Benjamin Reilly. Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015. 222 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8214-2182-6.
Reviewed by John R. McNeill
Published on H-Slavery (September, 2016)
Commissioned by David M. Prior
McNeill on Reilly, Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula
The conventional picture that historians have painted of African slavery in southwest Asia emphasizes both military and domestic slavery, the latter including textile work and concubinage. It typically stresses the preponderantly female slave population in Arab lands. Benjamin Reilly does not dispute this traditional understanding but in this clearly written book provides an important exception. His study concerns African slaves in the Arabian Peninsula who were overwhelmingly male and who worked in agriculture. The book is built around an intriguing argument but will, I expect, fail to garner the attention it merits.
The reason it is likely to cast a smaller shadow than it ought lies in the sources Reilly has used. He relies upon English-language sources and, on certain issues, upon genetic evidence. His most useful source is the British military gazetteer of Arabia, published in 1917. He also employs dozens of travelers’ accounts, mostly British but some French. He says there is very little relevant documentation in Arabic, and that may well be true. But historians of the Arab world are still likely to have reservations. Buttressing his written sources with DNA evidence will not likely ease their concerns. As someone who has written (although not much) about corners of the Arab world without using Arabic-language sources, I am not one to cast aspersions on Reilly’s research. I am prepared to accept as truth the proposition that his argument would be exactly the same if he did have Arabic-language sources. But colleagues with proper command of Arabic can be particular on this issue.
Reilly’s argument concerns oasis and wadi agriculture around the edges of the Arabian Peninsula in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (A wadi is a seasonal or intermittent watercourse). Most of these hosted date palm plantations and, in the shade the palms cast, various fruit, vegetable, and grain crops. All cultivation here required irrigation except in the mountains of Yemen. Reilly’s first chapter details the crops, technologies, and procedures of agriculture in the Arabian Peninsula, highlighting its poverty and constraints in comparison with neighboring Arab lands such as Egypt and Iraq where big rivers relieved the constraints of aridity.
Reilly’s second chapter takes up the social world of African slaves in the Arabian Peninsula. Many sources report that their lot was less bleak than that of plantation slaves in the Atlantic world, the standard comparison for nineteenth-century travelers to Arabia and for modern historians. But nonetheless there was dirty and dangerous work and slaves did it. Perhaps the most dangerous was digging and maintaining the irrigation tunnels known as qanats. African slaves tended to live apart from Arabs in their own communities, which Reilly calls “colonies,” after explaining that no term fully captures the situation. Most were, in effect, sharecroppers. He provides a geographical tour of the peninsula, explaining the locations of African agricultural colonies, which were especially common in the Hijaz and Najd. He estimates that at least 20 percent of slaves and ex-slaves (mawlas) in Arabia worked in agriculture.
Chapter 3 is a case study of the oasis of Khaybar, a date plantation in the Hijaz, visited by four different European travelers and described in some detail in their works. Reilly judges Khaybar as typical of African servile colonies in Arabia, although he notes its saline soils prevented much in the way of cultivation beyond date palms. Nor were qanats in use in Khaybar. But the social arrangements in Khaybar, by which Africans worked for urban-based Arabs and Bedouin, were characteristic of Arabia as a whole.
Malaria and its meanings are the focus of chapter 4. Here Reilly makes a convincing argument that the oases of Arabia hosted malaria routinely, and that the greater malaria resistance of African slaves than local Arabs affected the demography of the Arabian Peninsula. As he recognizes, this argument is parallel to one advanced by many authors working on the Caribbean, where malaria is often enlisted to explain planters’ preference for African slaves over any other labor force. Malaria is so dangerous and debilitating that even modest differences in resistance between two populations can loom large, demographically and economically. Reilly’s comparison here is illuminating, even if in the Caribbean malaria was only one of two or three lethal diseases to which most people of African birth and upbringing carried resistance.
Reilly says that “native-born” Arabs feared malaria and avoided the damp landscapes where anopheles mosquitoes could prosper. They associated such places with evil spirits. They were, in effect, like absentee planters in the Caribbean who exploited lands with rich agricultural potential from afar, via African slave labor, so as to protect themselves from a deadly disease environment. Reilly also finds evidence of military expeditions to Arabia, from the time of the caesars to the early twentieth century, in which the scourge scythed down foreign soldiers whose immune systems had not prepared them for malaria. To everyone’s misfortune, where there was water in Arabia there were mosquitoes, including species competent to transmit both vivax and falciparum malaria. Reilly’s pages on malaria, malaria resistance, and mosquitoes are (so far as I can tell) consistent with current scientific understandings.
Reilly offers evidence in support of the idea that Arab slavers specifically sought Africans from what is now Sudan for the Arabian agricultural slavery market. The slavers did not want Africans from the Ethiopian highlands, whose resistance to malaria was (on average) far weaker than those from Sudan or West Africa, for oasis work. “Abyssinians” (as Reilly’s sources call them) worked instead as military slaves or domestic labor. Ingeniously, Reilly tests his argument with a study (pp. 119-21) of the correlation between well depth and the presence of Africans in agriculture. Shallow wells suited anopheles mosquitoes and led to a greater intensity of malaria. Deep wells meant less malaria. The correlation between shallow wells and African labor was extremely high.
Reilly’s final chapter seeks to establish the longer history of agricultural slavery in Arabia. The sources are problematic, and the prior studies of the volume of slaves traded from Africa to Arabia, performed by scholars such as Paul Lovejoy, Ralph Austen, and Patrick Manning, necessarily involve heroic assumptions. Reilly supplements their work, based in scanty written sources, with genetic evidence recently gathered from populations in Arabia. They show mitochondrial DNA (transmitted only via females) of African origin probably entered Arabian populations as early as 500 BCE. In addition, the ratio of Y-chromosome genetic material, transmitted by males, to mitochondrial DNA is different in the Arabian Peninsula than it is elsewhere in southwest Asia. In particular, this piece of genetic evidence, which geneticists had trouble explaining, fits with Reilly’s interpretations of the history of slavery in Arabia. It suggests that the slave trade to the Arabian Peninsula involved more males than did slave trades to neighboring lands, and that it did so for a long time, not just in the last two centuries. Reilly ends this chapter with quick discussions of the end of slaving to Arabia and the end of malaria. A brief conclusion recaps his main arguments.
Environmental and epidemiological histories of the Middle East region remain rare, despite signal contributions in the last five years. Thus Reilly’s work is especially welcome. In my judgment, his arguments are both interesting and sound, whether or not he can bring Arabic-language sources to bear on his subject.
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John R. McNeill. Review of Reilly, Benjamin, Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula.
H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews.
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