The paradoxes of British imperial hegemony at sea or David versus Goliath

To most contemporaries, the war between the Royal Navy and dhows in the Western Indian Ocean must have appeared as a struggle that should be won before any battle would be fought. In fact, how could ‘traditional vessels’ of a bygone age, as well as their ‘native’ crews, resist the most ‘modern’, powerful, and ‘civilised’ of all navies?

Again, Sulivan’s account is here a valuable source since it recalls the experience of anti-slave trade patrols on three different vessels in the 1860s; namely on H.M.S. Castor, H.M.S. Daphne, and H.M.S. Pantaloon. H.M.S. Castor was a fifth frigate with 36 guns built in 1832. She was 149 feet long. H.M.S. Daphne was an Amazon-class sloop of 1,000 tons and 187 feet with

Repression of the slave trade 37 two masts built in 1866. H.M.S. Pantaloon was an 11 gun wooden screw sloop launched in I860.56 In terms of size, those vessels must have, most of the times, looked like giants even compared with the biggest transoceanic dhows or baghalas, which never went beyond 160 feet and 500 tons; not to mention smallest coastal dhows known as mtepes shown on Figure 1.1.57 Consequently, the Castor, Daphne, or Pantaloon would rarely chase dhows themselves but send their detached boats for the chase. These boats consisted mostly of whalers, gigs, cutters, or pinnaces. The boats attached to the Castor, for example, ‘consisted of the ship’s pinnace and a barge, a private’.58 Pinnaces, gigs, cutters, or whalers were all small boats equipped with oars and one or two sails. A few were equipped with steam engines.59 They rarely exceeded 30 feet. Detached from their mother ships, these small boats would chase dhows, fight with them, and eventually board and seize them before coming back with liberated slaves if any. The engraving published by the Illustrated London News in 1869 highlights this key aspect of the Royal Navy strategy in Zanzibar.60 A similar image was used by

G. L. Sulivan as the frontispiece of his popular Dhow Chasing in Zanzibar Waters in 1874 (See Figure 1.3).61 In the background, we can see the massive

H. M.S. Daphne with its three masts. In the foreground, creating a sharp contrast, we see a wrecked dhow stranded with slaves trying to save their lives. As it often happened, the dhow had tried to escape the whaler sent to board her and eventually sank while crossing the shore break to reach the coast. In the middle-ground, the whaler sent by H.M.S. Daphne is seen coming to rescue the slaves. In the eyes of anti-slavery campaigners, this delivered an important symbolic message to the general public.


Figure 1.3 A pinnace rescues a wrecked dhow full of slaves (The Illustrated London News, 27 February 1869, 216). With permission of the Mary Evans Library.

Mother ships such as H.M.S. Daphne used their hulk as a depot for ‘liberated slaves’. They served as a centre of command where officers would elaborate their strategies to catch slave dhows. Guns, ammunitions, or food, would be stored there for the detached boats and their crews. In the Indian Ocean, these small boats were ‘provisioned for a week’s detached service, each boat being armed with rifles, pistols, and a 12-pounder gun’.62 Because these boats were small and poorly equipped, patrols were often attacked by dhows carrying slaves. In a lot of cases, dhows easily escaped.63 Chasing a slaver was, indeed, tiring and dangerous. In 1867, lieutenant Fellowes, on board of the Launch of H.M.S. Highflyer reported he had boarded a dhow engaged in the slave trade after a 5-hours chase.64 More importantly, sailors were sometimes killed or seriously injured while patrolling against the East African slave trade. In 1862, Lieutenant-Commander Me Hardy on H.M.S. Penguin reported that 14 men detached on a cutter and a whaler had been murdered ‘by a party of Somali ... about fifteen miles west of Cape Guardafi’.65 In 1864, again, a whaler and a cutter, as well as two men, were lost off the Mozambique coast.66

If small boats rather than cruisers were engaged in anti-slavery patrols it was because the navy around Zanzibar operated in shallow waters where vessels would have been easily wrecked or stranded in the numerous bays and creeks of the archipelago. Navy vessels were not designed to chase smaller ships in coastal areas. They were designed to cross oceans and sail on high seas between continents. Thanks to their size and fire power, navy vessels could be used to set up blockades - such as in 1889-1890 in Zanzibar - or to bombard cities from the coast as it happened in 1896 when the Sultan of Zanzibar, Khalid bin Barghash, took power without the assent of British Protectorate authorities.67 H.M.S. London, as we have previously mentioned, embodied quite well this type of vessel since she had taken part in the Bombardment of Sebastopol. All navy vessels in Zanzibar, such as the Daphne, the Castor, and the Pantaloon, were categorized as gun vessels and embodied the British naval strategy known as ‘gunboat diplomacy’.68 It meant that the British government was able to impose its will upon some nations in using its gun vessels. The Bombardment of Lagos and its destruction in December 1851, carried out as an anti-slavery operation on the west coast of Africa, is another great illustration of how humanitarian purposes were well served by the ‘gunboat diplomacy’ implemented by the Royal Navy.69

If large gun vessels symbolized British military might, small boats did most of the anti-slave trade work. Most of the time, these small boats were chasing dhows not so far from coastal waters as it appears in an engraving (Figure 1.4) published by The Illustrated London News in 1867. On this print, we can clearly notice in the foreground a pinnace rigged with two sails and powered by oars. Quite far in the background, on the horizon, appears the coastline. The pinnace in the foreground fires at what seems to be a mtepe dhow loaded with slaves. In the middle-ground, two other


Figure 1.4 ‘Capture of a slave Dhow by the boats of H.M.S. Lyra on the west coast of Madagascar’ (The Illustrated London News, 5 January 1867, 13). With permission of the Mary Evans Library.

