Imperialism and the Dilemma of Slavery in Eastern Arabia and the Gulf, 1873–1939

Matthew S. Hopper*

An Ethiopian man named Surūr appeared before the British Consul at Addis Ababa in December 1933 and told a remarkable story. He had just returned to Ethiopia after enduring more than five years of slavery in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf where he had been forced to work as a pearl diver. When he was eleven years old and out tending cattle in the Wallamo region of Ethiopia around 1925, he was seized by kidnappers who took him to Tajura on the Somali coast and shipped him along with fifty other captives to Jedda, where he was sold to a man who took him to Qatar and eventually sold him to a pearl merchant who engaged him as a diver. As Surūr explained to the consul, he tried twice to escape from his master. The first time, he fled to the British Residency Agent, ‘Isa bin ‘Abdullatīf, in Dubai, who promised to protect him, but then returned him to his master, who severely beat him. Shortly after, he fled to the British agency office in Sharjah, only to find that the Residency Agent was the same ‘Isa bin ‘Abdullatīf, who again returned him to his master, who this time beat him until he was unconscious. Surūr finally managed to escape by fleeing to a boat bound for Basra. There, he met some Somali men working as stokers on a British steamer who assisted him in getting to Djibouti by way of Muscat. When he arrived in Djibouti he was interrogated by port officers, and his story was passed on to the British consulat Addis Ababa who interviewed him and forwarded his story to the Political Agent at Muscat.


* Matthew S. Hopper is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo. His research focuses on the cultural and economic legacy of the African diaspora in the Indian Ocean. Research for this article was funded inpart by grants from the Social Science Research Council and the Fulbright-Hays Program. I am grateful to Professors Edward Alpers, Lauren Benton, and James Gelvin for comments on portions of earlier drafts of this paper. He can be reached at