The Bartle Frere mission and the 1873 treaty: Humanitarian or imperial diplomacy?
At the beginning of the 1870s, after several decades of decline, the British anti-slavery movement reached a new climax.1 It was between the 1770s and the 1820s that this movement had, indeed, reached its zenith and achieved, to borrow Drescher’s words, an ‘abolitionism without revolution’.2 Influencing their ‘Parliament through massive opinion campaigns spread across the country in using petition as a weapon’, the humanitarian movement had forced upon Westminster the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, slavery in 1833, and apprenticeship in 1838.’’ Mobilising large sections of society, this powerful movement had durably shaped British national and international politics as well Britain’s cultural life and identity. Created by Joseph Sturge and Lord Henry Brougham in 1838, the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society (BFASS) aimed at pursuing the great struggle of its illustrious predecessors in influencing British foreign diplomacy and fostering abolition throughout the world.4 Unlike its predecessors, this Society had, however, not reached a wide audience or achieved a great influence in Britain even if it had moved abolitionism to a more global level through important and influential international conferences. This situation changed in the 1870s. Between 1870 and 1872, the East African slave trade and Zanzibar suddenly became a familiar topic in the British press thanks to the search for David Livingstone and the publications of his letters. In August 1872, this enthusiasm for the iconic missionary and the East African slave trade dominated the headlines of most British and European papers when the encounter between Livingstone and Stanley was published.5 This resulted in one of the most notable outbursts of popular humanitarianism and imperialism in the late Victorian age.6 It was in this particular context, in between Livingstone’s discovery in 1872 and his death in 1873, that Sir Bartie Frere successfully campaigned for an immediate intervention of the British government to put an end to the slave trade at sea within the Zanzibar Sultanate. This chapter investigates the genesis and the impact of the 1873 Bartie Frere mission on Zanzibar as well as on British anti-slavery and colonial expansion in East Africa. First of all, we should see that this diplomatic mission was unwillingly formed by the British government under the pressure of public opinion led by the
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BFASS and Henry Bartie Frere. This chapter then points that the new treaty imposed upon the Sultan of Zanzibar was not achieved through diplomacy but thanks to the military threat exercised by the British Consul, John Kirk. While British abolitionists had pressured a reluctant government in London, Kirk had used imperialism to forward abolitionism in Zanzibar, a point that raised issues amongst public opinion and political parties at home. Finally, we will try to assess if this demonstration of gunboat diplomacy was, or not, a decisive move towards European colonial expansion in East Africa.
The British government: a reluctant abolitionist under the pressure of public opinion
In 1870 and 1871, two Parliamentary Committees successively addressed in Westminster the issue of the East African Slave trade. The first Committee, as mentioned in Chapter Four, had been appointed, ‘in consequence of the complaints of irregular proceedings on the part of Her Majesty’s cruisers engaged in the suppression of the Slave Trade’.7 The second committee, called the Select Committee, was formed ‘to inquire into the whole question of the Slave Trade on the East Coast of Africa ... and the possibility of putting an end entirely to the Traffic in Slaves by Sea’.8 Its main conclusion was urging the government to intervene; namely ‘that all legitimate means should be used to put an end altogether to the East African slave trade’.9 However, the British government was totally opposed to this policy. Lord Clarendon, then Foreign Secretary under Gladstone’s administration, had already vigorously dismissed the same argument a year before. In June 1870, he had replied to the head of the BFASS secretary, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, that ‘the immediate prohibition of this traffic would ruin the island [and] might eventually compel England to take possession of Zanzibar’.10 The British government refused to impose immediate abolition in Zanzibar because this would, in his views, inevitably lead to colonisation. As the conclusion of the Select Committee show, influential humanitarians and imperialists had, nevertheless, agreed that a direct manifestation of British imperial might was necessary to suppress the slave trade in East Africa. It was the cornerstone upon which Bartie Frere would successfully build his campaign. This heralded a new age where British imperial and humanitarian policies would gradually go hand in hand.
