Slavery on the 19th-century Swahili coast had its ride on East Africans when other areas were beginning to purge themselves of slavery. As the slave trade waned in West Africa in the 19th century, it was peaking on the East African coast. By this time Brazil had become one of the main markets for the trans-Atlantic trade. Restrictions on the slave trade drove up prices in West Africa, and starting in the 1820s it became more economical for Brazilian slavers to venture around southern Africa to Mozambique. There they found a well-established slave trading system supplying local Portuguese needs as well as those of French sugar planters on various Indian Ocean islands. Afro-Portuguese settlers, known as prazeros, in the Zambezi River valley used private slave armies to hunt and raid for ivory and slaves to sell on the coast. North of the Zambezi, the Yao people played a similar role as professional raiders and traders between southern Malawi and northern Mozambique.
Meanwhile, under the rule of Sayyid Sa‘īd ibn Sultan, the sultanate of Oman was rising in power along the northern half of the Swahili coast. Starting in the 1820s the sultan encouraged Omani Arabs to set up clove plantations on the large offshore islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Worked by slave labor from the mainland, these plantations became so successful that in 1840 Sayyid Sa‘īd moved his primary residence to Zanzibar itself. The growth of Omani plantations prompted a huge increase in the demand for slave labor. By the 1850s Zanzibar’s slave market had become the largest of its kind in Africa. Apart from local needs on the clove plantations, by the 1860s Zanzibar was exporting 60,000 slaves a year, mostly to Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The increasing demand for slaves stimulated expeditions by Swahili-Arab and Nyamwezi slaving caravans into the African interior, to the Great Lakes region and beyond.
Following the 1873 death of Scottish missionary-explorer David Livingstone, who had done much to bring the horrors of the African slave trade to the attention of Europeans, the British forced the closure of Zanzibar’s slave market. By then, however, Britain’s demand for East African ivory had reached such heights that slave labor continued to be used to transport it to the market in Zanzibar. In the last decades of the 19th century, Britain was to make the suppression of the inland slave trade its moral justification for the colonization of much of the region. So while slavery on the 19th-century Swahili coast were to be abolished, a new kind of slavery called colonization would be introduced to combat the former.
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