- Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula by Benjamin Reilly
In Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula, Benjamin Reilly argues that thousands of unfree laborers of African ancestry were employed in agricultural work in the Arabian Peninsula during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The existence and contributions of these communities have been overlooked by historians who have focused on other, more ubiquitous, forms of Islamic slavery, and as a result, little has been written about slaves employed in agricultural labor in Arabia. Reilly examines European traveler accounts that describe, although rarely in great detail, laborers of African descent maintaining irrigation wells, dams, and canals, as well as producing food for the benefit of their masters or landowners. Attempting to bolster the limited descriptions provided by Europeans, Reilly surveys the ecological and epidemio-logical challenges faced by communities in this region of irregular rainfall. By [End Page 422] combining these diverse data sets, Reilly creates a convincing narrative that sheds new light on the exploitation of Africans in a place where they were uniquely suited for survival, although the book provides few specifics about the acquisition, life experiences, or transformations of these slave communities.
Reilly does an admirable job of describing the diverse ecological and political landscapes of nineteenth and twentieth-century Arabia. Agriculture was severely limited on the Arabian Peninsula until the adoption of various irrigation techniques, most requiring a high level of technical knowledge and the regular input of hard labor for maintenance. Reilly uses a series of maps and charts to reveal how widespread these innovations were by the twentieth century, their use suggesting an increase in the demand for laborers to expand agricultural production and support growing populations. While he concedes that there are few written accounts for many of the regions that employed labor-intensive irrigation techniques, it does seem plausible that enslaved Africans or their descendants were responsible for supporting food production. Furthermore, Reilly connects the areas of irrigated agriculture to expanding zones of malaria infection. He deploys European accounts of the pernicious effects of malaria within the Arabian Peninsula and suggests that workers of African descent would have had biological advantages over their Arabian counterparts. Reilly's observations seem to support this hypothesis although, given the marked increase in the slave trade from East and Northeast Africa to different parts of the world throughout the nineteenth century, it is far from clear that malaria was the sole contributing factor in the expanded use of laborers of African descent within the Arabian Peninsula, a fact that Reilly himself admits.
In some of these zones of more intensive agricultural production, Reilly has uncovered tantalizing, if somewhat incomplete, descriptions of what he terms "African servile agricultural colonies." Living in conditions more akin to serfdom, these agriculturalists grew crops in large sections of arable land, but much of their accumulated production was transferred to Bedouin Arab masters who were unable (or unwilling) to reside for extended periods in these colonies. Reilly provides a lengthier description of one colony, Khaybar, home to thousands of agriculturalists of African ancestry. The residents of Khaybar were described as either "Sudan" or "Galla" by European visitors, although these labels are of limited use in endeavoring to uncover the laborers' ancestries. Throughout his descriptions of Khaybar and the other colonies, Reilly moves away from referring to these laborers as slaves and instead insists they were likely legally free, although part of a subservient caste or class. It would be helpful if Reilly elaborated more fully on these distinctions and delineated some of the social and legal differences more clearly, particularly as recent work about labor flows in the Indian Ocean world has highlighted broader ambiguities between slave and other systems of servile labor during the nineteenth century.
Likewise, the book's discussion of the slave trade and the reputed origins of the slaves themselves is not very detailed. In his summary of inconclusive research on nineteenth-century slave imports, Reilly provides little by way of intervention. Despite some commentary around the use of the...