The unexpected consequences of anti-slavery

But it was not only Kirk’s career at Zanzibar which demonstrated that the approval of a Vice-Admiralty Court had led to unexpected political consequences for both the Sultan and Her Majesty’s government. In early 1870, Queen Victoria’s Secretary of State, the Earl of Clarendon, sent a letter to Churchill, still Consul, at the time, in which he stated ‘the anxiety of Her Majesty’s Government to drive this horrible trade [the slave trade] from its last stronghold on the east coast [Zanzibar]’.54 Although he recommended that the ‘process should be gradual’, he instructed Churchill to force upon the Sultan several new and more stringent anti-slave trade measures. First, he told Churchill to convince the Sultan ‘to limit the shipment of slaves to one point only on the African coast’ and ‘to make Zanzibar the only port of reception of slaves’.55 Clarendon also desired ‘that every vessel engaged

British Vice-Admiralty Court in Zanzibar 111 in the transport of slaves should be liable to capture unless ... provided with a proper pass from the sultan’, and, last but not least, ‘that the public slave markets should be closed’.56 British plans of imperial interference with Zanzibar’s domestic affairs were here clearly justified through humanitarian principles; namely the struggle against the slave trade. Of course, Clarendon expected the Sultan to have some demands, but, in his eyes, the matter was already settled. He wrote that when ‘the sultan will ... inquire what Her Majesty’s Government can offer in return for the concessions which they ask him to make’, the British Consul should ‘inform him that instructions have already been sent to the Commanders of Her Majesty’s cruisers, which will entirely prevent, except in exceptional cases, the destructions of dhows at time of their capture; and that every facility will in future be given for a fair and impartial trial’.57 In Clarendon’s mind, the Vice-Admiralty Court was what the Sultan already got in return for his future concessions! In the name of the repression of the slave trade, the British government was gradually implying more and more interference into Zanzibar’s domestic affairs. If Sultan Seyyid Majid refused what Churchill tried to impose upon him in 1870, Sultan Sayyid Barghash could not resist the threat of a naval blockade that Kirk used to make him sign the 1873 treaty banning slave trade in his African dominions as it will be shown in Chapter Six.

Indeed, if the 1873 treaty implemented most of Lord Clarendon’s 1870 wishes. Following the treaty, a new bill also extended the powers of the Vice-Admiralty Court in Zanzibar to any representative of British consular authorities within the Sultan’s dominions. This meant that any consular officer could set up a court to trial slave traders on land and sea in any part of the Sultanate.58 In 1876, as Coupland points it out, ‘Kirk secured the appointment of British vice-consuls at Kilwa, Mombasa, Lamu and other ports and of a consular agent at distant Ujiji [on the shores of lake Tanganyika]’.5’ Moreover, in 1878, Kirk notified the British government that he ‘will employ a larger number of natives ... in order to ... prevent a revival of the Traffic’ as H.M.S. London was ‘the only vessel now on the East Coast of Africa’.60 In 1883, Kirk reported to the Foreign Office that he had ‘obtained the sultan’s written recognition of these officers [Commander Gissing and Mr. Haggard] as vice-consuls within his dominions and given this, together with the Queen’s commission, into their hands’.61 He added he had ‘presented them personally to His Highness, and received his assurance of co-operation when they should be placed in charge of districts on the coast’.62 Kirk ended his report in stressing he had kept these officers in Zanzibar for a while in order to ‘familiarize [them] with the working of the treaties, and the rules for their observance, both in the slave trade and commercial matters’.63

Even though these vice-consuls had very limited powers in reality, their existence demonstrates how the influential British Consul in Zanzibar was gradually trying to expand the consulate’s powers within the Sultanate inestablishing a consular network on the continent. Kirk and the British government did this on the basis of anti-slave trade treaties and diplomacy. Vice-consuls were also in charge of commercial matters as it was believed, in the Slave Trade Department and among most British abolitionists, that free trade and commerce will certainly put an end to slave trade and slavery.64 On a juridical point of view and as far as anti-slavery was concerned, the British government had imposed its rule in some upon the Sultan. This can be considered as one interesting case, among others, of Britain’s ‘humanitarian interference’ based on anti-slavery. The Niger expedition led in 1841 is another major example of this kind of ‘anti-slavery interference’ which Britain applied to West Africa. There the Royal Navy often forced local powers to ratify treaties against the slave trade using military raids and bombardments, as in Dahomey and Lagos in 1851, or naval blockades, like in Sierra Leone in 1840.65

