2 – The Zanj Rebellion – 869 AD – 883 AD
While slavery was common under the Abbasid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, slaves did not typically work in agriculture. Enslaved men usually worked as administrators or soldiers, while women acted as concubines or domestic servants. In the wetlands around Basra, however, there was an effort in the ninth century to establish a slave plantation system.
The workforce that was brought in to tame the marshes was primarily made up of the Zanj, slaves imported into the Caliphate from East Africa. While slaves in the cities enjoyed reasonable living conditions and even opportunities for social mobility, life for the Zanj agricultural slaves was miserable.
In the early 860s, the Caliphate was shaken by internal political divisions, weakening its ability to respond to disturbances and creating an opportunity for the Zanj. At the time there was an ambitious agitator by the name of Ali ibn Muhammad who had been touring Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula attempting to stir up opposition to the Caliphate. When came to Basra he discovered a ready-made revolutionary group, some half a million downtrodden Zanj slaves. The Zanj flocked to Ali, who proclaimed that he believed that people should be judged by their merits and that even an African slave was worthy of leading the entire Caliphate.
Ali’s slave army managed to carve out an autonomous space for itself around Basra, and for fourteen years from 869 to 883, they repulsed repeated attempts by the Caliph to reconquer the area. In time, though, the Caliphate ground down the Zanj rebels. After Basra fell in a battle that cost 300,000 killed on all sides, the rebels turned to guerilla tactics, but in 883 Ali was killed and the rebellion fell apart. Though the Zanj were ultimately defeated, many of them were granted better treatment after surrendering, and the Caliphate would never again attempt to create a large-scale plantation system drawing on slave labor.