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UCLA Historical Journal

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Half the Household Was African: Recovering the Histories of Two African Slaves in Iran


Little scholarly research has been undertaken on the history of African slavery in Iran in the nineteenth century.  What has been written focuses, almost by necessity, on statistical information or on the lives of the wealthy and powerful.  Haji Mubarak and Fezzeh Khanum offer a rare opportunity for historians of Iran to reconstruct the biographies of two ordinary slaves.  Because they were the slaves of the Shirazi merchant, Mirza ‘Ali-Muhammad, the founder of Babism, surviving Babi and Baha’i chronicles (and oral traditions) include them in their pious histories and record at least part of their lives.  At the same time, these histories erase these persons by steadfastly refusing to acknowledge any significance in their presence.

This paper will demonstrate that the recovery of the history of slavery in nineteenth-century Iran, even at the level of individual biographies, is possible.  It will also argue that the significance of large numbers of African slaves in Iran during this time has been erased from contemporary Iranian national history.  Similarly, the presence of African slaves at the genesis of the Babi religion has been erased from contemporary Baha’i histories.

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