To a certain extent, this ‘humanitarian interference’ could only be implemented thanks to Britain’s superior naval power and her wide consular network. However, according to Howell, the growing importance of consular interference with Zanzibar’s sovereignty was the result of Kirk’s rivalry with the navy and his taste for imperial power. Howell argued that Kirk wanted to reinforce the powers of his consulate to the detriment of the navy since ‘his reports continued to reflect a general hostility to the whole range of naval suppression as he attempted to minimize the navy’s importance while stressing the role played by his consular establishment’.66 To back his argument, Howell quoted Kirk writing to Lord Derby in 1877: ‘the Navy is of itself when single handed the most inefficient and at the same time costly means employed’.67 To make his point even stronger, Howell also quoted Kirk writing in 1875 that ‘whilst slavery exists in Zanzibar, our Navy is powerless to stop it’.68 Howell’s main thesis stressed that the role of the navy has been undermined by historians mainly because they centred their writings and studies on Kirk’s papers following Coupland’s seminal work.69 If Howell was right to point out that the role of the navy in the suppression of the East African slave trade was, at his time, underestimated by British historiography, he might have, however, overstated a little the importance of the rivalry between Kirk and the navy. Of course, Kirk had many disagreements with navy officers over the seizure or destruction of vessels but it was just over a minority of cases as we have seen earlier on. Besides, some vice-consuls, consuls, or officials appointed by the British government in the Indian Ocean were former navy officers such as Captain Foot in 1883 or Lloyd William Mathews who became head of the Zanzibar British Protectorate in 1891.70 Collaboration between navy and consular authorities was essential to strengthen the power of both in the Sultanate. Notwithstanding, Howell was right in pointing that, under the influence of Kirk, British imperial influence in East Africa was shifting from an informal power exercised by the navy at sea to a formal power over land implemented by consuls. In this case, humanitarianism had been openly used to forward British imperialism.

More than ‘a secret and hidden plan’ for colonisation, it was the evolution of the nature of the slave trade after 1874 that explained the Consul’s new strategy on land. Kirk shifted the focus point of anti-slave trade policies in Zanzibar after the 1873 treaty. If the British Consul pointed out that the action and the presence of the navy had been totally ineffective, it was because the revival of the slave trade on land was now the main problem British authorities had to deal with. Kirk was quick to outline that ‘while the sea transport and the public slave markets, both in Zanzibar and on the coast, have been effectually closed, I have now to report that a vigorous effort is being made to develop the overland route’.71 Kirk’s feelings were confirmed by Vice-Consul Elton’s report in 1874 on Dar es Salaam and the coast. Elton stated that the slave trade by land had soared since the 1873 treaty had been signed in Zanzibar. He reported that, between 21 December 1873 and 20 January 1874, a total of 4,096 slaves had taken the inland route between Dar es Salaam and Kilwa.72 Navy officers, such as Captain Prideaux, also concluded that ‘the transport of slaves by land [was] now carried on to an unprecedented extent’.73

This caused British anti-slavery policy to shift focus from sea to land. It resulted in more direct interference and intervention in the Sultan’s dominions. It partly was an unforeseen consequence of the 1873 treaty. Bartie Frere and others had not thought of this problem at any stage of their campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in Zanzibar waters. The cooperation of naval and consular powers was now central to the repression of the traffic in East Africa. In 1873, Vice-Consul Elton and Captain Prideaux both relied on each other to assess the importance of the slave trade on land and at sea. While Elton watched inland routes, Prideaux supervised the maritime traffic and watched ports on the coast. He was always ready to intervene if the vice-consul needed assistance.74 As Christopher Lloyd points out ‘the Slave Trade was thus suppressed by the twin weapons of diplomatic pressure and the exercise of naval power’.75 In fact, this will clearly appear in the following chapter even though the slave trade did not cease to exist, as Howell claimed, but ‘persisted for another half a century’ in the Western Indian Ocean.76 In the case of the Zanzibar Vice-Admiralty Court as for the Bartie Frere mission studied in the following chapter, humanitarianism became a tool of British imperialism when men on the spot were able to pressure their government and force them to engage a more forward policy.

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