Newly planted trees stand solemnly over the whitewashed courtyard of a traditional mansion in old Doha that less than a hundred years ago was often filled with shackled men, women and children from east Africa — the main commodities in a booming Gulf slave trade.
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The large home once belonged to Doha’s most prominent slave trader, a man his neighbours called “jelmood”, or “rock” — an allusion to his hard heart. Today, in the old house, this story and the larger history of slavery in the Indian Ocean world that brought, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people to the Arabian Gulf is being explored for the first time in a museum confronting the past and, its curators hope, helping Qataris shape their future.
“These settings reveal the circumstances of the enslaved people whose lives form part of the story of this country,” reads one of the museum’s displays — a history that has largely been forgotten and avoided in both official narratives and the public conscience, even by the descendants of slaves now integrated into Gulf societies.
The first exhibit in the museum features an ancient slave sales contract inscribed in Aramaic on a clay tablet, Greek paintings of slaves working an olive plantation and other examples of slavery throughout history. The artefacts are intended to create historical context and describe the various forms of slavery, stretching from ancient Mesopotamia to serfdom in Middle Ages Europe and the most brutal form of human bondage, the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The historical frame then shifts to the system of which the Gulf was a part, the Indian Ocean slave trade. Short video lectures by scholars and archival photographs describe the “maritime silk road” that connected the islands of South-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, the Arab Gulf and east Africa as a distinct region. One of the threads linking these far-flung cultures and empires was slavery, though it was of a less oppressive form than in the Americas. In the Indian Ocean world, race was not defined primarily by skin colour, but through paternal descent.
While many slaves brought to the Gulf were from impoverished Balochistan, and some Gulf Arabs were enslaved through war or sold themselves into slavery because of extreme poverty, during the trade’s peak most were from east Africa.
The museum tells their stories through testimony given by freed slaves in manumission documents from the British political agent in Manama — the colonial administrator for the Trucial States — from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the trade was at its height. Stories of individual enslaved Africans are told in first person in animated and live action films that trace their paths from east Africa to the Gulf, and the harsh circumstances of their lives as they dived for pearls, worked date plantations and served in households.
The museum curators, who worked with western historians on the plan for the museum, collected oral histories from a handful of Qatari families and archival material that details the roles of Qataris in the trade. But they have not presented all of the material publicly, and took care to obscure identities in the exhibits.
Some Qataris, both descendants of slaves and of slave-owners, did have concerns about the museum, and many refused requests for oral histories, said a consultant who worked on the museum. As a result, Bin Jelmood House does not explore in much detail how contemporary Qatari society has been influenced by people whose ancestors were brought, not so long ago, from Africa.
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