‘Philanthropy or business’?

Salisbury also seized the opportunity of the blockade to promise the Royal Navy a precious gift which would surely win him widespread praises at Westminster. Salisbury argued that the right to search and detain all foreign vessels should be granted to the German and British navies to guarantee the success of the naval blockade.43 What could be more convincing than a universal right of search to the abolitionists sitting in the House of Commons? Of course, this was rather symbolic as this right would be limited to the East African coast but Salisbury needed symbols to convince the British Parliament and public opinion. He now had them all: the suppression of the slave trade, the opening of Africa to legitimate commerce, the repression of ‘the Arab slave trade’; and finally, the right of search: the very symbol of Britain’s humanitarian power overseas as pointed in Chapters Two and Three.

Among Salisbury’s arguments, France’s approval of the right of visit and search certainly was the most important of all. On 6 November 1888, the British Prime Minister proudly claimed to the Lords that he had obtained France’s agreement thanks to the launching of the Zanzibar blockade.44 He even concluded his speech claiming that France would join the blockade saying: ‘I am glad to say that the French Government is going further, and it is probable that they will send a ship to join us in the naval operations which are about to take place’.45 To British ears, used for decades to France’s fiery opposition to British anti-slavery policies, as seen in Chapter Three, this must have sounded almost unbelievable. Their ‘greatest rival’ was about to grant the Royal Navy the right of visit and join a major anti-slave trade operation led by Britain! Indeed, this was a dramatic change.

However, Salisbury’s public statements quickly appeared to be at odds with reality. Two weeks later, on 19 November 1888, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, René Goblet declared that ‘the right of visit regarding vessels no matter which flag they carried’ would be allowed only ‘regarding the possession of weapons, or the contraband of war’ because it ‘naturally derived from principles of international law’.46 Goblet maintained what has always been France’s position on the right of visit. The French minister insisted that ‘as far as the slave trade is concerned the right of visit has never been accepted by France ... it was never believed that France should sacrifice the dignity of her flag and allow a foreign vessel to visit vessels flying its flag even when such an issue was at stake’.47 The French official position on the right of visit and the Zanzibar blockade seemed clear and intangible. Finally, France will despatch a vessel to check the slave trade under her flag but would not take any part in the Anglo-German naval operation.48 Salisbury’s main argument in favour of the blockade had been completely overstretched.

Furthermore, even before the French Minister of Foreign Affairs had publicly spoken, critics had already been raised by the liberal press against Salisbury’s decision to engage Britain in the Zanzibar blockade. In an article published on 7 November 1888 in the Daily Mail, entitled ‘Philanthropy or Business’, British Liberals attacked Salisbury’s set of arguments in favour of the operation. First of all, the article denounced that Bismarck was taking advantage of Britain’s anti-slave trade policies to put down a revolt solely resulting from ‘the brutality which [Germans] displayed towards the natives’.49 This certainly was close to the truth as it was demonstrated earlier. The article also criticized Salisbury’s optimistic declaration on France and the right of visit. The author bluntly pointed ‘we shall believe that when we see it’.50 Finally and more importantly, the Daily Mail questioned the sincerity of the recent colonial enterprises presumably launched in the name of anti-slavery: ‘the African slave trade is always on the point of being put down. The occupation of Egypt was to do away with it, its abolition was involved in the establishment in the Congo Free State, and it has been adduced by Lord Salisbury himself as the reason for continuing to occupy Suakin with an armed force [a Sudanese port occupied in 1885 in the context of the Mahdi’s revolt after the death of Charles Gordon]. All these expedients have been adopted, and yet the African slave trade has recently been multiplied by four’.51 As we can see, the philanthropic argument of the suppression of the slave trade could not so easily be used to fool public opinion. Instead of an armed intervention, the Daily Mail supported the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society’s call for ‘a Conference of the Powers’ [the future Brussels Conference] in order to settle once and for all the question of the African slave trade.52 The abolitionist movement, dominated by Quakers and other religious dissenters, historically favoured political agitation, free-trade, and diplomacy rather than unilateral military interventions.53 However, anti-slavery was now in the hands of political leaders and, due to the blockade, the Brussels Conference was postponed sine die.

