The Arab Slave Trade in East Africa

Report on the Mombasa Victoria Lake Railway Survey

Chapter VIII – Slave Trade in Connection to the Projected Railway

by Captain J.W. Pringle R.E.

12th May 1893

A caravan of Swahili porters and Arab masters marches up country to trade for ivory. This is their ostensible purpose, but they always combine a certain amount of slave trading with this more legitimate object. The caravan fixes upon some spot as its head-quarters, makes a strong stockaded camp, and then smaller parties of men are sent out in various directions to trade for ivory. The head-quarter camp awaits the return of these parties and purchases food for the return journey, or employs the time in hunting elephant. Here and there a few slaves, chiefly women and children, are bought by the various parties, and children are also kidnapped. On the return of these parties to their head-quarters, the caravan moves on, and the same procedure is followed. When the stock of trades goods is exhausted, the return journey to the coast is commenced. So long as the caravan marches through unfrequented country, no attempt at concealment is made; but through districts where detection of their slaves is possible, the following system is adopted. The caravan splits into two parties; one with the bulk of the ivory and Swahili porters marches by the usual roads openly, and pays recognised customs dues at the Company’s posts.

They account for the diminution in their numbers by epidemics of small-pox, by the recurrence of famine or war, and will related most circumstantially how such and such men were cut up in the Suk or Nandi country. Meanwhile the other portion of the caravan, the remunerative portion, marches by unfrequented roads to the coast, making detours wherever the proximity of a caravan with a European leader necessitates such a move. On arrival at the coast, the same system of deceit is carried out; one portion of the caravan marching into Mombasa with the bulk of the ivory, and the same story of their losses. The second portion further subdivides into smaller parties which march to various Arab shambas. The ivory and slaves they get rid of piecemeal as opportunity offers, the former being sold to Indian traders, the latter to Arabs or Swahilis. The slaves are employed in the shambas by their masters, who thus obtain cheap labour. The women generally become wives or concubines of their owners, and their children growing up consider themselves Swahilis. So far as is known these women and child slaves are treated well, as there is no reason for the employment of cruelty. This is a sketch of the programme as related by gentlemen of experience in the Company’s service, such as Messrs. Jackson and James Martin

East African Slave Routes, 19th Century

The number of slaves and slave caravans is variously estimated, some saying that the practice is very prevalent, others that it is not so. One of the oldest officials of the Imperial British East Africa Company has given it as his opinion that this form of slave trade is increasing, and shows no sign of diminution. So far, however, I think we are justified in assuming that no Swahili ivory caravan returns to the coast without some slaves. Several well known Arabs on the coast are reported to send an annual caravan more for slaves than for ivory.

The railway survey parties were joined by runaway Usoge slaves at Nzoi, and by Chaga (Kilimanjaro) and Masai boys at Machako’s, and by Wawavi women at Tsavo. All of these had deserted from Arab caravans who avoided the survey parties. In Sotik large parties of armed natives collected in commanding positions near villages on the approach of our caravan, and in reply to a question regarding their intentions, would say: “We are here to prevent your men from kidnapping our young men and women.” This would point to the general custom of Swahilis in the country, as European caravans but rarely travel by this road.

Caravans from the German sphere of influence starting from Pangani, Duseri, and other places are known to travel into the British sphere and take down slaves with them, the facilities for slave trading being undoubtedly greater by these routes than by the Company’s trade route. Unless such slaves are actually caught in the slave sticks which are now rarely employed, it is exceedingly difficult to prove anything. The women are said to be wives of some member of the caravan, and all are warned not to say anything to the “Mzungu” (European), who will do unheard of things. The slaves, mostly women and children, often carry light loads for their masters; but their value is not as carriers.

Freeing a Slave from his Shackle on HMS ‘Sphinx’ off the East Coast of Africa 1907

The slaves once purchased by Swahilis or Arabs, are as a rule well treated. Their lives are valuable, each represents so much in the way of trades goods paid down, and so much additional money value at the coast. Children that have been kidnapped have also a marketable value, and, so long as they do not attempt to run away, are also fairly well treated. But it must not be supposed that this form of slave trading is free from horror. Apart from the discomforts and hardships incidental to the long weary march, there is the fact that, through a foodless or waterless tract of country, it is the slaves who suffer the greatest privation, and not their masters. Again these slaves that are purchased though not separated or torn away from their homes and relatives by the Swahilis, have previously undergone that fate at the hands of their former masters.

An Arab Slave Merchant

They are, in fact, generally captives of war. They represent part of the spoil of a successful intertribal campaign. For some cause or other, generally with a view to obtaining cattle, sheep and goats, one tribe attacks a weaker neighbour, sets fire to the villages, carries away their flocks, spears the men, and carries off so many of the women and children as fail to make good their escape. The women may become the wives of their captors, in any case are employed as domestic slaves; but on the arrival of a Swahili caravan they will be sold for iron, or brass wire, or some article of barter. In fact so cheap are these slaves in certain districts, that west of Mt. Elgon women prisoners of war are sold for two large coloured beads apiece.

There are other cases where, on account of famine from failure of crops, or from loss of cattle by disease, natives have been known to sell their offspring for food, or for the wherewithal to buy food. The Masai were doing this in 1892, round Lake Naivasha, under pressure of the cattle disease. Sometimes children voluntarily run away from their homes and join a caravan for the sake of obtaining food, and subsequently are sold by the Arabs into slavery. Other tribes, such as the Wasoga, even without the excuse of famine, sell their relations.

Still, as a general rule, it may be accepted that the bulk of slaves purchased are captives of war.


Report on the Mombasa Victoria Lake Railway Survey, 12th May 1893 by Captain J.W. Pringle R.E., Chapter VIII – The Slave Trade in Connection to the Projected Railway (National Archives Reference: FO 83/1240)


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
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