Humanitarian intervention or colonial repression?

Surprisingly, no official report of the Zanzibar blockade is to be found in the British archives as far as this research was able to determinate. We only know that in April 1889, 1,282 dhows had been checked by the Royal Navy and 1,500 by the German Navy.65 A total of six German cruisers with around 1,500 men were mobilised while the Navy employed as many men and only one more vessel. Originally, it had been decided that eight ships of war with 24 small boats, both equally divided between the two countries, will take part in the operation.66 Only one Italian vessel joined the Anglo-German fleet while nine Portuguese ships, with 1,200 men, patrolled along the Mozambique coast only checking dhows flying their flag.6’ Besides, three French vessels were sent to Zanzibar to exercise strict surveillance of dhows flying the French tricolour.68 The blockade stretched along the east coast of Africa from Kwale Bay, near Mombasa in the north, to the mouth of the Rovuma River close to Cape Delgado in the South: (See Map 1.2 in Chapter One).69 Ships of war focused their activity around the main harbours of the coastal area, namely Lamu, Mombasa, Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, Kilwa, Kiswere, and Lindi. Zanzibar, Pemba, and Mafia were of course at the heart of this large naval blockade.70

The blockade was a sheer demonstration of military force. As far as the slave trade and arms smuggling were concerned, results were in contrast poor and appalling. Admiral Fremantle lamented that after 1,282 searches ‘the net result had been the taking away of one gun from a passenger, which I have ordered to be restored to him’.71 Regarding the slave trade, German and British vessels had only seized four dhows under the French flag. The number of French dhows boarded and condemned - a total of four - was minimal. Between December 1888 and October 1889, only one dhow under French colours, the Abd El Kader, was seized - in July 1889 - with three young slaves by H.M.S. Reindeer.71 This was the third case within a year. Before, the Bittela had been seized with two slaves on 29 August 1888 around Pemba by H.M.S. Olga.7i Then, it was the turn of the Jahora to be seized by the German-ship-of-war, la Mare, with five young slaves on board in Dar es Salaam around 13 September 1888.74 Finally, another dhow, the Asad, was also searched by German-men-of-war off Pagani [the German district] in late September 1889. The dhow had notorious slave dealers on board and tried to escape when the German vessels tried to visit her. The French Consul condemned the captain of the vessels to be jailed for 3 months and the dhow was deprived of its French papers.75 On the other hand, German and British squadrons also abusively visited three French dhows between March and November 1889, incidents which in this context only had a minor diplomatic impact, unlike future or precedents cases. In February, the French dhow la Garde was abusively seized by H.M.S. Olga whereas she had no slaves or arms aboard.76 In March, a German vessel, la Sophie, was also wrongly visited and another French dhow only seized with one rifle.77 During the same period, one last dhow, flying the tricolour and belonging to the French missionary order of the Holy Spirit, was boarded because it had a black crew -the crew members were all ‘Liberated Slaves’ who lived at the mission.78

Strangely enough, no reports mentioned at all the total number of slaves freed as a result of the blockade. This is quite peculiar since, as this research demonstrated so far, anti-slavery was always well documented and advertised between 1860 and 1900. It was probably so because there was nothing to boast about. Looking at the outcome of the Zanzibar blockade makes it clear that the suppression of the slave trade had not really been its main objective. However, this statement should somehow be nuanced considering that the blockade had paralysed the dhow trade as a whole. Knowing that the naval operation was officially underway, it is very unlikely that dhow owners involved in the illegal slave trade would have taken the chance to lose their vessels and cargo.

Looking at this demonstration of gunboat diplomacy one can see that the blockade was set up to safeguard the first steps of European’s colonial rule in East Africa rather than to suppress the slave trade. At the outbreak of the blockade, the British Admiral actually reported that ‘Her Majesty’s ship Agamemnon will remain at Zanzibar for the present, for the protection of British interests, as Her Majesty’s Consul Agent and Consul-General informs me that he believes Arab and native feeling to be greatly excited’.79 The blockade had put Britain in a difficult position towards the Sultanate and its population. No wonder that, whereas the blockade officially ended in late September 1889, it was still in force throughout most of 1890. The declaration of the conclusion of the blockade, on 29 September 1889, in fact, proclaimed: ‘notwithstanding the above declaration, German [and British] ships of war will continue to give chase to slave craft under Arab flags in East African waters’.80 The suppression of the slave trade was used to justify the continuation of a sort of permanent blockade. Two steam pinnaces continually checked the coastlines while four gunboats, among which H.M.S. Olga and Marathon, remained in Zanzibar and Pemba with seven small boats.81 Not surprisingly the blockade was maintained after the British Protectorate over Zanzibar was formally proclaimed on 4 November 1890.82 Even after the ‘Bushiri rebellion’ had been crushed by the Germans on the coast in June 1889, the political situation remained quite precarious. Nine Germans were for instance killed by the people of the Vitu region (Swahililand) on the mainland, and a ‘punitive military expedition’ was launched by the British and the Germans ‘to restore order’ in November 1890. In the aftermath of this colonial repression, the Vitu province eventually became a British protectorate.83 In this context, the intervention of the Royal Navy against the slave trade truly contributed to the establishment of the British protectorate. We can doubt that Britain would have been able to proclaim so easily a protectorate over Zanzibar if British ships-of-war had not so actively repressed the rebellion across East Africa and ‘secured British interests’ there for 2 years.

