From Captivity to Freedom: The Story of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa
The story of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa is one sad story.
In September 1888, the HMS Osprey, a member of the Royal Navy’s Red Sea anti-slave traffic mission based in Aden, intercepted three dhows that had set sail from Rahayta and Tadjoura on the coast of Ethiopia.
On board were 204 boys and girls headed for markets in Arabia for resale. Other dhows carrying young people were captured as well.
They are called Oromo slaves because the kids were Oromo speakers and they were from the highlands of Ethiopia’s Oromia Region.
They had traveled up to several hundred kilometers by foot to reach the coast.
The kids were brought to Aden, where they temporarily lived and received care at the Free Church of Scotland mission in Sheikh Othman.
However, the refugees were frequently too weak to endure the severe weather and widespread malaria.
About 64 survivors were moved to the Free Church of Scotland’s Lovedale Institution in the town of Alice in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 1890.
More than one-third of Ethiopia’s population belongs to the biggest ethnolinguistic group, the Oromo, who speak a language from the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.
The Oromo people, who had previously only been found in the southeast of the nation, began migrating in waves throughout the 16th century CE.
All of southern Ethiopia was under their control, and some of them settled along the Tana River in Kenya.
They also controlled the majority of central and western Ethiopian provinces, including the southern Amhara region, and farther north, the Welo and Tigre districts close to Eritrea.
Wherever the Oromo migrated in such geographically distant regions, they intermarried to such an extent and adapted local practices that much of their original cultural coherence was lost. The Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnolinguistic group, eventually conquered them.
Before the major exodus, the Oromo pursued cattle ranching, and a large portion of the population in the southern regions still lives in that manner.
However, extensive mixing and intermarriage with the Sidamo and Amhara led to the development of a sedentary agricultural in the east and north.
The Oromos refer to Oromia as their nation and home. All of their recorded history takes place in the Horn of Africa.
They are one of the biggest ethnic groupings in Africa, with 28 million individuals in the mid-1990s, according to estimates. About 232,000 square miles make up Oromia, which is mostly in Ethiopia (600,000 square kilometers).
Archaeologists in Oromia discovered the fossilized human skeleton known as “Lucy,” or “Chaltu” in Oromo, which dates back 3.5 million years. Oromos still exist today in Somalia and Kenya.
The Oromos were colonized in the late nineteenth century and primarily merged with Ethiopia. They lost the ability to form autonomous institutions and cultures.
Susan Rowaldt on Oromo slaves
A new book chock full of graphs, maps, charts, and figures that tell the narrative.
However, if you prefer your history to be told in a narrative, you’ll have the task of piecing together this extraordinary tale as it is told in Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa by Sandra Rowoldt Shell.
Susan Rowaldt with a focus on the “first passage” of slavery from capture to the coast, Shell’s Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa employs prosopography, the methodical analysis of a collection of biographies to paint a nuanced and thorough picture of what it was like to be an enslaved person.
She relies on a rare (and distinctive) collection of sources, primarily sixty-four first-person stories by Oromo slave children who were delivered to missionaries shortly after being freed by the British navy off the coast of Aden.
Shell is able to reconstruct personal histories that contribute to the histories of the East African slave trade thanks to these tales, which are supplemented by later reports from the Keith-Falconer Mission in Aden and the Lovedale Mission in South Africa.
Also read: Ending Hereditary Slavery in Mauritania: Bidan (Whites) and Black “Slaves”
She introduces the Ethiopian context in section one, “Roots: Memories of Home,” before moving on. The tales of the youngsters, which include descriptions of their families and towns, serve as the foundation for each chapter of the book.
Menelik II’s ascent coincided with the enslavement of the children as well as a terrible ecological collapse that resulted in migration, starvation, and the decision by some families to sell their offspring or relatives.
The route they traveled to get to the coast is also described in the second section, along with the exact time they were sold into slavery.
