from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1992
How Textbooks Obscure and Distort
the History of Slavery
In the year 869, a group of slaves rose in a great rebellion against
the Abbasid empire -- an empire whose territories now form Iraq,
Kuwait and parts of Iran, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
For fourteen years, the slaves fought their Abbasid masters in the
marshlands of what is now southern Iraq. And in the end, they were
crushed. Their leader's head was paraded through the streets of
Baghdad, and their uprising became nothing more than a bloody
footnote to the history of Islam.
Not even as a footnote, however, does the uprising appear in any of
six world-history texts that I have examined during an inquiry into
the treatment of slavery in schoolbooks:
Merrill's The Human Experience 1990
McDougal, Littell's Links Across Time and Place 1990
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's World History: People and Nations 1990
Prentice Hall's World History: Patterns of Civilization 1991
Heath's World History: Perspectives on the Past 1992
Scott, Foresman's History and Life 1993
Viewed in one way, this omission may not seem grave, for the
rebellion in 869 had no lasting impact on the development of Islam
or on the overall course of history. Viewed in another way, though,
the omission illustrates a serious failing of all the books in
question, because the slaves who staged that rebellion were blacks.
They had been imported from East Africa to drain marshes and to toil
under conditions as bad as any that would exist, much later, in
Brazil or in Mississippi or on the Caribbean islands.
If the books that I have surveyed are representative, students in
our high schools are reading little, if anything, about the slave
trade that delivered millions of blacks to Islamic societies in the
Middle East. Yet this commerce, established centuries before
Europeans arrived on the scene in the mid-1400s, affected the
history of the Middle East and Africa alike. Moreover, it was part
of a bigger system whose later ramifications would include the
great Atlantic slave trade -- the trade that eventually would convey
more than 10 million blacks to the New World. Students cannot hope
to understand the Atlantic trade unless they know about the African
trade from which it arose.
This isn't to say that the books entirely ignore the slavery that
existed in Africa before the Europeans' coming. The books usually
do mention it, but the descriptions are fleeting at best, always
distorted, and often apologetic. The textbook-writers do not
project the idea of slavery as a moral outrage. They rouse our
sense of outrage only when, later, they describe the Atlantic trade
and the Europeans who controlled it.
The slave trade that supplied the Middle East had two major
components: the East African and the Trans-Saharan.
The East African trade handled slaves from the eastern and southern
parts of the continent. Most of the slaves were natives of a region
that now includes such states as Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda,
Malawi and Mozambique; they were moved to ports on the Indian Ocean
or the Red Sea, then were shipped to Islamic lands lying to the east
and the north. In his book Transformations in Slavery, the
historian Paul E. Lovejoy estimates that 2.4 million slaves were
traded along the East African and Red Sea coasts during the years
800 to 1600 [see note 1, below].
Most were ultimately sold to customers in the
Middle East and North Africa, who used them as soldiers, concubines,
administrators and laborers.
The Trans-Saharan trade handled slaves captured throughout western
Africa. These were assembled at various points on the southern edge
of the Sahara (in a region that now includes Chad, Niger, Mali and
Senegal) and then were taken northward, across the desert. They
eventually were distributed to buyers throughout North Africa and
the Middle East.
How is this commerce being presented in schoolbooks? Consider the
East African component first:
The schoolbooks I have examined say nothing substantive about the
East African trade, and some of them say nothing whatsoever. For
example, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's World History: People and
Nations merely mentions slaves in a brief listing of trade goods:
Sailors explored the seas and developed trade routes linking all
shores of the Indian Ocean. Africans exported gold, slaves, ivory,
hides, and tortoise shells and imported porcelain and weapons.
Merrill's The Human Experience describes Arab and Persian domination
of trade in ports on the Indian Ocean, but it does not mention
slaves at all. Neither does Prentice Hall's World History: Patterns
of Civilization. Neither does D.C. Heath's World History:
Perspectives on the Past. The Heath book, in describing the
commerce that flowed through East African city-states, says only
this (on page 319):
For centuries, the Arabs acted as middlemen in the Indian Ocean.
They brought Asian luxuries to Africa and African luxuries to Asia.
