The Road to Rebellion- Zanj Rebellion

To start off, I wish all a happy and prosperous new year to those who read and take an interest in our blog. My first post of 2018 will look at the enslaved Zanj peoples of East Africa and reasons as to how rebellion ensued from 869 to 883 AD. for this January’s African History month.

 

An African History in Mesopotamia

The term Zanj is a name of Arab origin which is loosely translated to “Land and Black” and was coined by Muslim geographers in the Medieval period. The area was in and around the region of the East African coast, now modern-day Kenya and Tanzania and settled by Black Africans of Bantu heritage. Trade was prominent in this region with the Arab world that involved lucrative goods such as ivory and gold.

The slave trade of the Zanj peoples also dominated. They were shipped and important to work on the marshlands in the surrounding area to Basra in Mesopotamia, now Iraq and sold to Wealthy Arabs to cultivate the land, primarily for sugarcane. Basra was an important port city in the region, so it was accessible to transport the produce from the land and to import slaves. These marshlands were left for some time due to flooding, wealthy Arabs saw an opportunity to implement a plantation based economy by converting the disused land for arable farming, using intensive labour. This was why the Zanj peoples were considered and that the East African coast was near the Arab world. Some Zanj peoples worked in Salt flats close to Basra. It was not just in the region of Basra that Zanj peoples were imported for slavery, some were shipped to other Arab speaking regions that bordered the Indian Ocean.

 

The struggle of the Zanj peoples

The lives of the Zanj peoples were harsh and miserable with many accounts indicating punitive treatment from their masters. The living and working conditions is a major factor that contributed to the Zanj rebellion, but it was not necessarily the only standing factor.

 

Anarchy of Samarra (861-870 AD.)

The ruling Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate was heavily marred and weakened by internal discord relating to the Caliphate’s succession and struggle inevitably ensued. This period was known as the Anarchy of Samarra, seeing as court was held at Samarra at this time. The succession of the Caliph’s was violent seeing as they were killed, disposed, exiled or overthrown. This anarchy allowed rebels to implement their own policies of governance that replaced the existing system. This greatly affected taxation from provinces, the central government would otherwise have had and in turn created a loss. With less revenue from taxation it meant there was less money to pay for resources should external or internal conflict ensue. This, in a way swayed attention from the Zanj slave trade as it meant there was no ruling stability in the Caliphate and it greatly affected the prestige of the central government. As a result, it perhaps allowed a chance for rebellion.

 

The role of Ali Ibn Muhammed   

So how did Ali Ibn Muhammed attract support from the Zanj peoples in Mesopotamia? As explored previously, the Zanj peoples clearly lived and worked in terrible conditions and that at the time of the Anarchy of Samarra it weakened the ruling system and as such it appears as if the last factor discussed in the form of Ali Ibn Muhammed ties together the previous two factors contributing to the rebellion.

Ali Ibn Muhammed did benefit from hearing the news concerning warring factions, particularly in Basra. Ali Ibn Muhammed eventually seized the opportunity to gain Zanj support in return for their liberation because of this, although initially he struggled to gain support. Some accounts note him as enquiring about their living and working conditions cultivating the land. To some Zanj, this appeared to be the opportunity for freedom, a life free from slavery. He managed to recruit a sizeable amount of Zanj slaves who were willing to rebel for the cause, along side other ethnic groups unhappy with the regime.