Two weeks after the Daily Mail’s article, Salisbury came under new criticism at the Lords. On 20 November 1888, the Earl of Granville, former Secretary of State in Gladstone’s government and a major figure of Victorian politics, questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that France had finally agreed to the British right of visit.54 Granville put Salisbury in a quite difficult position declaring: ‘we have not obtained for the first time a thing of priceless value. We have only got what blockaders always had: the right of searching neutral vessels for contraband of war’.55 Salisbury was clearly annoyed but replied to Granville: ‘I believe for all practical purposes the concession of the French Government will enable us to put a stop to the traffic in slaves; ... I only wish to indicate that the objection which the French Government has taken is rather in theory than in practice. I do not believe any practical difficulty will arise’.56 If Salisbury presumed that the blockade would inevitably lead France to yield her opposition to the British right of visit, the French, however, never made the concession he publicised to the British Parliament.

Nevertheless, the official proclamation of the blockade, issued on 2 December 1888, seemed to fulfil Salisbury’s promises. It stated: ‘In accordance with instructions received from their respective Governments, and in the name of His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar - We, the Admirals commanding the British and German Squadrons, hereby declare a Blockade against the importation of Munitions of War and the exportation of Slaves only, on the continuous line of coast of Zanzibar’.57 The declaration unilaterally established that ‘all ships, to whatever nation they may belong, are liable to visit and search; they should “bring to” and lower their sails immediately on a blank charge being fired: should they not do so a warning shot will be fired across their bows, after which they will be treated as hostile. Vessels engaged in ordinary trade will be allowed to continue their voyage after having been visited’.58 This followed the British Prime Minister’s pledge even if France had not yet agreed to the right of visit. It actually took about 2 months before France made a sort of clever compromise.

In February 1889, the French government informed British authorities ‘that they [had] no objection to the search of French dhows by English and German Admirals under the delegated authority of the Sultan in territories of the two islands [of Zanzibar and Pemba]’.59 France’s approval of the right of visit was however very limited. It only concerned the territorial waters of Pemba and Zanzibar and the illegal transport of arms or ammunitions as Goblet publicly declared in Parliament. Furthermore, any French dhow seized by the Germans or the British had to be handed over to French jurisdiction.60 This compromise only took place because the Sultan had just made ‘a public proclamation ... prohibiting in Zanzibar and Pemba importation, exportation, and trade in arms and ammunition’ and delegated ‘his sovereign rights of search of all Arab vessels’ to the German and the British navies.61 In truth, this was not such a big accommodation as it only concerned the arms trade in the territorial waters of Zanzibar’s archipelago. The French approval of the right of visit and search did not apply to the coastlines of Zanzibar’s dominions on the continent and it did not concern the slave trade either. France had therefore not changed an inch of her policy as Granville had noted. Unlike Salisbury, Goblet’s words had been fulfilled.

Salisbury’s justification of the Zanzibar blockade had not only fooled Parliament on France’s approval of the right of visit but, more importantly, on the Sultan’s agreement to such a naval operation. In fact, the Sultan opposed the blockade. He was forced into its acceptance only by the pressure exercised upon him by the British Consul, Euan-Smith. In December 1888, Euan-Smith wrote to Salisbury that ‘His Highness persisted in declining to actively cooperate in the blockade’ because it ‘would render him most unpopular with his people’.62 Consequently, Euan-Smith warned the Sultan that the German forces might evict him if he did not accept the naval operation.63 The Sultan ultimately yielded to pressure and released his first blockade proclamation in early November 1888: ‘a blockade upon the ports and coast-line and islands of our dominions upon the mainland ... shall be enforced by our own ships and the ships of Germany and Great Britain’. It ‘will be directed solely against trade in munitions of war and trade in slaves’.64

All in all, Salisbury’s tactics had worked better in Zanzibar than at Westminster. He had justified the blockade in using humanitarian rhetoric only because he needed to convince a reluctant public opinion and abolitionists at Parliament. In the light of the Bartie Frere mission seen in Chapter Five, this was quite ironical. Whereas Frere had used antislavery to pressure the government to force him to intervene in Zanzibar, political leaders were now doing the exact opposite. They were manipulating the abolitionist discourse to gain the support of public opinion and Parliament in order to justify a controversial colonial operation. This shows that anti-slavery policies often were the results of a political struggle vice-versa abolitionists to government officials at times and vice-versa.

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