In the busy markets of Kilwa, Mombasa, and Malindi, Arab sea
captains displayed porcelain bowls and vases from China and jewels
and cotton cloth from India. In return, they obtained African
ivory, gold, tortoise shells, and rhinoceros horns. The 50-pound
elephant tusks were carved into Indian chess pieces and the hilts
for swords and daggers. Tortoise shells were made into decorative
Scott, Foresman's History and Life is another book that fails to
mention slaves among the products that moved in the East African
trade after the year 700, though Scott, Foresman's writers (like
Heath's) are diligent in telling about elephant tusks.
lt seems strange for a book to extol the importance of ivory while
making no mention of the slaves who transported the ivory from
Africa's interior to the coast -- slaves who sometimes were sold at
the coast, by their African or Arab owners, along with the ivory
that they had carried. It seems all the stranger because these
history books regularly tell how commodities were transported across
the Sahara: by caravans of camels. In the East African trade,
however, the presence of the tsetse fly precluded the use of hoofed
animals for transportation, because the fly transmitted pathogens
that were lethal to such beasts. Traders therefore used salable
slaves to transport ivory and other goods, and this arrangement
helped to make the trading system profitable.
While the East African slave trade is hardly acknowledged in these
world-history books, the Trans-Saharan trade, along with the
prevalence of slavery in West Africa, receives somewhat more
attention. The books typically focus on the kingdoms of Ghana,
Mali and Songhai (which flourished in the years from about 500 to
1600), and they typically mention slaves as trade goods. Yet none
of the books makes clear how important slavery was to the West
African kingdoms' growth and power. Even McDougal, Littell's Links
Across Time and Place fails in this respect, though McDougal,
Littell's writers later will offer an unusually good treatment of
the slave trade between West Africa and the Americas.
The two most important commodities in the commerce that crossed the
Sahara were gold and salt. These should get special attention; and
in the books that I have sampled, they do. But why do all the books
fail to tell that both commodities were produced by slaves, and that
slaves made up the armies that held the West African kingdoms
The books also fail to give any sense of the importance of slaves as
goods in West African commerce. Lovejoy estimates that 5 million
West African slaves were sent across the Sahara during the thousand
years that ended in 1600. After 1600, the trade expanded. It
lasted well into the 20th century, and it may still exist. Does
this not argue for giving some serious attention to it in our
Apparently not. Instead, we find a heavy emphasis on the wealth and
accomplishments of the African kingdoms, perhaps with sidebars that
tell about jewelry or offer inflated estimates of the sizes of
African armies. If slaves appear at all, they appear in connection
with the elaborate pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, a king of ancient Mali,
who journeyed through Cairo to Mecca in the early 1300s. And the
textbook-writers' aim is surely not to tell about slavery but to
underscore Mali's power and wealth. See, for example, pages 314 and
315 of Heath's World History:
Five hundred slaves, each carrying a six-pound staff of gold,
arrived first [at Cairo]. They were followed by 100 camels, each of
which carried a 300-pound load of gold dust. . . .
The people of Cairo learned that Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim who
was making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. His visit to
Cairo created a sensation. One Egyptian later wrote that Mansa Musa
gave away so much gold that the value of this precious metal
declined for 12 years.
A shorter account appears in HBJ's World History, with each of the
500 slaves carrying gold in the form of a four-pound bar, rather
than a six-pound staff.
The depiction of West African kingdoms sometimes decays into giddy
boosterism. On page 334 of Scott, Foresman's History and Life, for
example: "Benin is one of the best examples of a strong, just, and
materially advanced African culture that developed in the absence
of European or Middle Eastern influence." The writers do not
explain what they mean by "just" or why they assign that description
to a kingdom whose economy depended heavily on slave raiding and the
The textbooks that I have surveyed provide no significant treatment
of African or Middle Eastern slavery until they are ready to
introduce American slavery and the slave trade that spanned the
Atlantic. When that moment comes, the books almost invariably make
a point of depicting African or Middle Eastern slavery as benign,
comparing it favorably with the slavery that evolved in the New
World. We see this even in McDougal, Littell's Links Across Time
and Place. That book correctly tells that Africans were partners
with Europeans in operating the Atlantic trade, and that Africans,
not Europeans, captured and enslaved most of the people who
eventually were shipped to the Americas. Yet the book also says, on
In most African societies, slaves had some legal rights and often
were integrated into the families of their masters. Slaves in
Africa were permitted to marry nonslaves, and the children of slaves
often were freed. In contrast to North America, the practice of
herding big gangs of slaves to work on plantations and isolating
them from the free population was unusual.
Such impressions are common [note 2].
They also are dubious, and many
scholars have challenged them. Roland Oliver, for example, in his
recent book The African Experience [note 3], gives this assessment for
Africa as a whole:
Evidence from one end of the continent to the other agrees that the
captured or bought slave, male or female, juvenile or adult, was a
person entirely without rights, who could be put to any kind of
work, punished at will, killed as a sacrificial victim or sold as a
chattel either inside or outside the community.
