A titanic task: the official abolitionist discourse confronted with the reality of the repression

In December 1866, Norman Bernard Bedingfield, Captain on board of H.M.S. Wasp, a fourteen cannons steam gun vessel, sent his usual report to Commodore Hillyar, the senior officer in charge of Her Majesty’s Naval Station on the east coast of Africa. In his report, Bedingflied bluntly concluded: ‘the attempt to put down the [Indian Ocean] Slave Trade under the present system, or even to check it, is simply a farce’.28 How could a Royal Navy officer be so critical of Britain’s anti-slavery operations in the Western Indian Ocean? Were his views justified or did it reflect a conflict between the British government and the Royal Navy? Had this officer good reason to be so bitter?

In the 1860s, Britain’s naval station consisted of ‘between seven and twelve vessels’ patrolling ‘from the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean all the way to the Cape of Good Hope’.2’ The first mission of this naval station was to secure maritime routes to India, the heart of the British Empire in the nineteenth century.30 Undoubtedly, the Royal Navy played the role of an ‘imperial gendarmerie’.31 The Indian Ocean squadron had the mission to police the high seas and fight piracy as well as the slave trade - a kind of traffic which the navy and the Foreign Office wished to be considered as another form of piracy by other European powers. At the congress of Verona, in 1822, Britain tried for instance to impose a declaration assimilating the slave trade to piracy in international law. In 1841, Britain succeeded when Austria, Russia, and Prussia signed a treaty making the slave trade a crime equivalent to piracy. However, France rejected this treaty since it granted Britain the right of search over all ships suspected of slave trafficking whatever their flags as we should see in Chapter Three.32

Captain Bedingfield had been commanding the Wasp over a year now and ‘cruising for the suppression of the Slave Trade on the east coast of Africa’ along with the Penguin and the Vigilant.*3 Previously, he had served nearly 5 years as a Captain on board a ship patrolling with the same purpose on the west coast of Africa. Captain Bedingfield was an experienced officer who had a reasonably good experience of Britain’s anti-slavery operations on the west as well as on the east coast of Africa. His report was the result of his experience at sea. He was a man who had faced and dealt with the reality of Britain’s anti-slavery policies in the Indian Ocean. When he criticized the British anti-slavery system in the Western Indian Ocean, the first problem that Bedingfield alluded to was, above all, the lack of ships.

Royal Navy senior officers often pointed out that the number of vessels allocated for the struggle against the slave trade in East Africa was far too small. In 1869, Commodore Leopold Heath, head of the East Indies Station between 1867 and 1870, actually reported to the Admiralty that Britain ‘must double or treble our squadron’ to be able to really stop the slave trade around Zanzibar.34 The historian Raymond Howell rightly concluded that ‘because there were so few ships available and the length of the coastline to be patrolled was immense, the navy was forced to continue dispatching the ship’s boat to patrol for dhows ... a handful of men away in small, usually open, boats’.35 So does Matthew S. Hopper in pointing that ‘the antislavery squadron rarely consisted of more than three regular ships to patrol 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) of coastline’.36 In short, navy vessels were not present in sufficient numbers and they were not adapted to the task they had been ascribed (See Map 1.2). Fighting the slave trade on the east coast of Africa was too great a job for the crews on board of these small detached boats; a majority of pinnaces and cutters.37 The navy had more important priorities. As Andrew Lambert pointed, ‘the Royal Navy between 1860 and 1900 was dominated with European concerns and spent the bulk of the construction for operations against major powers. It employed obsolete and economical types for colonial police work and imperial suasion’.38 The best vessels were therefore not allocated to anti-slavery operations. This could be compared with the lack of adequate equipment which United Nations Peacekeeping Operations face today while carrying out increasingly dangerous missions.39

In the 1860s, navy officers and consuls complained that some of the cruisers engaged in East Africa were not only too few but also unfit for service. For instance, Major General Rigby, former British Consul in Zanzibar, declared to the 1871 committee on the East African slave trade: ‘that such a squadron should be sent out to check the slave trade was an

Map 1.2 East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean (from R. W. Beachey, The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa: A Collection of Documents, London: Rex Collings, 1976, 133).

absurdity’ adding that ‘there was the Sidon, an old tub that any dhow could beat; there was the Gorgon, that took 40 days to do 800 miles, and vessels of that class, perfectly useless for any other service’.40 This was confirmed by Captain Bedingfield who also lamented that ‘with three crippled vessels ... I fear little can be done to check the immense and I hear increasing trade in slaves’.41 Finally, Commodore Leopold Heath noted that, out of the seven vessels which composed the East African squadron, only three ‘were remarkably well adapted for the purpose [chasing dhows]’, referring to H.M.S. Nymphe, Bullfish, and Teazer.42 If the Indian Ocean slave trade had not much to do with its Atlantic counterpart, the lack of good vessels employed for their repression by the navy was however too common a thing for Her Majesty’s officers. In the early years of the struggle on the west coast of Africa, ‘small ships were nicknamed ‘floating coffins’ ‘and in 1848 Commander Henry James Matson pointed that the West African Squadron had ‘the very worst description of vessels we have in service’.43 With very few and sometimes old or inadequate vessels, navy officers had to police the high seas between the Mozambique Channel to the South and the Gulf of Aden, as well as the Gulf of Oman to the North. Moreover, they also had to suppress the slave trade on the Swahili coast between modern Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. In these conditions, the goals set by the British government could hardly be met by men on the spot. Captain Bedingfielg definitely had good reason to be bitter.

