Dhows and the Indian Ocean slave trade: International law or imperial politics?

In International law, the right of visit, search, and seizure of merchant’s vessels by the navy of a foreign nation had originally been restricted to times of war. In times of peace, only pirates were liable to this exceptional procedure.1 Throughout the nineteenth century however, the right of visit was used by the Royal Navy to allow warships to stop, inspect, and seize any merchant vessels suspected of slave trading.2 The fact that the British navy used the right of visit, search, and seizure in a time of peace represented a huge revolution of international law and international relations, whether in theory or practice.3 In the views of most British politicians, humanitarian motives rightly justified this breach into the sovereignty of states and the freedom of the seas.4 In short, the right of visit questioned both international relations and international law. This chapter will first highlight how the right of visit and search became Britain’s favourite weapon against the slave trade at sea and examine why it created such a great controversy between Britain and France in Zanzibar waters during the second half of the nineteenth century. We should see that disputes over the French flag and the right of visit not only reflected imperial rivalry but also more importantly raised complex questions of international law. Last but not least, this chapter looks into the question of French indentured labour and the fate of British liberated slaves. It will outline the paradoxical consequences of the right of visit and the limits of ‘freedom’ in the age of abolition and empire.

The right of visit: humanitarianism or imperialism?

Before it came to Zanzibar and the Western Indian Ocean, the question of the right of visit and search had already poisoned Anglo-French relations in the Atlantic around the 1840s.5 As Lawrence C. Jennings highlighted it, ‘from 1841 to 1845 a disagreement over ... the “right of search” question, tended to divide not only the two governments but the two people’.6 On both sides of the Channel, Parliament and the popular press revived old and strong nationalist feelings tainted with either anglophobia or francophobia.7 Jean Allain points out that ‘the seizing of two French ships by the Royal Navy in particular - the Senegambie and the Marabout - was a rallying point for anti-British sentiment in France’.8 The illegal capture of those vessels considered as slavers, as well as the mistreatment of their crews, contributed to destroying the credibility of the British arguments in favour of the right of visit and search. Moreover, the Marabout crisis reminded the French public of older cases and controversies, such as the seizure of the Louis in 1817. Returning from Africa to Martinique, this vessel was seized by the Royal Navy on suspicion of slave trading. However, the French crew resisted capture: three French, as well as 12 British sailors, unfortunately, died during the fight.9 On appeal before the British High Court of Admiralty, the seizure was declared illegal as no convention existed between France and Britain allowing the Royal Navy to seize French ships.10 As a result, in the eyes of the French government and the French public opinion, the right of visit in times of peace was perceived both as a nefarious abuse of British power and a humiliation of the French flag, as already mentioned in the previous chapter.

In 1841, an influential member of the French Parliament, Thomas Jollivet, published a popular pamphlet in which he mocked - just as the whole French Parliament did at the time - the head of French Foreign Affairs, François Guizot, when he defended the signature of a new anti-slave trade treaty in which the mutual right of visit and search was granted to Britain. Guizot, an ardent anglophile, justified his position in pointing that ‘abolition of the slave trade in England’ was ‘a moral movement’.11 In this view, this movement had to be joined by France if she wanted to remain a great power and ‘a civilised nation’. Accordingly, Guizot signed in London the Quintuple treaty with Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Great Britain in order to put back France at the forefront of the struggle against the slave trade. Because the treaty contained articles establishing, in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, the mutual right of visit and search between all signatory powers, it was never ratified by the French Parliament.12 Between 1815 and 1848, anti-slavery policies in France were not as central to political life as in Britain. Abolitionism did not really meet a broad support whether in public opinion or in the political arena. The ‘Société de la morale chrétienne’ (1821-1861) and the ‘Société française pour l’abolition de l’esclavage’ (1834-1848) never went beyond confidential and elitist circles.13 Besides, as Olivier Grenouilleau points out, ‘abolitionists were often seen as traitors and accused of hoping for the ruin of their country’, especially since the international anti-slavery movement was led by Britain.14 British motives behind the abolition of the slave trade always remained deeply suspicious across all sections of French society. This suspicion towards British anti-slavery is well illustrated by the report the French Consul in Zanzibar, M. Gaillard, sent in 1877 to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In his letter, he declared: ‘thanks to the repression of the slave trade, Britain has established her influence all over the coast of Africa and Arabia as far as the very end of the Persian Gulf. It gives her a perpetual pretext to meddle in everything and, as a consequence, to take advantage of it in order to increase her influence’.15

In France, it was believed that Britain only wanted the right of visit and search to disrupt and ‘replace the commerce of her rivals’.16 As it has been summarized by the French historian Serge Daget, ‘it was thought that the jealous rival was ostensibly using humanitarian means to foster its ambitions for political, commercial and ... military hegemony’.17 Moreover, ‘French statesmen never ceased to discover hidden levels of realpolitik, arrogance, and hypocrisy in British abolitionist initiatives’.18 Meanwhile, French politicians and diplomats were not the only ones to believe that Britain had a sort of hidden agenda when she tried to impose the right of visit and search. In 1895 for instance, ‘US Ambassador Eugene Schuyler, a career diplomat, wrote that “the real reason” for attempting to end the slave trade “was fairly well concealed under the mask of philanthropy”’19 For these reasons, in a context of growing imperial tensions between France and Great Britain, the question of the right of visit, as well as the question of the French flag, continued to be a most controversial issue in the Indian Ocean until The Hague Arbitration took place (1905) as we will see in Chapter Eight.

Ironically, French critics of the right of visit still summarize quite well some key aspects of the ongoing historiographical debate over England’s motivations behind her anti-slavery policies in East Africa or elsewhere.20 While early histories, such as the most influential Reginald Coupland, praised the abolition of slavery in East Africa as a confirmation of the humanitarian greatness of the British Empire, others, like Richard D. Wolf, saw the anti-slave trade campaign as ‘a cloak to disguise or give spurious justification to the economic and political objectives and strategies ... of British Imperialism’.21 As noted in the introduction to this book, the debate over the nature of imperialism and its relationship with abolition is today as fierce as ever. It is interesting to see that contemporaries already debated these questions in relative similar terms. The debate over the right of visit should, therefore, be seen as a broader controversy over the nature of the British abolition policies and its relationship to imperialism.

French and British diplomatic archives dealing with Zanzibar can shed an interesting light on this debate. It is for example possible to examine if the right of visit was often diverted from its original purpose or not. Among the 60 cases, or so, that divided France and Britain over the right of visit and the slave trade between 1858 and 1914 in the Indian Ocean -see Table 2.5 in Chapter Two - only a third of them, about 20, proved to have been abusively conducted by British Navy officers. Among these cases, even less appear to have had the purpose to deter or eliminate French traders from Zanzibar waters. For instance, three French dhows were burned whereas they carried legitimate goods and trade in 1867, 1869, and 1879.22 All in all, the abuse of military power in the name of anti-slavery seems to have been quite limited in Zanzibar waters during the second half of the nineteenth century as far as France was concerned. If the right of visit gave Britain a certain naval pre-eminence it was not systematically used to eliminate her rivals, among which France was the greatest. However, these few cases of abuse had a great impact upon the diplomatic and public debate since they allowed contemporaries to address bigger issues of international relations.

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