Anti-slavery and imperial strategies or the making of a British Sultan in Zanzibar

The classic opposition between humanitarian interference and national sovereignty was in Zanzibar more complex than it seemed at first glance. In 1870, the Sultan published a decree to show that he had acted to protect the dhows of his subjects against the abuses of the Royal Navy in giving his consent for the establishment of a Vice-Admiralty Court on the island. The decree, posted on the walls of the city, stated that ‘no damages will be caused to the vessels of our subjects before they will be brought back to Zanzibar; no dhows will be burned before they will be tried in Zanzibar where justice will rule, and it is only in the event of a conviction that the dhow will be burned’.25

In allowing British interference the Sultan meant to protect his subjects from the abuses of the Royal Navy. In December 1883 ‘the native vessel “Sahalah” sailing under Zanzibar colours and papers, owned by Saeed-bin-Sobeit, and whereof Saleh is master’ was condemned ‘on the ground that she was engaged in the slave trade ... and ordered to be destroyed by the court’.26 Kirk reported the procedure - as in any other case - to both the Admiralty and the Foreign Office. He explained that the ‘vessel was seized by Her Majesty’s ship “Osprey” on the 26th ultimo [26 November 1883], at the entrance of the Zanzibar channel’.2’ He was the sole judge in the matter and stressed that ‘the case presented considerable difficulties, owing to the fact that certain half-caste Arabs, who were also passengers on board, had availed themselves of the occasion to bring few Comoro slaves for sale’. Kirk also highlighted that in this case, procedures ‘lasted uninterruptedly for six days’ examining papers and witnesses. According to him, condemnation came only when the ‘facts were fully proved after examination of some hundreds of Swahili letters found on board’.28 Like in any other case, Kirk attached to the letter sent to the Foreign Secretary a decree, a receipt for slaves, a certificate of admeasurement [of the vessel], a certificate as to destruction [of the vessel], and proceeds of sales [of the vessel’s cargo]. The receipt for slaves and the certificate of admeasurement were used by the Treasury to pay H.M.S. Osprey its bounties. Out of 35 cases judged at the Vice-Admiralty Court between January 1870 and March 1875, only eight were ruled out in favour of the dhow owners to the detriment of the Navy.29 This was a poor result but nonetheless an improvement when compared with before. The Sultan had saved a few vessels knowing that his own fleet and judicial authority could never stop the movement initiated by British anti-slave trade treaties. His father, Seyyid Said founder of the

Zanzibar Sultanate, and himself had only imposed and kept his informal power over East Africa in cooperating with British anti-slavery policies.30 For instance, the 1845 Hamterton treaty forbidding the export of slaves outside the Seyyid Said’s African dominions had been a victory for the Sultan in the sense it provided ‘formal recognition by a major European power of his claims to territories in coast East Africa’.31 Following this example, the Vice-Admiralty Court in Zanzibar both diminished and supported the Sultans’ powers. Seyyid Majid reinforced them in strengthening his cooperation with Great-Britain against the slave trade while he weakened his sovereignty in letting the British Consul enforce justice over his subjects on his island when it came to the slave trade.

The Court also imposed limits to the powers of the Royal Navy in checking the system of bounties for ships and slaves captured at sea. A point which the Sultan probably did not miss even though he might not have been aware of how this worked. We now need to have a quick look at it in order to get a better understanding of what really was at stake on a financial point of view. The system of bounties had been set up in the first half of the nineteenth century in the Atlantic.32 Christopher Lloyd points out that this system born out of the 1807 Abolition Act was reformed several times until the Naval Pay and Prize Act of 1854.33 In East - or West - Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century ‘the system of tonnage bounties of £4-4s-Od or of £l-10s-Od coupled with £5 a slave bounty was not insignificant to crewmen of the anti-slavery cruisers’.34 H.M.S. Daphne under the command of Captain G. L. Sulivan, between the 6 October 1867 and 4 November 1868, captured for examples 16 ships and ‘freed’ 442 slaves, among which 177 escaped. A total bounty of £7,164.10 was awarded and divided among the 145 crew members, with the understanding that ‘the captain of the ship received one third; senior lieutenants, masters, etc., received ten shares each; junior lieutenants, chaplains, surgeons, mates, etc., six shares; midshipmen three; warrant officer two; able and ordinary seamen one; volunteers one-third of a share’.35 At the end of the 1860s, one navy officer publicly confessed in a popular account of his anti-slave trade patrols on the East African coast, that ‘many captains have gone to the extreme when prize money has been the sole motive and captured every dhow with even a shadow of a slave on board’.36 H. C. Rothery, legal adviser to the Treasury in all matters relating to the slave trade acknowledged that the bounties system led in fact to abuses.37 This also explains why a ViceAdmiralty Court was needed in Zanzibar. The British government wanted to impose a better supervision to the Royal Navy anti-slavery operations in the Western Indian Ocean on a legal and financial point of view.

