GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Diasporic Routes: African Passages to the Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper traces the origins of the African diaspora in the Gulf by exploring the primary routes of African passages to the Gulf since the turn of the nineteenth century. The paper extends arguments I advance in my forthcoming book, _Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire_ (to be published later this year by Yale University Press), which examines the economic and cultural legacy of the African Diaspora in the Gulf. In this paper, I identify four major routes to Arabia from Africa through which Africans came to be a part of the Gulf’s African diaspora. These captive passages followed an east African route centered on Zanzibar and environs, a southeast African route centered on the Mozambique Channel, a northeast African route across the Red Sea, and a less well known route from West Africa by way of Mecca and the Hejaz. Using diverse documentary sources from Zanzibar, the UK, and the Gulf, including manumission testimonies, admiralty files, Arabic documents seized aboard slaving vessels, missionary records, and colonial documents, I argue that these four paths to the Gulf from Africa across the Western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, made up the primary (overlapping, yet distinct) routes to diaspora in the Gulf.

Drawing on the pioneering work of scholars of the African diaspora in the Indian Ocean, including Joseph Harris, Edward Alpers, Gwyn Campbell, and Pier Larson, I trace the routes of the African diaspora in the Gulf to four regions in Africa, using the narratives of enslaved Africans themselves to illustrate the paths of their journeys from Africa to the Gulf. The paper begins by addressing the major factors which contributed to demand for African labor in the Gulf, including global consumption of Gulf commodities such as pearls and dates, which were dependent on slave labor. I argue that global demand for Gulf commodities helped to transform labor relations in the Gulf just as it amplified demand for African labor from the early nineteenth century, when local and regional markets expanded to reach new global consumers, until the 1920s, when new sources of production—of pearls in Japan and dates in California—undercut Gulf producers and depressed export markets, eliminating demand for African labor.

The paper goes on to explain how supply of captives in Africa evolved to meet demand in the Gulf from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. I contribute to arguments advanced by Richard Allen, Abdul Sheriff, and Thomas Vernet that slave trading networks initially forged by European and African traders in the eighteenth century came, only later, to supply growing demand in the Gulf. Networks developed across the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to supply captives for labor markets in Gulf, which increasingly sought young, male labor for pearling in the northern Gulf and irrigating expanding date gardens in the southern Gulf. By the mid-nineteenth century, Sur and Batinah in Oman became the largest centers for importation and the primary suppliers of captives for the entire Gulf, and the ratio of male to female captives reversed historic trends to emphasize young men, as evidenced by records of captures by the Royal Navy. Patterns of supply were influenced by diverse factors such as displacement, drought, and famine resulting from climatic events, colonialism, and state-building in Africa, among other influences. Traders in African captives developed networks and sophisticated methods to evade European antislavery efforts. I contribute to arguments by Richard Huzzey, Suzanne Miers, and Fredrick Cooper that British antislavery in the Indian Ocean frequently supported Victorian territorial expansion, favored the transition to other forms of coerced labor, and helped develop commercial interests, and translate them into national interests.

Each of the four primary routes from Africa to the Gulf contributed to the growth of a substantial African diaspora in the region, which grew substantially through the nineteenth century. By 1905, J. G. Lorimer estimated that Africans made up roughly 17% of the total population of coastal eastern Arabia between Hormuz and Kuwait. Africans reportedly accounted for 11% of Kuwait’s population, 22% of Qatar’s population, 11% of Bahrain’s population, 28% of the Trucial Coast’s population, and 25% of Muscat and Mutrah’s population. This diaspora contributed in vital ways to the development of the Gulf’s pre-oil economy just as it contributed to its vibrant culture through contributions to the region’s music and dance traditions such as Al-Laiwa. Yet the African diaspora in the Gulf is enigmatic—in the words of ethnomusicologist Maho Sebiane—in that its members seldom identify with their African heritage today. Drawing on the work of Michel-Rolf Trouillot, Pier Larson, Tanya Maria Golash-Boza and Jonathon Glassman, I identify socio-cultural factors militating against notions of African diaspora in the contemporary Gulf and argue that the paradoxes of African diasporic identity in Gulf stem more from Western, and particularly Atlantic, conceptualizations of identity than from the African diaspora in the Gulf itself. The four routes to diaspora in the Gulf illustrate the diverse experiences of Africans who came to constitute the region’s substantial and dynamic African diaspora.