The African slave trade to Iran in the 1800s, and the lives of household slaves of one specific merchant family from Shiraz, that of The Báb, as described in the narrative of Abu'l-Qasim Afnan.
Conference paper presented at the International Conference "Slavery, Islam and Diaspora," at the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, Department of History, York University, Toronto, October 24-26 2003.
As of 2012, the original conference information is still online: see abstracts and program. This paper is also abstracted in the annual bibliographical supplement of the journal Slavery & Abolition. [Research and contribution by Steve Cooney.]
Abstract [typed from yorku.ca/nhp/conferences/2003/york2003/abstract.asp?page=001]: Slavery in the Middle East can be, and often is, approached in terms of laws and diplomacy, statistics and economics, as the availability of sources most readily supports such discussion. What is less usual, and much harder, is to attempt to examine the lives of individual slaves: to give names, faces, and personalities to slavery. In addition, most discussion concentrates on African slavery in various provinces of the Ottoman Empire and does not address the slave trade from Africa to Iran and the participation of Iranian merchants in the trade.
This paper will provide a brief summary of the African slave trade to Iran in the 1800s and the uses of African slave labor in that country as a context for a more detailed discussion of the lives of the African household slaves of a merchant family originally from Shiraz, which developed a mercantile enterprise spreading from Egypt to China by the early 1900s.
This family possesses an extensive private archive dating back to the early 1900s and in the 1980s a family member drew on this and his own recollections to write a brief memoir of certain family slaves. [Black Pearls: Servants in the Households of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh, by Abu'l-Qasim Afnan; see editor's introduction to this book. -J.W.] Although the main thread running through the account is the presumed loyalty and devotion of these slaves to 'their' family, this unquestioned assumption in itself leads to the naive inclusion in the narrative of clues that allow us to go beyond it. Certainly, what we can recover of the life experience of these slaves is fragmentary and suggestive, but it is nonetheless valuable in trying to give some voice to them. In sum, using this memoir, and other material more contemporaneous to the events described in it, provides an unusually opportunity to examine the lives of domestic slaves in one merchant family.