The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Sasanian demand for slaves

Sugar cane grows in the tropics; and cutting the cane is hard, menial labour. As of the 'Abbasid regime, southern Iraq and Iran along the Gulf Coast supported vast plantations of the stuff. The people cutting it weren't exactly volunteers. They weren't exactly native to the area either. I bring you Michael Morony, "Economic Boundaries?" (2004), 166-89, conclusions:

At least six trends have been identified here that have their roots in Late Antiquity and had long trajectories into the Islamic period, such that they help to define it:
  1. the development and spread of large estates with tenant labor
  2. the monetization of the economy
  3. the development and spread of irrigated agriculture
  4. the revival of mining
  5. the formation and spread of merchant diasporas
  6. the domination of Indian Ocean commerce by Persian shipping and the eclipse of Byzantine shipping in the Red Sea by the end of the sixth century.
Both irrigated agriculture and mining were labor intensive, and in order to expand production they were labor hungry. Sasanian territories were visited by the same kinds of disasters that caused mass mortality in the Mediterranean world during the sixth and early seventh centuries. In the crunch between the expansion of a labor-intensive economy and a reduction in the labor force, labor had to be imported. ... Sasanian economic behavior toward the late Roman Empire is best described as predatory, taking the form of massive looting and the forced deportation of farmers and artisans, particularly during the sixth and early seventh centuries, when the Sasanian economy was expanding.

It only got worse under Islam. In south Persia the so-called "zanj" staged a revolt or two I believe. Some revolts were quite serious.

So - why did irrigation get so profitable so fast, that it spurred so many knock-on effects like a demand for silver and "cheap labor" (= slaves)? I've already posted here about the implication of Watson's Agricultural innovation in the early Islamic World. Sugar cane was brought there, sometime in the 400s or 500s AD. The Iranshahr's part of the lowlands got renamed Khuzistan "sugar land". I didn't mention who, exactly, was doing the work. But I believe we can venture a guess - beyond Morony pointing to Rome.

If the Persians (and Aramaeans) weren't doing the work in the 800s CE, they sure as hell weren't about to do it when their own shahs ruled the place in the 500s. [UPDATE 2/23/2017: by law of the Matikan, Zoroastrian lords also weren't to enslave Zoroastrian commoners nor other peasants under their care.] I mooted it reasonable that the landowners were buying the labour from further south. "Khuz" might not be Iranian but "istan" sure is. And "Zanj" to me looks like an Irani word too: many words in Arabic that end -j (pronounced -g in the old days), or in -q or -h or -kh, are Iranian in origin usually Farsi.

Thing about sugar: it is not "farmed" like a normal crop. The growing demand for the sugar crop meant a demand for new slaves, as well. This would have made a fine motive for the Persians to make war on the west - and on the south. Africans are a more tropical people than are, say, Armenians. So the Zangistan, as they called it then, is probably Africa.

posted by Zimri on 17:07 | link | 0 comments

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