Slavery in Libya

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Slavery in Libya[1][2][3][4] has a long history and a lasting impact on the Libyan culture. It is closely connected with the wider context of slavery in north Africa. Therefore, it is better understood when this wider scope is taken into account.



It is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves between the 16th and 19th century. Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, England, Ireland, Scotland as far north as Iceland exist from this period.[5] Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement. Such raids in the Mediterrean were so frequent and devastating that the coastline between Venice to Malaga[6] suffered widespread depopulation, and settlement there was discouraged. In fact, it was said that this was largely because 'there was no one left to capture any longer'.[7]

Black Africans

An Italian postcard from 1937 showing a slave girl in Cyrenaica

The Tuareg and others who are indigenous to Libya facilitated, taxed and partly organized the trade from the South along the trans-Saharan trade routes. In the 1830s - a period of time when slave trade flourished - Ghadames was handling 2,500 slaves a year.[8] Even though the slave trade was officially abolished in Tripoli in 1853, in practice it continued until the 1890s.[9]

The British Consul in Benghazi wrote in 1875 to the effect that the slave trade had reached an enormous scale and that the slaves who were sold in Alexandria and Istanbul quadruple in price. This trade he says was encouraged by the local Government.[9]

Adolf Vischer, writes in an article published in 1911 that:" has been said that slave traffic is still going on on the Benghazi-Wadai route, but it is difficult to test the truth of such an assertion as, in any case, the traffic is carried on secretly".[10] At Kufra, the Egyptian traveller Ahmed Hassanein Bey found out in 1916 that he could buy a girl slave for five pounds sterling while in 1923 he found that the price had become 30 to 40 pounds sterling.[11]

Another traveler, the Muslim Danish Knud Holmboe, who crossed the Italian Libyan desert in 1930 was told that slavery is still practiced in Kufra and that he could buy a slave girl for 30 Sterlings in the Thursday market.[11] According to James Richardson testimony, when he visited Ghadames, most slaves were from Bornu.[12]

Slavery in post-Gaddafi era

Since the NATO-backed overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been plagued by disorder and migrants with little cash and no papers have become vulnerable. Libya is a major exit point for African migrants heading to Europe. International Organization for Migration (IOM) published a report in Aprl 2017 showing that many of the migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa heading to Europe are sold as slaves after being detained by people smugglers or militia groups. African countries below Libya were targeted for slave trading and transferred to Libyan slave markets instead. According to the victims, the price is higher for migrants with skills like painting and tiling.[13][14] Slaves are often ransomed to their families and in the meantime until ransom can be paid tortured, forced to work, sometimes to death and eventually executed or left to starve if they can't pay for too long. Women are often raped and used as sex slaves and sold to brothels and private Libyan clients.[13][14][15][16] Many child migrants also suffer from abuse and child rape in Libya.[17][18]

After receiving video of a slave auction in Libya, CNN reporters traveled to the country in November 2017 and uncovered the same conditions that IOM had reported earlier, with hundreds of African migrants being forced into slavery by human smugglers who were themselves facilitating their arrival in the country. Most of the migrants are from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia. They however end up in cramped warehouses due to the crackdown by the Libyan Coast Guard, where they held until they are ransomed or are sold for labour.[19] The governments of Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of the Congo responded to the reports by recalling their ambassadors to Libya.[20]

Social impact and relics

As a result of the history of enslavement of black Africans, the word عبد /ʕabd/ - meaning slave - is still used pejoratively to refer to black people. In general the word of choice for a black person is عبيد /ʕbeːd/, which is the diminutive form of the word /ʕabd/ and is considered acceptable by many (in Libyan Arabic the diminutive adds an endearing meaning). وصيف – pronounced [wsˤiːf] in Libyan Arabic - which means servant, is also used in some places, especially by older generations to refer to black ethnicities. On the other hand, the word حر /ħurr/, meaning 'free', is used by many old people to refer to non-blacks.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^,-Children-Raped,-Starved-in-Libya%E2%80%99s-Hellholes-Unicef
  5. ^ When Europeans Were Slaves: Research Suggests White Slavery Was Much More Common Than Previously Believed
  6. ^ BBC - History - British Slaves on the Barbary Coast
  7. ^ BBC - History - British Slaves on the Barbary Coast
  8. ^ K. S. McLachlan, "Tripoli and Tripolitania: Conflict and Cohesion during the Period of the Barbary Corsairs (1551-1850)", Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 3, No. 3, Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World. (1978), pp. 285-294.
  9. ^ a b Lisa Anderson, "Nineteenth-Century Reform in Ottoman Libya", International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3. (Aug., 1984), pp. 325-348.
  10. ^ Adolf Vischer, "Tripoli", The Geographical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 5. (Nov., 1911), pp. 487-494.
  11. ^ a b Wright, John (2007). The trans-Saharan slave trade. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-38046-4. 
  12. ^ Wright, John (1989). Libya, Chad and the Central Sahara. C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd. ISBN 1-85065-050-0. 
  13. ^ a b African migrants sold in Libya 'slave markets', IOM says. BBC. 
  14. ^ a b "Migrants from west Africa being 'sold in Libyan slave markets'". The Guardian. 
  15. ^ "African migrants sold as 'slaves' in Libya". 
  16. ^ "West African migrants are kidnapped and sold in Libyan slave markets / Boing Boing". 
  17. ^ Adams, Paul (28 February 2017). "Libya exposed as child migrant abuse hub" – via 
  18. ^ "Immigrant Women, Children Raped, Starved in Libya's Hellholes: Unicef". 28 February 2017. 
  19. ^ "Reporter describes 'surreal' experience of watching a migrant slave auction in Libya". CBC. 
  20. ^ "Esclavage en Libye : Après le Burkina Faso, la RDC rappelle aussi son ambassadeur à Tripoli !". Digital Congo (in French). 22 November 2017. Retrieved 22 November 2017.