In 1872, at the time of Stanley and Livingstone’s famous encounter, Sir Bartie Frere already had a ‘distinguished career as administrator and statesman of empire’.11 After being governor of Bombay (1862-1866), he was now an important member of the Council of India. Since 1868, Frere had also been a prominent member of the council of the Royal Geographical Society. This Society was powerful, not only in the field of exploration but also in imperial matters.12 With Livingstone, ‘the missionary, the explorer and the pioneer of empire’, the Society was at the crossroads of humanitarian and imperial activity and so was Frere, ‘endearing ... to humanitarians and imperialists alike’.13 A point well illustrated by Frere’s friendship with Livingstone. But to launch a British intervention against the East African slave trade, Frere had, first, to win over public opinion to get the attention of Parliament and pressure the government to shift his position. Thanks to David Livingstone Frere was able to do so.14 In their reports on the East African slave trade, the 1870 Committee and the 1871 Select Committee constantly referred to Livingstone’s letters and dispatches addressed to the British government. Humanitarians in both Committees insisted on the ‘cruelties and the horrors of the trade’ highlighted by Livingstone.15 These ‘horrors of the slave trade’ became a central aspect of the campaign led, during summer 1872, by the BFASS and Bartie Frere.16 To meet success, Frere also mobilised influential officials and humanitarian circles thanks to the BFASS, most notably Clement Hill and William Wylde at the Foreign Office.17 Under the influence of Livingstone, the Society’s members were one of the rare sections of British Society that initially had an interest in the matter.18
On 30 March 1872, Frere met them to discuss ‘what means could be taken to put a stop to this barbarous traffic in human beings on the East Coast of Africa’.19 After its heydays in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the British abolitionist movement had the chance to once again become one of the most popular and powerful humanitarian association in Victorian Society.20 The BFASS quickly organized two important public meetings in order to mobilise public opinion and Parliament in the course of 1872. At the first of these meetings held in the Friend’s Meeting-House in London in May 1872, Horace Waller, a follower of David Livingstone, made a very long and moving speech describing the ‘the first slave gang’ he ‘came across’ while travelling with the famous explorer in Nyasaland during the 1860s.21 Waller captured his audience in describing the horrors of the continental slave trade. He publicly recalled his memories: ‘a most terrible scene, than these men, women, and children I do not think I ever came across. To say that they were emaciated would not give you an idea of what human beings can undergo under certain circumstances’.22 Waller’s speech was reproduced several times in the press and certainly contributed to generating a large movement of sympathy. As seen in Chapter Three, it was written in the idiom of abolitionist literature depicting helpless ‘emaciated victims’, generating pity as the emotional response, and emboldening the reader to call for action against ‘enemies of humanity’. As Burbank and Cooper noted: ‘humanitarians, explorers, and propagandists ... publicised a picture of Africa as a place of slave trading and tyranny, in need of benevolent intervention’.23
Because of these ‘horrors,’ something had to be done; the British government had to intervene. Waller had already made this clear in the opening of his speech: ‘If you had been with me you would have done what Livingstone and all of us did - that is to say, no matter what complications
Bartie Frere mission and the 1873 treaty 121 might come between Portugal and England, we were resolved that this slave gang should not pass on’.24 State sovereignty did not matter; all that matter was to end the sufferings of the victims of the slave trade. Like Waller in his speech, Frere’s campaign aimed at imposing intervention against the slave trade in East Africa as a humanitarian obligation. It was a matter of ethics and morals. Intervention in the domestic affairs of Zanzibar consequently was legitimate. State sovereignty should be bypassed. As some International lawyers argued at the time - Chapter Nine will come back to this point in more depth - an intervention was justified ‘when a government ... violates the rights of humanity, either by measures contrary to the interests of other States or by an excess of cruelty and injustice ...’.2S Massacres or horrors were, indeed, one of the major factors not only justifying intervention in the nineteenth century but also possibly forcing governments to intervene or not. In April 1822 for example, the Scio Massacres - the Ottomans had slaughtered civilians in the Greek island of Chios - famously played a decisive role in mobilising public opinion and governments in Europe in favour of a military intervention to support Greece’s independence.26 Later in 1860, French military intervention in Lebanon and Syria was also justified by the massacre of a Christian minority called the Maronites.27
