The French flag in the Indian Ocean: Myth or reality?

Between 1860 and 1900, British authorities repeatedly accused the French government of fostering the Indian Ocean slave trade as France allowed Indian Ocean dhows to fly the French flag. This chapter intends to show readers how dhows flying the French flag became synonymous with slavers in the British anti-slavery discourse throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Using British and French archives and new historical data -mainly drawn from the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, the Slave Trade Department as well as the correspondence of the French consulate in Zanzibar - this chapter will challenge rhe idea that the French flag was the major factor explaining the persistence of the Indian Ocean slave trade after 1860. It will make clear that if dhows under the French flag played a quite substantial role in the illegal slave trade across the Indian Ocean, they were far from being the main actor in this traffic. Controversies around the French flag mirrored and crystallised Anglo-French imperial rivalries in the Indian Ocean. Dhows flying the French flag were a challenge to Britain’s imperial order - the famous ‘Pax Britannica’ - maintained by the Royal Navy in Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. French dhows were also vital to French colonies and French colonial influence in this part of the world. Consequently, France would maintain coûte que coûte, the policy of issuing French flags to Indian Ocean dhows even if the government was aware of their most dubious nature.

Dhows under the French flag: evils under French colours?

In an 1869 report to the head of the British East Africa Naval Squadron, Captain Edward Spencer Meara mentioned the case of a dhow engaged in the slave trade flying the French flag. Meara, born in Ireland, had joined the navy at the age of 18. Like G. L. Sulivan mentioned in Chapter One, he had already served in the West African anti-slavery squadron in the 1850s, most notably in Sierra Leone and Lagos.1 He was an experienced officer engaged in anti-slavery for a couple of decades. Meara had boarded this vessel flying the French colours to check its papers ‘off the town of Majunga’ in West

Madagascar while carrying out his duty against the East African slave trade on H.M.S. Nymphe. He suspected it to be illegally engaged in the slave trade. In fact, he found on board ‘13 slave women and 4 boys ... who stated that they had been bought at Zanzibar’.2 Unfortunately, Meara could not seize this dhow and free these women and children. He could not take the slave traders for a trial to the British Vice-Admiralty in Zanzibar either.

This dhow legally flew the French flag, and provided this vessel with a protection against any visit or search unless carried by French authorities. France had always refused to ratify a treaty on the mutual right of visit and search with Britain since 1841. Anglo-French relations had then been through one of their most serious diplomatic crises in the nineteenth century over this question.3 The confrontation only ended when a convention was signed by both parties in 1845. This treaty, however, only allowed British officers to check the papers of vessels flying the French flag.4 In 1867, France and Britain signed a secret agreement maintaining these conditions showing how touchy the whole problem was.5 This meant that Meara could only look at the vessels’ legal documents and not conduct a search or an inspection. In the French political arena, the right of visit and search was a very serious matter. France’s refusal mirrored the old Anglo-French antagonism which had taken shape with Britain during the Second Hundred Years’ War (1715-1815), the humiliation endured after Waterloo in 1815, and the growing colonial rivalries of the nineteenth century.6 It was such a sensitive issue that any incident at sea could trigger a new major crisis between Paris and London. Meara knew it and he could not but let the slaver go.

In arresting this dhow, captain Meara encountered the limits imposed by international law and the sovereignty of states to British anti-slavery operations at sea. Paradoxically, the law of nations did not permit Meara to rescue fellow human beings from slavery as British anti-slavery policies, and his own abolitionist convictions, commanded him. He could not fulfil his moral and legal obligations as a British navy officer, an abolitionist, or a man. In the eyes of this British navy officer, the situation must have seemed completely absurd. His frustration could not be greater. He could only notify this ‘incident’ to French authorities hoping their own naval squadron would take appropriate measures. By the time his report would reach the French, the slave traders, and their ‘human cargo’ would undoubtedly long be gone! Meara probably thought that this was not only a terrible blow to Britain’s naval power in the Indian Ocean, but also a disgrace for Britain and its flag. After all, how could the Royal Navy let slavers carry on their traffic without losing some of her power and prestige?

Besides, this was no trivial accident. In fact, Meara’s report on French dhows was far from being an exception in British parliamentary papers throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1869 and 1870, the Foreign Office repeatedly called the attention of the French government to the ‘rapid increase in the number of native craft under the French flag on the east coast of Africa, and the presumption that the flag is abused to protect the slave trade’.7 Lord Clarendon, then British Secretary of State, insisted that ‘if the system of carrying slaves under French colours continued much longer the efforts of the British cruisers for the suppression of the slave trade between Zanzibar and Madagascar would be fruitless’.8 In other words, France, Britain’s greatest imperial rival, could be taken as responsible if the Royal Navy failed to end the slave trade in the Indian Ocean and complete the ‘inglorious crusade’ she had started in the Atlantic.9 Considering the importance of anti-slavery in shaping British national politics and identity in the nineteenth century, this could not be acceptable to any government, and above all public opinion.10