For a rather egregious example of how textbooks mislead students,
look at page 566 of Prentice Hall's World History:
Slavery had existed in Africa since ancient times, as it had in many
other parts of the world. In Africa, slaves were often people
captured in war. Others were people who sold themselves into
slavery for food and shelter during drought or famine. Sometimes a
society took slaves in order to increase its population. In time,
many slaves were absorbed into their new societies.
The transatlantic slave trade was very different front African
slavery. Africans were forced to leave their own societies and were
shipped thousands of miles across the Atlantic. In the Americas,
they faced a completely unfamiliar culture. . . .
The distinction implied here is false. The writers clearly want to
promote a romantic, happy-family picture of African slavery,
portraying it as fundamentally different from slavery in the New
World. Unquestionably, the transatlantic trade differed from the
African trade in many ways, but the essential scheme was the same in
both cases: People were captured and then were taken far away from
their own societies -- so far that the idea of escape became
meaningless. Only when escape was unimaginable could the captives
be freed from their chains; only then could they be resocialized,
taking up their subservient roles in a new land. This was true for
slaves inside Black Africa, for slaves who were marched across the
Sahara, and for slaves who were shipped across the Red Sea or the
A number of schoolbooks suggest that slaves in Africa and the Middle
East were regularly able to win their freedom. Two things can be
said about such claims. With respect to most African societies, the
claims are false. And when societies did show high rates of
manumission, the moral implications of such rates were exactly
opposite from what the schoolbooks convey.
In any ongoing system of slavery, a high manumission rate
necessarily created a high demand for replacements. In other words,
for every slave who was set free, a free man or woman had to be
enslaved. The moral significance of this is clear if we recall that
the taking of new slaves often involved the slaughter of innocents,
and the new slaves themselves usually suffered substantial mortality
while they were being transported to market. All in all, a society
in which manumission was rare would have caused less agony and
death, in the distant populations from which its slaves were drawn,
than a society in which the manumission rate was high.
What About Racism?
Another misrepresentation seen in some textbooks is the claim that
racism was not a factor in the slave systems of Africa or the Middle
East. Scott, Foresman's History and Life, on page 252, says that
"there was little racism in the Muslim world." Then, on page 334,
it offers a grand non-sequitur:
Some international trade in slaves also existed in the Muslim
cities. However, this slave trade was not based on race since both
light- and dark-skinned people were sold in slave markets [note 4].
Even without the non-sequitur, Scott, Foresman's assertions would
certainly seem odd to anyone who had looked through Bernard Lewis's
Race and Slavery in the Middle East, with its dozens of quotations
from Middle Eastern writers [note 5]. Here is Lewis's rendering of a
pronouncement by the l4th-century historian Ibn Khaldun: "Therefore,
the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery because
[Negroes] have little [that is essentially human] and have
attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals."
With the partial exception of McDougal, Littell's book, the
world-history texts that I have surveyed fail to provide legitimate
accounts of African slavery or of the slave trade within Africa.
Further, all the books state or imply a stark contrast between
African or Middle Eastern slavery and the slavery that Europeans
fostered in the Americas. Though some real distinctions can be
made, the distinctions suggested by these books aren't valid. Such
distortion -- combined with mawkish writing about the splendors of
African kingdoms -- merely replaces old myths of African barbarism
with new myths of African innocence and glory. And in the process,
history is sacrificed.
- Paul E. Lovejoy. 1983. Transformations in Slavery: A History of
Slavery in Africa. Cambridge University Press (London). 347 pages. [return to text]
- The notion that New World slavery had few (if any) Old World
precedents is not confined to high-school books. It appears, for
example, in ". . . to form a more perfect union . . .", a
middle-school American-history text sold by Walsworth Publishing
Company. In the teacher's edition, a note advises the teacher to
"Emphasize that the institution of slavery in America was sharply
different from slavery elsewhere." [return to text]
- Roland Oliver. 1991. The African Experience. HarperCollins
Publishers (New York). 284 pages. [return to text]
- The idea that racial distinctions made New World slavery unique
is another notion that shows up in middle-school books as well as
high-school books. Walsworth's ". . . to form a more perfect
union. . ." insists that racism made American slavery singularly
"cruel" (page 121). [return to text]
- Bernard Lewis. 1990. Race and Slavery in the Middle East, an
Historical Enquiry. Oxford University Press (New York). 184 pages. [return to text]
Jonathan Burack is editor-in-chief of Knowledge Unlimited Inc.
(Madison, Wisconsin), a company that specializes in instructional
materials for the social studies.