Another step towards colonisation?
In Britain, Kirk’s demonstration of gunboat diplomacy was praised by most of the press. Many newspapers reported the signature of the treaty with great enthusiasm. The Birmingham Daily Post wrote that ‘Public opinion in England is well satisfied with the announcement that Sultan Sayyid Barghash had signed a treaty at Zanzibar’.84 The Manchester Guardian boasted that ‘this was a great triumph for humanity’.85 In Dublin, the Freeman’s Journal noted that ‘the savage little state of Zanzibar has just become an interesting locality to the English public’ and added that ‘Sir Bartie Frere’s mission has resulted in a complete success’.86 The imperialist Pall Mall Gazette proudly used one of its headlines to proclaim the ‘submission of the Sultan of Zanzibar’.87
On the contrary, the Anti-Slavery Reporter was more pragmatic and realistic, underlining that ‘the signing of the treaty is one thing, the faithful observance thereof is quite another’.88 The Times seemed uneasy with this
Bartie Frere mission and the 1873 treaty 127 example of gunboat diplomacy, arguing ‘whatever the treaty is worth it has been extorted from the Sultan by an old fashioned threat of force’.8’ As a matter of fact, parts of the government did not agree with this gunboat diplomacy and cunningly used abolitionists’ old view that only free commerce would put an end to rhe slave trade. In a debare at the House of Commons, the Chancellor of rhe Exchequer pointed out that ‘the best method for the suppression of the slave trade on the east coast of Africa was not force but the extension of commerce’.90 This was a classic liberal stand against imperialism.
Surprisingly enough, the French government’s reaction to Britain’s demonstration of force in Zanzibar was mostly positive even though France had been abusively accused by the British press to be responsible for Frere’s failure to get the treaty signed at once. The French archives prove that the French Chargé d’Affaire in Zanzibar was instructed to assist Bartie Frere in his mission while maintaining the independence of Zanzibar.’1 The French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Albert de Broglie, thus wrote in July 1873 to the French Consul in Zanzibar: ‘The closure of slave markets [in Zanzibar] was a reform we were ourselves looking forward with some impatience. We can only rejoice on seeing it done’.92 However, the French Consul in Zanzibar, Couturier de Vienne, who had been specifically sent on the occasion of Frere’s mission, reported: ‘threats [of a naval blockade] had the most complete success ... contrary to the opinion of Sir Bartie Frere, the temporary suppression of slave trafficking by the use of force is not a blessing of civilisation but a triumph for British politics and influence’.9’’ This contrasted with the letter from the French President, Adolphe Thiers, which de Vienne had delivered to the Sultan in January that year. In this letter, the French President insisted that France wanted the slave trade to be suppressed in the Sultan’s dominions. It was written: ‘Moved by the evils of the slave trade, France has nothing at heart but to employ her efforts to bring the suppression of a custom so contrary to the laws of humanity’.94 Despite the concerns of the French government, the French press did not give much coverage to the signature of the treaty, although Frere’s mission had been followed more closely.95 Le Temps for instance mentioned, in a very short despatch, that the Sultan had finally signed the new treaty Britain had presented him.96 In spite of France’s official support of the Bartie Frere mission, Anglo-French relations were growing tense in East Africa.97 As we just saw, men on the spot, such as French consuls, continued to regard Britain’s anti-slavery policies with suspicion while government officials could, publicly at least, praised Britain’s humanitarian efforts.
Regardless of what French consuls thought, we have clearly seen that there was no plan of colonial expansion in Zanzibar hidden behind Frere’s intervention. The British government had been forced by the pressure of public opinion to send a diplomatic mission to Zanzibar in order to end the slave trade at sea in East Africa. The campaign had been orchestrated by Bartie Frere and the BFASS in Eondon. However, as it has been arguedby R. J. Gavin, the origins of Frere’s mission ‘is to be sought not in Exeter Hall but [also] in the Husns on the bare slopes of the Jabal Akdar’.98 In other words, the mission’s origins were ‘only partly to be found in the state of British public opinion’; they were also the result of the political and economic situation in both Zanzibar and Muscat, namely the ruin of the island after the hurricane and the growing dependence upon British naval power." Before Gavin, Reginald Coupland presented the Bartie Frere mission more as the product of the revival of the great anti-slavery movement in Britain. He insisted on the importance of Frere’s actions as well as the character of John Kirk.100 According to Coupland, the mission was above all the natural outcome of Britain’s genuine humanitarian interest in Africa.101 On the contrary, for Abdul Sheriff, the mission was just the result of British imperialism and a very important step towards colonisation.102 Although they seem completely at odds, these two interpretations are nevertheless both relevant. As it was shown in this chapter, Bartie Frere advanced the cause of British abolitionism in using imperialism while he also fostered Britain’s colonial influence by the means of anti-slavery. However, Frere’s humanitarian imperialism was far from dominant within government circles in the 1870s. M. E. Chamberlain, following Robinson and Gallagher, noted that the treaty imposed on the Sultan was only the sign that British informal influence in Zanzibar was strengthening.103 So far abolitionism had only managed to strengthen Britain’s informal empire in this part of the world. For this reason, Suzanne Miers pointed that the Bartie Frere mission illustrated the fact that ‘Britain’s anti-slavery policy was a distinct part in the growth of her informal empire’.104 Additionally, Cain and Hopkins also added that anti-slavery policies were fostered by the ‘prospect of opening up the east coast’ to legitimate commerce at a time of ‘improved communication with Europe’.105 A point clearly illustrated by some of the reactions which appeared in the British press when the treaty was finally signed under the threat of military action. More recently, Huzzey reconciled the different interpretations mentioned above by insisting on the fact that ‘even though it did not lead immediately to formal occupation, such an assertion of British power laid the bridgeheads for future control of the kingdom’.106
As underlined in the introduction, this historiographical debate indicates that the Bartie Frere mission therefore mirrors a broader controversy on the origins of British anti-slave trade policy and colonial expansion. Studying this mission enables us to look into the role which anti-slavery policies might have played in turning Britain’s informal empire into a more classic and direct form of colonial rule. In using both anti-slavery and imperial force in Zanzibar, Frere certainly advanced the cause of a more forward imperial policy in East Africa. However, at this stage British administration only acted reluctantly and did not take advantage of the situation to expand its empire there. Nevertheless, as the next chapters will demonstrate, the revived popularity anti-slavery was more and more used by key political figures of the 1880s and 1890s to win public opinion when they needed to
Bartie Frere mission and the 1873 treaty 129 justify imperial expansion or intervention. It seems that humanitarians and imperialists went now hand in hand more easily than before. It is possible that Bartie Frere’s mission was one the element which contributed to this important political evolution. Chapter Six will yet stress that it was far from being as simple as it looked. In fact, abolitionists were often at odds with government officials when it came to assessing the results of an intervention or the measures that should be applied to new colonial territories. Besides, as Chapter Nine will later underline, they also disagreed on the new anti-slavery measures that should be integrated into international law.