In the 1870s, the theme of the French flag used to conceal the Indian Ocean slave trade became recurrent in British anti-slavery literature. According to Philip Colomb for instance, dhow captains obtain ‘the rights to fly the French flag ... and carry on their nefarious practices [the slave trade] under its protecting folds’.11 In 1878, a former navy officer of the East African Squadron wrote to The Times that ‘if you were to ask any old “boat cruiser” [someone who has served in anti-slave trade patrols on small boats in East African waters] ... he would probably tell you that if there were less dhows under French colours there would be considerably less slaving’.12 In the 1880s, the question of the French flag in the Indian Ocean was still an important issue for British navy officers to deal with. In fact, nearly one French dhow a year was caught by the Royal Navy while engaged in the slave trade between 1860 and 1903 as shown in Table 2.5. In 1882, the commander-in-chief on the East Indian Station insisted on ‘the large extent to which the slave trade is encouraged and its prevention impeded by the refusal of the French government to allow dhows carrying the French flag to be boarded and searched by the boats of Her Majesty’s ships’.13 In fact, the question of the slave trade and the French flag actually continued to be a problem for British authorities in Zanzibar until the late nineteenth century as we will see through Chapter Eight in more details. Although the traffic officially been declared moribund in 1890 after the establishment of the British protectorate, there were still some cases of slave trade in which the French flag was involved.14 In 1893, a scandal broke out in the Daily Mail regarding the importance of illegal slave trade in Zanzibar after a dhow flying the French flag was caught with slaves in the harbour.15 Later, in 1899, Captain Bearcroft reported that after ‘twenty one slaves were discovered by the local authorities on board a dhow in Zanzibar harbour under the French flag ... there were rumours that others, also under French colours, had sailed with slaves on board’.16 The repression of the slave trade thus brought back flags of convenience into the spotlight of international relations. The question was not completely a new one since American and Spanish flags had been at the heart of similar controversies during the first half of the century in the Atlantic.17 The American flag for instance, ‘became the flag of convenience for slave

French flag in the Indian Ocean 49 traders worldwide’ and ‘provided cover for the shipment of more than a million Africans ... between 1820 and I860’.18 However, in the eyes of the British authorities and public opinion, illegal slave trading was always identified with rhe French flag in Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Although Napoleonic wars were over long ago, the French flag was once again Britain's most serious enemy. Undeniably, there was a real historical background behind the slaver reputation of the French flag in the Indian Ocean. Richard B. Allen estimates that over 380,000 slaves were shipped by French slave traders between 1700 and 1850. This was by far the largest share of the European slave trade in this part of the world.19

The archival material mentioned earlier certainly had a lasting influence over most of the historiography. Christopher Lloyd wrote in 1968 that ‘the French flag covered a multitude of sins’, meaning it concealed many illegal activities including the slave trade.20 Before him, Reginald Coupland, one of the most influential colonial historians of the 1930s, had stated that ‘Arab dhows were systematically using the French flag to cover slave smuggling’ in East Africa.21 Later, Raymond Howell stressed the role of the French flag in the persistence of the slave trade in the region.22 More recently Hideaki Suzuki insisted on the key role played by the French flag in the illegal traffic between 1850 and 1900 even though he was more nuanced in his views. Suzuki stressed ‘it is ... entirely reasonable to surmise that a significant number of ships transporting slaves in the Western Indian Ocean ... were hoisting the French flag’ but pointed that ‘it is important not to make the simple mistake of presuming that every ship sailing under the French flag was carrying slaves.23 However, he argued that ‘the [French] flag proved to be a major obstacle to British anti-slave trade operations right up to the early twentieth century’.24 By contrast, dhows were rarely seen so central to the continuation of the Indian Ocean slave trade in French archives or historiography. In 1910, Charles Brunet-Millon described them as wonderful sailing vessels rather than slavers, as we already noted in Chapter One. He only noted that a few had been condemned for being engaged in the slave trade.25 As a result, very little research was conducted on this issue in the French historiography except quite recently in the works of Colette Dubois, Samuel F. Sanchez, and Guillemette Crouzet or earlier on by Jacques Lafon, Jean Louis Miège, and François Renault.26

