the foundation of a number of new towns notably Basra, Kufa and, above all, Baghdad. These new towns were of enormous importance politically, economically and culturally”.
African slaves were brought in to do hard labour, to work the salt marshes of old Basra and enable agricultural production.
Kennedy goes on further to state that:
“The narrative sources make it clear that it was in the area of southern Mesopotamia that the Zanj were employed as labourers. Zanj is the term given to the black inhabitants of the west coast of Africa. It is not clear when they first began to appear in southern Iraq or on what terms they came, but it is likely that they were imported as slaves for the great works undertaken in the Umayyad period. It was clearly extremely unpleasant work and the slaves soon expressed their resentment.”
The rebellion was, however, not singularly of African slaves. It was led by a Muslim leader with a strong anti-slave philosophy.
Historian Ghada Hashem Talhami recounts in The Zanj rebellion reconsidered that:
“The revolt began in 869 AD, when a slave-descended Arab named Ali bin Muhammad was able to rally to his side black slaves employed in the extraction of salt and in land reclamation in Basrah’s marshlands… Ali bin Muhammad first went to Basrah, the scene of the. Zanj uprising, in 868 AD (254 A.H.). There he preached his cause in the main mosque until the caliph’s soldiers chased him away… he began to seek out black slaves working in the Basrah marshes and to inquire into their working conditions and nutritional standards. Once shown their economic and social deprivations under the troubled rule of the caliphs, the slaves quickly rallied behind Ali…”
The core group attracted other oppressed and aggrieved local people in the surrounds. The combined forces of the Zanj rebels overthrew Abbasid control of the town. The rebels set up their own government and even issued currency. The held power over old Basra for 15 years before being defeated by the Abbasid forces.
The origins of ‘Azania’/ ‘Zanj’ in antiquity
There remains a debate amongst historians about the exact size and nature of African participation in the Zanj Rebellion. Much of this debate centres around the emergence of the word ‘zanj’ and how it was applied in different contexts by writers in antiquity.
It seems clear that ‘Zanj’ is related to the word ‘Azania,’ which is found in the Greek texts of the Roman period. It is not necessarily clear which spelling came first.
The most important early written source that uses the word ‘Azania’ is the famous travelers guide of antiquity called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The Periplus, which was likely written by a Greek-Egyptian, describes Indian Ocean trade and region in the early Roman Era, around first century of the Common Era, that is 100 years after the death of Jesus Christ.
John Hilton, in Azania—some etymological considerations, writes that in the Periplus’, “Azania is the author’s term for the east coast of Africa , which was divided into a number of ‘runs’, or strips of desert…The author tells us that the Arabs knew the language of the inhabitants and had intermarried with them…”
The Greek-Egyptian writer of the Periplus describes the islands and trading societies that he visited and observed on the East African coast in the following way:
“Two days sail beyond, there lies the very last market-town of the continent of Azania, which is called Raphta, which has its name from the sewed boats; in which there is ivory in very great quantity and tortoise shell.”
Scholars agree that the town of Raphta was likely somewhere along today’s Tanzania. By the 700s, Islamic writers were using the term ‘Zanj’ to refer to slaves of African origin and the East African coast. In the 1300s, the Moroccan writer and traveler Ibn Battuta also used the term in describing his visits to the town of Kilwa, in today’s Tanzania:
“We stayed one night in this island [Mombasa], and then pursued our journey to Kilwa, which is a large town on the coast. The majority of its inhabitants are Zanj, jet-black in colour, and with tattoo marks on their faces. Kilwa is a very fine and substantially built town, and all its buildings are of wood. Its inhabitants are constantly engaged in military expeditions, for their country is contiguous to the heathen Zanj.”
The PAC vs ANC ‘Azania’ matter
The name would be taken up politically in the mid-1960s by the Pan Africanist Congress as a Pan-African name for South Africa, according to Hilton’s Peoples of Azania. Later the Azania People’s Organisation and the Azanian Students Organisation would fully adopt the name and popularize it in the rise of militant Black Consciousness politics of the 1970s.
The African National Congress would not fully embrace the name because of its historical association with the Zanj slavery Coast. In the ANC journal Sechaba in 1977, an (unnamed) ANC writer argued in an article ‘The real meaning of Azania: A time to end the myth’, that:
“It would not only be politically misleading and dangerous, but historically quite wrong to think of renaming South Africa, or any part of Southern Africa, as ‘Azania’, Whatever name is to be chosen for a free South Africa when the time comes, it is for the people themselves to choose, and not for any small group to foist synthetic labels. On to the struggle, the cause or the goal. If there is ever to be a new name for our country – or for any part of southern Africa – it should certainly not be Azania, because a) it is riddled with connotations of cultural aggression towards blacks, going back to ancient times, and of imperialism, colonialism and slavery, and b) it was the name used for a different part of Africa altogether.”
The ANC writer argued that the Arabic word ‘zanj’ evoked contempt for Africans:
“the Persian root word from which ‘Azania’ is derived. It means ‘black’ – and was used by the Persians to distinguish themselves from those they colonised. When they talked of ‘Zanji’ they meant slaves from Africa. The word, in all its forms, has connoted racial contempt for over a thousand years, and is an unsuitable name for any part of Africa.”
For the PAC, the adoption of ‘Azania’ was clearly a political strategy not fidelity to historical geography. Ironically, as part of their search they had also consulted a British novelist who had used the name ‘Azania’ satirically. The PAC was also apparently encouraged by Kwame Nkrumah to adopt the name Azania, unsurprising as modern Ghana was named after ancient Ghana which did not occupy the same geography.
While the PAC may not have provided an adequate justification for its use of ‘Zanj,’ given the context of African slavery, it is interesting that the unnamed Sechaba writer did not touch on the connection between the Swahili-Zanj coast with southern Africa. Indian Ocean traders traded for gold and ivory with the southern African civilisations such as Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe for several centuries.
The Zanj Rebellion as Double Movement
The Zanj Rebellion was at its core a rebellion against the institution of slavery and the brute commodification of people in the world of antiquity. It can be understood through Karl Polanyi’s notion of ‘double movement’ in his work The Great Transformation where the tendency to commodify life and render it subordinate to the dictates of markets, is met with resistance that puts the protection of life back at the centre of society. The Zanj rebellion fits tidily with this idea of a double movement, as it marked a formidable resistance to slavery. Perhaps because of the ‘Zanj Rebellion’ being named such in memory of rebellious Black slaves, the name ‘Zanj’, is self-redeeming.