The 204 Oromo children of Ethiopia who were rescued from Arab slavers in 1888 and ended up in South Africa

Oromo children
The Oromo children when they were rescued

In September 1888, some 204 boys and girls captured to be sold into slavery in Arabia from their homes in the highland area of the Oromia Region of Ethiopia got somewhat lucky when they rather found themselves in South Africa receiving an education.

The Oromo slaves, as they were called, were aboard three dhows from Rahayta and Tadjoura on the Ethiopia coast when the HMS Osprey serving in the Royal Navy’s anti-slave trade mission in the Red Sea, based in Aden, intercepted them.

The children who spoke the Oromo language were bound for resale in Arabian markets. Other dhows with young human cargo were also apprehended.

From their communities where they were apprehended, they had 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.

On arrival, these boys and girls 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.

Oromo slave children
Oromo slave children saved from being sold into slavery

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.

For 10 years, these children were at Lovedale and proved to be good students. They were also in 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.

Many others stayed back in South Africa while 17 of them earned fares to return to their home in Ethiopia. A few married and started families.

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 narrated, 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.