Philip Colomb noted that ‘an active ship, fairly lucky, might in my time [the 1860s] expect to claim from the Treasury about £2,000 in any one year for slave trade captures, of which the admiral would receive £60, the captain about £170, leaving £1,500 for division amongst officers and crew. A very successful cruise has been known to produce as much as £10,000 gross claim, bur in such cases, heavy damages in restitution have sometimes materially diminished the sum for distribution’.58 In fact, antislave trade patrols were not only motivated by the great humanitarian principles, which the anti-slavery movement had rooted within British society since rhe end of the eighteenth century, but also by money.59 It was estimated by the Treasury, that suppression of the slave trade on the east coast of Africa approximately cost Britain £50,000 per year in the 1870s. In comparison, it is estimated that a total of £1,061,861 was paid in bounties by the British Treasury for 116,862 ‘liberated slaves’ to the Royal Navy anti-slave trade squadrons in the Atlantic between 1807 and 18 4 6.40 On one hand, anti-slavery helped to foster Britain’s imperial influence overseas, yet on the other hand, it consumed a significant part of her finances in order to rescue men, women, and children from the horrors of slavery. Historians, such as Seymour Drescher, have argued that this financial commitment showed that Britain’s humanitarian concern was undoubtedly true and sincere. Drescher stated that ‘in the course of six decades (c.1860-1863), during which Britain pioneered antislavery initiatives almost unaided by the world’s other great powers, those initiatives cost metropolitan citizens 1.8 per cent of their national income’.41 Other historians, such as Padraic X. Scanlan, have questioned Dresher’s argument in showing how anti-slavery policies could also be a source of power and enrichment for a few navy officers, colonial officials, and abolitionists in taking the example of Sierra Leone during the first half of the nineteenth century.42 Nevertheless, it is far from evident that what took place in Sierra Leone, even if it casts clear doubts over the sincerity of a few influential individuals, can be applied to the rest of Vice-Admiralty Courts and Mixed Commissions around the world, not to mention abolitionism as a whole. At Zanzibar for example, no archival material have yet been found letting us think that Dr Kirk enjoyed more wealth thanks to his position as judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court there. Had it been the case it is very unlikely that French Consuls would have not revealed the scandal and tried to take advantage of it.

Even though money was undoubtedly a source of motivation, a great number of navy officers had chosen the anti-slave trade patrols on the east coast of Africa, because they had been moved by ‘the horrors’ of this ‘unhuman traffic’ as Verney Lovett Cameron recalled it in 1877.45 Though officers and sailors received substantial bounties, they also constantly faced death and diseases in East Africa, even though mortality rates were probably not as high as in West Africa.44 Looking honestly at British sailors’ difficult living conditions while patrolling against the slave trade on the east coast of Africa makes it difficult to think that money was their sole and only motivation. In West Africa, Mary Wills has proved that ‘prize money was [only] one of the few advantages of the service’ and insisted that ‘notions of abolitionism, humanitarianism, and morality played a significant part in defining their [navy officers] commitment to the cause’

