In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a curious but little-known agricultural system based on imported African slaves thrived in the Northern and Central Arabian Peninsula. Born of a unique set of biological, environmental, cultural, and economic conditions, this slave system employed African labor mainly in the date palm plantations of the wadis, or floodwater channels, of the Hijaz and Najd regions of Arabia. This paper will seek to expand our knowledge of this neglected agricultural system by synthesizing traditional documentary sources employed by historians with new findings from the medical sciences, especially studies of genetic adaptations to malaria. Overall, this study will suggest that wadi slavery in Arabia, like slavery in the 16th-19th century Atlantic world, had a strong biological basis. As in the Atlantic world, African slaves, who frequently possessed genetic and acquired immunity to malaria, were used as proxy farmers to exploit landscapes that were unhealthy to the ruling elites.


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pp. 878-896
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