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  • Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula by Benjamin Reilly
  • Atsuko Naono
Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula, by Benjamin Reilly. Athens, Ohio University Press, 2015. x, 211 pp. $75.00 US (cloth), $28.95 US (paper).

Benjamin Reilly, associate teaching professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University's Qatar Campus, offers in this book an excellent study of the relationship between Malaria, agriculture, and slavery. Reilly has two aims. While the majority of the historiography on slavery in the Arabic world has concentrated on non-agricultural labour, Reilley's first aim is to provide a deeper understanding of the system of servile agricultural labour of sub-Saharan Africans in the Arabian Peninsula during the period covering the nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Another aim is to make a contribution to environmental history by showing how malaria's prevalence in the lowland agricultural areas provided incentives for the dominant population to take advantage of the people of African ancestry with innate or acquired immunity against malaria.

In the first two chapters, Reilly examines the historical development of the four main techniques of water management in the Arabian Peninsula, including draw-wells, mountain terraces, floodwater diversion systems, and qanat artificial springs (31), that accommodated the region's diverse hydrological conditions. This diversity not only influenced the development of water management techniques, but also the different functions that African slaves played in agriculture in the region. While they had relative autonomy compared to those in the Americas, their status as slaves was more rigidly cemented even after their manumission due to [End Page 398] their specific status (mawla), which continued to bind them into an obligatory and dependent relationship to their former owners. Chapter three is a case study. Reilly focuses on four European travelers' accounts of Khaybar, a major date plantation community lying on a volcanic lava field. Reilly demonstrates the uniqueness of Khaybar in its dependencies on ghayl irrigation rather than on more common hydraulic systems. While Reilly sheds light on the aspects of Khaybar that it shared in common with other parts of the Arabian Peninsula that had African servile colonies, Reilly nicely holds up for scrutiny the exclusive social relationship that the Khaybara people established with the Arab population.

Chapter four turns to malaria. Here, Reilly illuminates its significance in the area. This is important because malaria has been overlooked in the historiography on the Arabian Peninsula even though malaria's threat in the region was mentioned frequently in historical sources going back to the first century ce (104). To render the land suitable for farming, various hydraulic technologies were used, as well as a technique called bustan gardening in which Arabian farmers cultivated palms to retain soil moisture and humidity. These techniques were refined over the centuries to take full advantage of the infrequent rainfall of the Arabian Peninsula. As Reilly shows, although these approaches rendered dry land suitable for agricultural production, at the same time they produced ideal breeding grounds for the anopheles mosquito. Reilly also points out that the shortage of livestock in many Arabian oasis towns caused an increase in malaria transmission to humans by forcing the principally zoophilic mosquitoes into feeding on human blood. The Arab population, then, took advantage of the African servile agricultural labour who were less susceptible to malaria because of their intrinsic malaria defenses such as the Duffynegative antigen and hemoglobin S (the sickle-cell). Chapter five explores explanations regarding the introduction and end of African agricultural slavery in the region. Reilly also discusses the decreasing cases of malaria from the mid twentieth century brought about by Arabian modernity including the opening up of many hospitals, the development of public health education, the purchasing of more livestock with oil wealth, and demographic transformation.

Reilly's explanation of plasmodium is not as strong as it should be. He mentions only three types: P. falciparum, P. vivax, and P. malariae. It is unclear why Reilly ignores P. ovale, and P. knowlesi which are usually grouped together with the above mentioned three species. Also, even though Reilly discusses the uselessness of Arabic-language geographical sources and travel accounts that hardly pay attention to slavery, as well...


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pp. 398-400
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