If French archives and historiography overlooked the slave trade under the French flag to a certain extent, its importance was however often exaggerated in British reports, and consequently in the historiography as most authors only relied on these sources. This clearly happened when Meara’s 1870 report, mentioned at the very beginning of this chapter, was forwarded to the Government of Bombay and the Foreign Office by Dr John Kirk, a leading anti-slavery figure, then political agent and acting consul in Zanzibar.27 While Meara lamented that ‘on the coast [of Madagascar] in 1868, the officers have reported to me that only ten dhows under French colourswere seen, ... this year I have seen as many as fifty, and I may say more under French colours,’ Kirk summarized his report in writing ‘to the south almost every dhow is now under the French flag’.28 Kirk even added that dhow owners told Meara ‘he had no right to touch them even if they had a cargo of slaves, politely showing their [French] papers’.29 The message delivered was clear: the French flag was used by most dhows to conceal the slave trade and avoid the British anti-slave trade squadron on the east coast of Africa. The same archival material was later used by historians, like Hideaki Suzuki for instance, to prove that the development of the illegal slave trade in the Indian Ocean was linked to the multiplication of dhows sailing with the French flag.30

In March 1870, the French government replied to British authorities that French colonial administration in Mayotte [Comoros] and Nossi-Bé [Madagascar] had received instructions ‘to deliver with a great care “les actes de francisation” [document allowing a ship to fly the French flag] to Arab vessels’ and only to owners who would not ‘compromise their interests in illegal operations’.31 The French government contested the number of dhows flying the French flag as reported by Captain Meara. Count Daru, then head of the French Foreign Office, mentioned that ‘the number of dhows allowed to fly the French flag, even though it raised, is far from the increase indicated’. He pointed out that ‘official documents established that in 1868 only twenty dhows [flew the French flag]’.32 According to the records kept by the French consulate in Zanzibar - See Table 2.1 below in - 20 French dhows had visited Zanzibar harbour throughout 1868 and 30 in 1869. Their number kept rising between 1860 and 1877; it went from 5 to 94. This reflected the increasing but very relative French imperial influence there.33

Table 2.1 Number of dhows under French colours which visited Zanzibar harbour between 1851 and 1903 according to the Zanzibar French Consular Archives (MAE, CADN, 748 POA 132).


Number of dhoias


Number of dhows


Number of dhows


Number of dhows


Number of dhows











































































































Table 2.2 Estimated number of

dhows sailing from Zanzibar in the nineteenth century according to J. L. Miege and the British Consul General in Zanzibar in 1893.


Estimated number of dhows









However, dhows flying the French flag only represented a small percentage of the overall number of Zanzibar dhows. Table 2.1 shows how the number of French dhows trading in Zanzibar evolved in the nineteenth century. These figures must be seen in parallel with the estimation of the total number of dhows visiting Zanzibar harbour during the same time period as shown in Table 2.2. We should nonetheless keep in mind that it is not possible to draw any precise statistics on this matter. Most dhows sailed without any papers or flags until the late nineteenth century. Additionally, even when they had documents dhow owners often transferred them from one vessel to another - or between different owners as well - without giving any notice to colonial authorities.34 It is only after the 1890 Brussels Conference that imperial powers forced most of them to register under a specific flag. This might explain the gap in the estimations of the number of dhows in Table 2.2 and the number of dhow registrations made in 1897 as shown in Table 2.3. British authorities were right when they denounced the increase of dhows under the French flag between the 1860s and the 1890s. Nonetheless, they overestimated this increase. At its highest, in 1897, dhows under the French flag were only 94 on a total of 1,804 as shown by Table 2.3. French dhows clearly represented a low percentage of all the dhows registered at Zanzibar. We should bear in mind that these

Table 2.3 Number of dhows registered in 1897 in Zanzibar according to the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau for the repression of the slave trade.


Number of dhows













figures give us a relatively clear picture of the dhow trade since the island was the busiest harbour in the region throughout this period.

Of course, it is likely that French authorities tried to underestimate the increase of dhows under their flag in order to avoid British complaints. According to the records of Mayotte and Nossi-Be, 148 dhows were registered under the French flag between 1868 and 1879.35 Even if it is difficult to give an exact figure of the total number of French dhows sailing the Indian Ocean in the second half of the nineteenth century, we can, however, guess that around 200-250 sailed with this flag throughout the whole period. This does not mean that this fleet reached this figure each year. French consular authorities in Zanzibar estimated that around 50 dhows flew their flag at the end of the 1880s and 94 at the end of the 1890s.36 The underestimation of French dhows was probably limited there. In 1893, for example, out of a total of 539 dhows, 302 were registered under the British flag while 237 were registered under the Sultan’s flag as Zanzibar dhows.37 Only 48 were registered under French colours.38

The British government was therefore wrong when it claimed that most dhows sailed under the French flag in the Indian Ocean throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. It is also important to point out the great number of dhows flying the British flag in the 1890s. They were far more numerous than the French. They reflected Britain’s imperial hegemony over the island. In a colonial context, ‘flags of convenience’ - we would come back to this question later in Chapter Eight - could also serve British imperial interests. In East Africa, it was not so unusual to sight a native vessel - a dhow from India for example - steered by a native crew under the British flag. Overall, 10,602 native sailing vessels flew the British flag throughout the British Empire in 1870 according to Lloyds statistical tables of the world’s merchant fleets.39

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