pinnaces are following up the chase and catching up with the dhow. Small boats such as pinnaces were light and swift and could seize a dhow if they used, as their prize, currents, and winds. However, the struggle between the dhow full of slaves and small boats, such as those detached from H.M.S. Lyra, seems quite uneven. Dhows could easily destroy or evade small boats. Unsurprisingly, sailors often described how difficult it was to catch dhows. Devereux, for instance, pointed that dhows were ‘sailing like witches’ and stressed that navy boats ‘usually [had] a long chase unless they fire round shot’.70 Moreover, once caught the dhow had to be boarded and this remained equally perilous. One of the most publicised deaths of a navy captain illustrates perfectly well the dangers faced by navy sailors and officers. In December 1881, while cruising on a steam-pinnace around the eastern shores of Pemba Island - about 30 miles north of Zanzibar -Captain Brownrigg, commander of H.M.S. London at the time, sighted three dhows. The British officer let the first two sailed away whereas he decided to inspect the third because she was flying a French flag.71 While Brownrigg got closer and saw ‘the captain ... standing on the poop with a roll of paper, ready to exhibit them’, the dhow’s crew fired at him and jumped on his pinnace to shoot him in the heart.72 This case highlights quite well the paradox of British anti-slavery operations in East African waters. While their naval power was superior in terms of technology and firepower, they could not use it efficiently against dhows. As a result, British navy officers and sailors had to chase dhows with ridiculously small boats that could easily be jeopardized. Although one would have thought that the fight between dhows and Royal Navy vessels should logically have been be in favour of the latter, the reality was otherwise. This somehow nuances the stereotyped idea according to which colonial domination was, in general, the inevitable result of a European military and technological superiority.73 If needed, the three Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-42; 1878-80; 1919) also prove that superior military might did not necessarily lead to victory and effective colonial domination.74

Beyond all the practical difficulties she faced, the Royal Navy also confronted the limitations imposed by international law and its interpretation. Whether in the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean, ‘the labyrinthine network of anti-slave trade treaties ... and ambiguities over the Royal Navy’s rights of search, capture, and condemnation complicated the task of British navy officers’.75 Until 1873, officers did not have the right to stop slavers if they traded slaves within the African dominions of the Zanzibar Sultanate. They were only allowed to police ‘the international slave trade’ towards Oman and the Persian Gulf. The Hamerton treaty signed in 1845 and enforced in 1847, only banned all exports of slaves outside the African dominions of Zanzibar (article II). Slaves could be legally traded between the port of Lamu - 1°57 south - and the port of Kilwa - 9°20 south (see Map 1.1).76 Only outside of these limits, could the vessels of the Sultan’s subjects be seized by the Royal Navy (article III). Besides, a legal distinction was made between domestic slaves and slaves who were meant to be traded. In the Instructions for the guidance of Naval Officers employed in the suppression of the Slave Trade issued in 1869 by the Admiralty, Article One pointed out that ‘the mere finding ... of slaves on board a vessel, will not justify an officer in detaining her, if ... they [the slaves] are not being transported for the purpose of being sold as a slave’.77 This distinction between ‘domestic slaves’ and ‘slaves for sale’ often looked absurd in the eyes of the sailors, officers, or commanders. Commodore Sir Leopold Heath complained to the Admiralty that this legal distinction led to ‘practically legalising the [slave] trade’ in East Africa.78 Sulivan pointed that ‘a common practice exists amongst Arab passengers in these dhows to pay the nakoda [captain] for their voyage by bringing a slave with them from the shore, the proceeds of whose sale at a northern market yields the passage money’.79 He also stressed that unfortunately ‘the Arabs, who know full well the English view and meaning of “domestic slaves”, will swear they are such’.80

Indeed, the task of navy officers was again made more difficult. Only this time it was by international law. In the law of nations, domestic slaves had nothing to do with the slave trade. Domestic slaves at sea were considered to be the equivalent of domestic slavery on land. Both were believed to be matters which could only be dealt by the domestic laws of each

Repression of the slave trade 41 country. Unlike the repression of ‘the international slave trade’, interfering with domestic slavery was seen as an unlawful interference with the ‘sacrosanct’ sovereignty of States.81 Year after year, British Secretaries of State had repeated to consuls and navy officers that their mission was to stop the foreign slave trade on the high seas and not to deal with domestic slavery because it depended alone upon the sovereign will of each country to abolish it or not. It could not lawfully be interfered with by any of Britain’s representatives.82

To a certain extent, the Royal Navy was a victim of its own ‘modernity’ or its alleged ‘superiority of civilisation’. Her great steam vessels as well as her respect of international legal norms - the very symbols of her military and moral power - made the repression of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean almost impossible. As this chapter demonstrated, the Indian Ocean slave trade was too great a challenge. It was beyond the navy officers’ material, legal, linguistic, and cultural capabilities.83 Their failure was not only the result of a lack of appropriate material resources, it also was the result of their inability to interpret and understand the reality they were facing while at sea. In spite of their failure, these men were paradoxically celebrated by the popular printing press. To politicians and anti-slavery campaigners, they were heroes that could easily generate a certain degree of national pride and a useful political support. Paradoxically, anti-slavery in East Africa was both forced upon a reluctant administration by navy officers who were eager to genuinely fulfil abolitionists’ ideals. Even though they were reluctant to fully engage anti-slavery expenditures in East Africa, British governments were always keen to use this ‘humanitarian crusade’ to fuel a national sentiment of moral and imperial superiority over other European nations. As we will see in the next chapter, France, wrongly portrayed as the main actor of the Indian Ocean slave trade, served particularly well this narrative in creating a perfect contrast with the alleged pure and noble humanitarian motives of the British nation. Again anti-slavery was reduced to a simplistic opposition of good versus evil.

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