The story of Oromo slaves bound for Arabia who were taken to South Africa

By Fred Morton

In September 1888, the HMS Osprey serving in the Royal Navy’s anti-slave trade mission in the Red Sea, based in Aden, intercepted three dhows embarked from Rahayta and Tadjoura on the Ethiopia coast.

Aboard were 204 boys and girls bound for resale in Arabian markets. Other dhows with young human cargo were also apprehended. The children came from the highland area of Oromia Region of Ethiopia, and spoke the Oromo language.

They had been trekked as many as several hundred kilometres to the coast. The children were taken to Aden and, for a time, were housed and cared for at the Free Church of Scotland mission at Sheikh Othman.

The arrivals, however, were often too debilitated to withstand the harsh climate and prevalent malaria. In 1890, 64 of the survivors were transferred to the Free Church of Scotland’s Lovedale Institution, in Alice, a town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

The story is captured in a new book laden with graphs, maps, charts and statistics. But if you like your history as narrative, you’ll have the job of piecing together this extraordinary story written by Sandra Rowoldt Shell in Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa.

Fate of Oromo kids

During the 10 years the children spent at Lovedale they proved to be good students and on good terms with their Xhosa-speaking and English school mates. Four in five survived and left the school as young adults in search of opportunities. They became teachers, shop assistants, carpenters, painters, cooks, clerks.

Most remained in South Africa, but 17 earned fares to Ethiopia. A few married and started families. One whose story is traced in the book is Bisho Jarsa who married former Lovedale student Reverend Frederick Scheepers. Their daughter Dimbiti married carpenter James Edward Alexander, and were the parents of South African liberation struggle veteran and academic Neville Alexander.

But most of the Oromo orphans’ lives ended in obscurity or tragedy. Mortality among the returnees was particularly high (33%).

However, the orphans’ stories are not completely lost. Many left behind their autobiographies at Lovedale. They related, in their own voices, their individual ordeals from the time they were captured, sold or pawned, including the tortuously long journeys between their Oromo homeland to the coast. All are rendered in full in the books’ appendices.

Much of Shell’s account delivers the quantitative side of the Oromo story. She followed an assiduous research path to retrieve all possible data related to the orphans, their place of origin, the details of their enslavement and transfer, place by place to various entrepots, the traders and merchants involved, until over a 100 pages later, the Royal Navy’s Osprey appears.

Rich detail

Once in Aden, lengthy asides document the Sheikh Othman mission and its Keith-Falconer school (illustrated by photographs), personal details about the missionaries involved, orphan mortality, age and gender data.

After the orphans reach East London, in the Eastern Cape, we learn a lot about the Lovedale curriculum, comparative performance of Oromo and non-Oromo students (the Oromo did better on average), supplemented with graphs on class marks and percentages, including distributions, gendered results, class positions, and mortality rates, among others (the reproductive quality of the graphs is not very good).

A teacher scandal gets its own sleuthing through the display of doctored photographs eliding the suggestive hands of an Oromo boy on the alleged culprit’s shoulders prior to his dismissal.

Once leaving Lovedale, individuals are traced (thanks to a 1903 questionnaire results unearthed by Shell) that reflect the mixed fortunes of the Lovedale graduates. Though she displays many Oromo group photographs, Shell has uncovered only one individual photograph (the arresting Berille Boko).

A full one-third of the volume is made up of appendices on data variables, the Oromo autobiographies with a place-name gazetteer, an essay by Gutama Jarafo, detailed endnotes, bibliography and an extensive index.

Shell has added a great deal to our understanding of how children were ensnared into the Indian Ocean slave trade, which connected much of the Eastern African interior to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and India. Long after the Atlantic slave trade was snuffed out, the Indian Ocean trade continued almost to the beginning of the 20th century. The Osprey’s intervention and the survival of but a mere quarter of those it rescued suggests that thousands of children’s lives remained enslaved and in misery.

Fred Morton, Professor of History, University of Botswana


  1. I don’t find a word to explain my deepest sadness about people’s bad fates happened to be sold as commodities all over the world by cruel and butchers of Habesha colonizers.

    • The writing is worthless and a pile of garbage.It is all Africans that were sold to the white race to the Arabs. The fact is whites and white feed other races write what divides us. In reality, they were the ones who were selling and buying human cargo as a commodity. Fuliyye – You lament what was and yet, you kill and displaced people from your area unabated. Oromo elites are out of touch. They cry fool for things that are fabricated and call the Habesha people colonizers? They have no clue who colonize who, they simply state uncorroborated facts to confuse people.
      Fred Morton failed to tell us as to why these people were sold to South Africa. He simply connects frail sentences with no evidence to rally up people against each other. Instead, he should tell us the agony and defeat of the apartheid system in South Africa. But no, why would he tell us about that, just like a dog digs a garbage can and finds the stinkiest of all things, such is the writing of this peace. Go find these Oromo people and do a DNA test and reconnect the story back to their ancestry land. And convince us with sound facts. We are tired of reading a history written by the people that have nothing to do with the story that is being told.

      • No one should write a story that would offend your blated ego, right?? You must be a puffed up moron! What better ‘evidence’ shall the writer present than photos and life histories of the people sold into slavery, and their grand and great grand children, some still alive? The approval of your favourite Debtersa??

        Do you need a reason why people are sold into slavery?? That is part of human nature, black or White. But for Minilik, it was to generate money with which he could buy more arms from Europe so that he could invade the South, so he could capture more land and slaves! A self promoting dynamic! Stop always blaming others! No whites were involved in slave raids in Ethiopia!

  2. Jegnaw Minilik bayanesa gasha
    Barnet neber siraw yihin gize abesha

    All Ethiopians would have been slaves if Emperror Menilik did not chase the Caucasians out in 1896 at the battle of Adwa.

    The legend Zerai Deres was enslaved forced to be a translator also, between 1938 to 1945 Zerai Deres was put in psychiatric institution for seven years without his willingness, he was said to be mentally sick because he practiced his duty as an Ethiopian by respecting the Lion Of Judah symbol in Rome, Italy.

  3. I remember this story posted here or another website a few years ago. It is a very sad story perpetrated on innocent young people. Slavery will always remain a black eye on the history of humanity. No one, no country or ethnic group can escape from the guilt of committing such shameful crime against another human being. In our case, it is immortalized in the battle cries of the Amhara, the gerarsaas of my own Oromos and I’m sure same can be found in the folklore of Tigres, Afars, Somalis and many other ethnic groups. If someone is telling you that his/her ethnic group was never involved in this shameful crime against humanity, they are telling you a bold face lie. Sadly, it has been used to sow hatred between noble neighbors by students of Marxism/Leninism turned modern day violent bigots. One nigga gone prejudiced against another nigga!!! It’s just sickening!!!

  4. Filimon!
    Minilik and his Fitawuraris were in the forefronts of slave raids and slave trade! Minilik and Tsaytu privately owned more than 7000 slaves! Minilik used the levee on slave trade to buy arms to raid more slaves. Those Oromo children were the victims of such raids. Slavery was 1st stopped by the Italians after they occupied the country.

    Learn some true history, before you praise the wrong side! Peoples of the South colonized by Minilik were treated worse than slaves.

  5. “After the orphans reach East London, in the Eastern Cape, we learn a lot about the Lovedale curriculum, comparative performance of Oromo and non-Oromo students (the Oromo did better on average), supplemented with graphs on class marks and percentages, including distributions, gendered results, class positions, and mortality rates, among others (the reproductive quality of the graphs is not very good).”

    who buys slave and put them in school? what happen to the cotton farm? this is a weird book or article. They are also orphans. Too many questionable points.

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