The strategy adopted by Frere and BFASS worked. A second meeting was held on 25 July 1872 in the Long Parlour of the Mansion House in London. This meeting was chaired by the Lord Mayor, Sir John Gibbons, and many influential members of Parliament were in attendance, all prominent humanitarians such as William Henry Smith or Charles Gilpin.28 Frere then made it clear that the government had to be under pressure to take action: ‘There was no prime minister, past, present, or future, who would not earnestly attend to this question [the suppression of the slave trade] if it were only brought before him as one of the pressing questions of the day’.29 This declaration is important because it reveals Frere’s tactics and also contradicts the old historiographical myth according to which Britain’s anti-slave trade policy was naturally rooted in her politics.30 As Seymour Drescher demonstrated, pressuring governments with ‘popular clamour’ had been at the core of the abolitionists’ successful political strategy since the early 1800s.31 Regarding the Indian Ocean, Drescher indicates that ‘without the intervention of the abolitionist movement, the British bureaucracy would not have moved to initiate action against the institution of slavery’.32 Frere’s campaign clearly highlights this point. As already noted, British governments decidedly were reluctant abolitionists.33 In only a few months, between March and July 1872, Frere had helped to mobilise a part of the elite at the Parliament in London mainly through the influence of the BFASS.34 Frere also contributed to the revival of the humanitarian movement in reaching a wider audience thanks to the press. The first meeting held by the Anti-Slavery Society and Bartie Frere in London on 29 May was not reported in the national or the provincial press, but the meeting on 25 July at Mansion House was covered in both local andnational newspapers.35 The campaign was going well. Frere finally got the support of most of the House of Commons and the press. Lord Granville started to yield to pressure publically declaring in the press, ‘there was little doubt that it was our duty to do the utmost to put that trade down’.36 A few days after Granville met with a delegation ‘a copy of the resolutions passed unanimously at the public meeting’, victory seemed at hand for Frere and his supporters.37 In the Royal Speech read to the Parliament, Her Majesty declared that ‘my government has taken steps intended to prepare the way for dealing more effectively with the slave trade on the East Coast of Africa’.38 The speech was widely publicised throughout Britain by the national and provincial press.39 It contributed to turning Frere’s campaign into a question of national politics widely discussed across the country. Granville wrote to Gladstone in the middle of September and proposed that Bartie Frere should ‘undertake the job of going to Zanzibar, to negotiate with the Sultan for the suppression of the Trade’.40 Gladstone approved.41 Bartie Frere’s strategy had succeeded. He had managed to break the government’s deadlock on the East African slave trade.
After he was chosen by the government to lead a diplomatic mission in Zanzibar, Frere managed to get the attention of a broader audience through numerous articles published in provincial and national newspapers. This took his campaign beyond the elite circles and generated broader support in public opinion. Organized by the BFASS, meetings in Manchester, York, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Darlington, and Sunderland, between October and December 1872, although still dominated by elites, certainly helped to broaden the audience of Bartie Frere’s mission.42 This provides a fresh contribution to the study of public opinion and anti-slavery in Britain during the late nineteenth century. While Drescher considered that ‘the great petitions of 1837-1838 proved to be the last in which anti-slavery could draw upon unified mass support’, this research, proves that the British anti-slavery movement, now focusing on Zanzibar and East Africa, reached a new climax in the 1870s. Its popularity, however, might not be comparable with what had been experienced before.43