This portion is particularly noteworthy for the numerous challenges that caused these girls and boys, whose ages ranged from ten to nineteen at the time of their interviews, psychological and physical anguish.
Because her sources provide such reliable information, she can use her analysis to find numerous patterns in the data, including the age differences between boys and girls, the likelihood that they will run away, how long they were held captive before reaching the coast, and how they came to be held captive.
Throughout the entire incident, there is a significant gender imbalance. For instance, girls’ journeys were significantly shorter than boys’, indicating a higher value in the export market.
The majority of these girls were also deemed to be attractive, highlighting the significance of their sexual value.
In fact, this literature under-theorizes the sexual component of the exchange. Although Shell briefly discusses its near inevitable, the girls themselves, or at least in the testimonies obtained from the missionaries, never acknowledged any conceivable sexual abuse.
A single chapter in the next section examines the life of the Oromo survivors and their personal endeavors and aspirations to return to Ethiopia.
A third of the original group perished in South Africa before repatriation was generally accessible, a third returned to Ethiopia, and a third built a permanent home in South Africa or somewhere else.
Thirteen were sent back on a German ship following a somewhat tense disagreement over money between the British, German, and Ethiopian governments.
Fate of Oromo slaves
The kids showed they were good students and got along with their English and Xhosa schoolmates during their ten years at Lovedale.
After surviving, four out of five students left the institution as young adults to pursue possibilities. They went on to work as educators, shop helpers, carpenters, painters, cooks, and clerks.
The majority stayed in South Africa, but 17 were given tickets to Ethiopia. A few got married and had kids.
Bisho Jarsa, who married Reverend Frederick Scheepers, a former Lovedale pupil, is one whose life is followed in the book.
They were the parents of South African liberation struggle veteran and professor Neville Alexander through their daughter Dimbiti’s marriage to carpenter James Edward Alexander.
However, the majority of the Oromo orphans’ life ended in misery or obscurity. Among the returnees, mortality was quite high.
But some of the orphans’ stories have survived. At Lovedale, many people left their memoirs behind.
They described their unique ordeals from the time they were apprehended, sold, or pawned, including the torturously protracted travels from their Oromo homeland to the coast, in their own voices. All are included in the books’ appendices in their entirety.
Shell’s account focuses a lot of its attention on the Oromo story’s quantitative aspect. Her diligent search for information on the orphans, their origin, the specifics of their enslavement and transit, place by place to other entrepots, the traffickers and merchants engaged, continued for more than 100 pages before the Royal Navy’s Osprey made an appearance.
Once in Aden, extensive asides describe the Sheikh Othman mission, its Keith-Falconer school (represented by pictures), the individual missionaries involved, orphan mortality, age and gender data, and personal information about them.
After the orphans arrive in East London, South Africa’s Eastern Cape, we learn a lot about the Lovedale curriculum, the performance of Oromo and non-Oromo students in comparison (the Oromo performed better on average), and graphs on class grades and percentages that show distributions, gendered results, class positions, mortality rates, among other things (the reproductive quality of the graphs is not very good).
Through the presentation of altered images omitting the suggestive hands of an Oromo youngster on the alleged offender’s shoulders prior to his departure, a teacher scandal receives its own investigation.
Due to survey results Shell discovered from 1903, people are identified after they leave Lovedale who represent the graduates’ varied experiences.
Shell has only found one individual Oromo photograph, despite the fact that she displays several Oromo group photos (the arresting Berille Boko).
Appendices on data variables, the Oromo autobiographies with a place-name gazetteer, an article by Gutama Jarafo, in-depth endnotes, a bibliography, and a comprehensive index make up a full third of the book.
Our understanding of how children were drawn into the Indian Ocean slave trade, which linked much of the interior of Eastern Africa to Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and India, has been greatly improved by Shell.
The Indian Ocean trade persisted virtually until the start of the 20th century, long after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Only one-fourth of those saved by the Osprey survived, indicating that thousands of children’s lives continued to be miserable and under slavery.