A Man to Remember: Henri Pirenne

Many innocents died during WWI which finished in a day like this, in 1918. Today we are trying to pay our respect not only to those but to all that have fallen throughout wars and combats since then. But, as Historians, we respectfully would like to do this talking about a man who did not die in the war, otherwise he lives through it as a non-violent resistant and keep on working and spreading his knowledge even as a prisoner of war. The man was called Henri Pirenne.
Pirenne was born in Belgium, the little country used by the German army as a shortcut to France. He was a medievalist and his son was killed in action in the first days of the invasion, during the battle of Yser. He was a teacher also, at the University of Ghent, and an active member of the Belgian non-violent Resistence. As a form of resistance to the invaders, teachers at the University went on strike, which subsequently lead to German actions to restore teaching as a showing of normality. Being one of those refusing to abide, Pirenne was deported and sent to a camp. Allegedly, when questioned under arrest he kept on speaking French even though it was well-known that he was a fluent German speaker, the reason being, in his own words, that he had forgotten German on the day the German Army crossed the Belgian frontier.
After a first internment in Crefeld, he was transferred to Holzminden and finally in Jena, where he was kept till the end of the war. In Holzminden, the 8000 prisoners tried to keep some sense of normal life with shops and schools. There, Pirenne started a course on European History amidst the scarcities and brutality of a prisoners of war internment camp. Being not allowed to keep his books, he has to do it from memory. With the notes of those lessons and, again, his memory, and the time devoted to think he composed in Jena his “A history of Europe”, a masterly work focused on social, political and even mercantile trends rather than the usual chronological, matter of fact work typical of the age. Given the conditions Pirenne had to suffer during his work, this is the more remarkable, specially when its objectivity is taken into consideration and the fresh and original approach is put on full view.
But for us, the most important thing in this story is that, while Europe was trying to commit suicide, this man, without other weapon than his knowledge, was trying to explain her, and, by the way was trying to alleviate the suffering of his interment companions through learning and debate.
Learning, knowledge, debate…unusual sons of war. So maybe today we could spend some time remembering Henri Pirenne and his effort, in the middle of a raging war, to explain the Europeans who they were and where they came from, thus making them more aware of what they have in common and why the war could not be the solution.

Along Came March

Along came March, then.

There is something special with this month; it could be something related to the fact that the long winter is ending, at well last, and new life is finally awaken. There is even something compelling in the very name, a somewhat martial quality: March! It talks about movement, about development, not necessarily about careful planning though, but there’s a force arising in that name. March.

Then you have the origin of the name, back to the Romans and their gods. There was this god of war, Mars, to whom the first month of spring, hence the first in the campaigning season, was consecrated.

Well. Up till now we have a god of war, the surging of a new life, something on the move; but, what’s all this to do with History? Let’s go back again to the Romans. There was a ruler there, once. Popular. A military genius. Probably loved by his peace hungry people. He was having second thoughts on the idea of becoming a sort of king; some of his closest associates were having their own thoughts about not having a king whatsoever. The Ides of March, 44 B.C, precisely the commemoration of the god Mars was the chosen date for the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the beginning of a chain of events wich, in turn, lead to the advent of the Empire.

March had its comings and its goings through History.; Augustus became Pontifex Maximus; The Royal Canadian Mounted Police was formed; Germany occupied Austria; The Babylonians captured Jerusalem; yet another eruption of Mount Etna in 1699 killed over 20000 people. Business as usual for Mother Nature…That is a relevant point, a path. March is a bloody month. It’s not only that little incident with Caesar, Let’s see…

In the first day of March, 1244, the so-called crusaders finally took the Albigensian fortress of Montsegur. It was not as if it had been a clean war with all that fuss about God recognising Thy people amidst the corpses, but the final episode was surely amongst the more bitter moments of a war fought not only nor mainly for religious reasons, as we will see.

There must be something in the air, something in the promise of a new hope that makes March so apt for revolutions. Or maybe it’s just the desperation piling up during the long dark hours of winter, waiting the flimsiest opportunity to explode. What was it in Boston 1770? Hunger for freedom? Or just was it a braggart gone too far? Whatever happened, blood lead the way to a new world era. And the romantic streets of Paris, so often plenty of barricades astride XVIII and XIX centuries, were really in need of yet another bloodbath during the events known as La Comune? Was it the best of times for the people to try to grab the power just when their country was under control of Prussia and a cruel war was recently lost? Would ever be enough blood shed to quench Mars eternal thirst?

Or it’s just that the new sprouts need all that blood to grow strong and create the spring of History? Keep on reading, and you may get to know.