When asked in 1871, by the chairman of the select committee on the East African slave trade, if the Royal Navy could suppress the Indian Ocean traffic, Commodore Leopold Heath explicitly answered: ‘By any efforts of cruisers in numbers such as we have now, I think it is hopeless’ and harshly concluded ‘I think we have gone on for 25 years and have done no good whatever’.44 As Raymond Howell notes ‘the stated goal of the navy on the east coast was to end the slave trade and, on the surface, the fleet failed to achieve that goal. From 1860 until 1890, the cruisers captured some 1,000 dhows, liberating approximately 12,000 slaves’.45 This ‘a small fraction of ... the Africans exported out of East Africa in the nineteenth century’.46 In comparison, it is estimated that 164,333 slaves were ‘liberated’ by the Royal Navy out of the 3.8 million shipped across in the Atlantic between 1800 and 1867.47 In the light of these figures should we consider, using Bedingflield’s own words, that anti-slavery on the east coast of Africa was nothing but a ‘farce’?

British sailors in East Africa, such as Captain Bedingdfield, had good reasons to be disappointed with British anti-slavery policies. Although they did not complain about the goals of these policies, they were dissatisfied with the poor means at their disposals. Bedingfield and G. L. Sulivan insisted in 1873, on ‘how small the means were for suppressing [the East African slave trade]’.48 However, in writing reports published in the Parliamentary papers as well as books for the general public, navy officers contributed to the improvement of the resources put at the disposal of the Royal Navy

Repression of the slave trade 35 for rhe suppression of the East African slave trade throughout rhe 1870s.4’ Their strategy eventually bore its fruits after the 1873 Bartie Frere mission when H.M.S. ‘London' was anchored in Zanzibar harbour to supervise naval operations on rhe coast and enforce the treaty banning slave trade within rhe East African dominions of the Sultanate. The writings of Royal Navy officers had contributed to pressure a reluctant administration to truly fulfil its abolitionist credo. Sulivan, rhe most active of these men, was posted as commander of H.M.S. London between 1874 and 1875. The London stationed in Zanzibar harbour between 1874 and 1883 as a depot, prison, and hospital. It shows particularly well the role designed to British gun vessels in the anti-slave trade patrols. The London was a two-decker 90-gun second rate ship of the line of 205 feet and 2,598 tons. Before it was sent to Zanzibar it had famously taken part in the bombardment of Sebastopol during rhe Crimean War (1853-1856). The massive gunboat had 13 small boats attached to her in order to organize slave trade patrols and it had a significant impact on the slave trade at sea around Zanzibar.50 In the harbour, the vessel was also the ‘visible sign of English interference into Zanzibar’.51 It embodied Britain’s imperial might in the archipelago and the continent. Pressured by public opinion, British government officials had been forced to post H.M.S. London in Zanzibar harbour but eventually seized this opportunity to also forward imperial influence through anti-slavery.

After H.M.S. London was decommissioned in 1883 because it was too old, navy officers or consuls often pointed again their lack of resources when dealing with the slave trade under normal circumstances. If the London had contributed to reducing slave trafficking at sea for a decade, it was far from having ended this plight once and for all. In 1893, British anti-slavery campaigners denounced the absence of action of the protectorate authorities against the slave trade in Zanzibar. The British Consul-General answered in a public report that ‘Zanzibar is not a British colony but a protectorate, and the British authorities there consist of Her Majesty’s Agency and four British officers occupying the responsible post of the Sultan’s government, who are laborious endeavouring to train a native police and develop an administration which will someday be strong enough to deal with these marauders [slavers] ... with the limited resources which the island can at present dispose of, it is not possible to maintain a coastguard or a flotilla of small boats to watch all the bays and creeks’.52 This report was nothing but a genuine confession of impotence. The repression of the slave trade, even on the shore of such a small island as Zanzibar, was too great a task for Her Majesty’s imperial navy or colonial authorities. Once more, the means at the disposal of British consuls and navy officers seemed relatively poor when one thought of the scale and the nature of the task they had been assigned as it was already mentioned. There was indeed a great gap between the official anti-slavery discourse in London and the means at the disposal of navy officers in the Indian Ocean. In the second half of the nineteenth century, governmentleaders in Britain had regularly referred to the suppression of the East African slave trade as a particularly important historical matter, arguing that it was the ultimate completion of ‘the noble crusade’ which ‘Providence’ had allegedly assigned to Britain since 1807. In a letter sent in 1846 to the British Consul in Zanzibar, Atkins Hamerton, the Secretary of State Lord Palmerston, known to be fervent abolitionist in his speeches, had declared: ‘You will take every opportunity of impressing upon these Arabs that the Nations of Europe are destined to put an end to the African slave trade, and that Great Britain is the main instrument in the hands of Providence for the accomplishment of this purpose; that it is in vain for these Arabs to endeavour to resist the consummation of that which is written in the Book of Fate; and that they ought to bow to superior Power ...’.53 Despite this great official abolitionist stand, this chapter clearly demonstrated that the British government was generally quite reluctant to provide the necessary financial and materials resources to tackle the Indian Ocean slave trade. This contradiction between the official abolitionist discourse and reality of anti-slavery operation might explain why Captain Bedingfield felt so bitter. This gap between official discourse and reality can be interpreted in many different ways. Historians influenced by Marxism would insist on the pure hypocrisy of the whole affair and denounce anti-slavery, like Bedingfield, as a farce. They would only add that this was a masquerade under which imperialism was too easily concealed. On the contrary, liberals or conservative historians would insist upon the heroic task accomplished in these conditions by the Royal Navy.54 Beyond this two extremes, one could also argue that the British government was just reluctant to engage men and vessels in the repression of the slave trade - because it cost money and often led to more colonial entanglements - unless forced to by public opinion and members of parliament as we will see in Chapter Five. In spite of the reputation it finely entertained, the British administration might consequently be better described as a ‘reluctant abolitionist’ instead of a ‘reluctant imperialist’ notwithstanding what Robinson and Gallagher influentially argued long ago.55

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