Table 4.1 Number of cases adjudicated by the Vice-Admiralty

Court in Zanzibar, 1867-1884.77


Number of dhows captured and adjudicated by the Vice-Admiralty Court in Zanzibar

Slaves ‘captured’ and ‘liberated’










since ‘employment was ... notoriously unpopular [because it was too perilous]’.45 In East Africa, famous officers like Sulivan, Colomb, and Devereux demonstrated similar sources of motivations not only in the narratives they published but more importantly in their private papers.46

At Zanzibar’s Vice-Admiralty Court, a total of around 420 cases were adjudicated and 7,819 slaves ‘liberated’ between 1867 and 1884 as we can see in Table 4.1. Unfortunately, this research was not able to assess the total amount of bounties distributed during this period. Looking at the activity of the Court shows, however, how important it became for anti-slavery in East Africa and Zanzibar. As argued before, if the Vice-Admiralty Court represented a great interference with the Sultan’s sovereignty, it was also a sort of guarantee that British consular authorities in Zanzibar would supervise and control the actions of the navy. To a certain extent, the loss of sovereignty conceded by the Sultan, on one hand, was a gain on the other. The navy was now subjugated to a civil power upon which the Sultan could exercise his influence. At least, this power was not outside the physical limits of his sovereignty. It seemed easier to defend the interests of his subjects before British Consuls in Zanzibar than with navy officers cruising on a distant ship. In 1871, Kirk reported that ‘in every case tried before me as a judge in the Vice-Admiralty Court I have invariably forwarded the sultan at the commencement of the proceedings a note of the affidavit made by the captors and the information at my disposal as the owners of those interested in the cargo. Thereupon the sultan has caused his Wuzeer to attend in defence of the interests of his subjects, and whenever that agent has asked for an adjournment of proceedings, decision has been reserved and a time fixed for the hearing of further evidence’.47 This clearly established that the Sultan could implement his sovereignty better with a British Vice-Admiralty Court than without, even though he had lost some of his judicial powers over Zanzibar’s fleet of dhows, the very heart of his own imperial power in the Indian Ocean.

Moreover, Kirk even proposed to the navy ‘an arrangement... authorizing the various Arab Governors along the coast to receive over and give a receipt for any vessel detained on suspicion, the sultan to be himself responsible for the due surrender of the same according to the decision of this Court, and this His Highness was willing to grant’.48 This could have reinforced the Sultan’s powers on the coast, but the navy refused. Kirk was ‘told by Sir Leopold Heath, the Commodore commanding the British squadron, that in his opinion such an arrangement is not desirable’.49 Kirk, however, insisted that he ‘expect|ed] to find that our cruisers will be forced to allow many cases in which the suspicion of slave-dealing is strong to go free from the impossibility of bringing them to a port of adjudication, whereas under the system proposed they might have been left in charge of the Arab authorities, and the crew duly brought to court’.50 If the navy had not refused Kirk’s proposal the Sultan would have preserved his sovereignty more than he eventually did. Even if it failed Kirk’s proposal shows that consular authorities were more inclined to delegate and collaborate with the Sultan to implement Britain’s anti-slavery policies on the east coast of Africa.

Notwithstanding, Seyyid Majid could not expect Kirk, or his successors, to build a far greater power of interference than the navy could ever have dreamed of. As we will see in Chapter Five, Kirk was a typical humanitarian of his time and a man, like Bartie Frere, who also favoured the alliance of humanitarianism and imperialism, following the footsteps of his dear friend David Livingstone. Kirk’s career mirrors particularly well how imperial and humanitarian interference relied on each other at Zanzibar. According to Raymond Howell, Kirk was ‘the archetype of the British man-on-the-spot in East Africa’.51 Howell added that Kirk had a leopard in the Courtroom of Zanzibar’s Vice-Admiralty Court. According to him, he warned all the persons testifying before him that the leopard ‘if you speak the truth ... won’t touch you, but if you tell any lies, he’ll have you as you go out’.52 True or not this story shows that Kirk had within the Court - at least as a reputation -immense powers and acted as a kind of despot. Humanitarian issues had given him the occasion to extend his consular powers. Kirk was no reluctant abolitionist nor ‘absent minded’ imperialist either.53 With him, both were meant to strengthen each other as we should now see.

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