The blockade was not only a demonstration of gunboat diplomacy, but it was also of the manifestation of brutal military force. The blockade not only concerned arms and slaves but food as well causing alarming shortages.84 Towns, such as Sadni and Pagani were bombarded and it resulted in many uncounted civilian deaths.85 Finally, Captain Wissmann, the former explorer chosen by Bismarck to lead a German expeditionary force on land during the blockade, crushed the rebellion and its leaders in Bagamoyo and Pagani with great violence.86 In October, the French Consul reported that ‘Lately, Lieutenants of the [German] Imperial Commissioner dedicated themselves to spreading terror on the coastal area: they conducted reprisals against the populations involved in the rebellion. They have shot many Negroes, hanged many Arabs, and took in captivity colored families in order to form villages under the protection of German fort’.87 The strategy adopted by the Germans was typical of colonial wars at the time. Facinginsurgency and guerrilla, colonial authorities often decided to regroup civilian populations in ‘camps’ or ‘villages’ under the ‘protection’ of the army while committing brutal violence against insurgents hoping to deter the rest of the population in engaging rebellion. These tactics are known to have led directly, or indirectly, to considerable loss of lives during the Boer War (1899-1902) or, with even more terrible consequences, during the Herrero and Nama genocide (1904-1908).88 Unfortunately, no historical assessment has yet been given of the losses caused by the German military expeditions which took place during the blockade and this work failed to locate documents on the matter probably because it did not explore German archives.8’ Some historians have seen in the 1888-1889 East African rebellion an anti-colonial revolt prefiguring the Maji-Maji uprising in German East Africa in 1905-1908 which repression caused around 200,000-300,000 deaths, or the Mau Mau war in British Kenya between 1952 and 1960 which crushing led to the loss of some 25,000-90,000 Kenyan lives.90 If filiations are always complex and difficult to establish in history, the memory of the 1888-1889 revolt was occasionally referred to by those who later opposed colonial rule in East Africa.

On Salisbury’s point of view, and despite the violence as well as the loss of civilian life, anti-slavery tactics seemed to have worked to a certain extent. The blockade contributed to reducing dramatically the slave trade at sea around Zanzibar for a few years even though it did not eliminate it.91 In return for the blockade’s end, the Sultan was forced to grant a perpetual right of visit to German as well as British forces in his territorial waters and proclaimed that anyone entering his dominion after the 1 November 1889 should be free.92 These proclamations concluded a long process by which sultans of Zanzibar had gradually been deprived of their power and sovereignty since the 1860s. Paradoxically, it was only through this often forced collaboration that the Sultans were also able to maintain their power in Zanzibar.

Regarding the right of visit and search, France finally ended the agreement reached during the blockade.” The British Consul, Euan-Smith, was, however, unwilling to accept this change. Euan-Smith refused to agree with the French authorities. According to him, ‘the right to visit French dhows in territorial waters was awarded to England by an official delegation of Seyyid Khalifa. This right now belongs to England in virtue of the British protectorate established in Zanzibar’.94 The French Consul replied to this argument that ‘It is by a benevolent concession that we gave to the British, on the occasion of the blockade, the right to visit our dhows in territorial waters. Seyyid Khalifa could not delegate an authority he did not have himself. Under our treaty, the Sultan of Zanzibar has no more right of visit and search in a French home on land than access rights in territorial waters’.95 He concluded in stating that ‘the police of our dhows in Zanzibar and Pemba’s waters only belongs to us’.96 The Anglo-French crisis over the right of visit was, so to speak, back to its old routine. France continued to oppose the sovereignty of states to British humanitarian imperialism. The French Consul denounced: ‘the anti-slavery monomania of which some British Navy officers suffer from and the tricks they use to compromise French dhows and persuade the world that the slave trade is carried out thanks to our flag as well as our approval or through the carelessness and indifference of French government agents’.97

This debate on the right of visit prefigured the new crisis which unfolded during the 1890 Brussels Conference (Chapter Seven), and later at the Hague Permanent Court of Abitration in 1905 (Chapter Eight). France’s refusal of the right of visit continued to be for the next 15 years an Apple of Discord as it will be seen in the following chapters. More importantly, the opportunistic manipulation of anti-slavery during the Zanzibar blockade eventually led political leaders to uncharted territories. In using the anti-slavery rhetoric they had brought back abolitionism to the forefront of international politics. Ironically, British abolitionist activists did not fail to see this and grasped this historical opportunity which imperialists had unintentionally offered them. As Chapter Seven will now show, the British abolitionists - most notably the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society - finally got the international conference they had wanted for nearly half a century. Abolitionists certainly did not fail to let this chance go and brought anti-slavery to a level it had never been able to reach before in international relations.


Parts of this chapter were published in an earlier form in ‘Le blocus de Zanzibar 1888-1889: entre “intervention d’humanité”, colonisation et droit international’. Outre-Mers, no. 402-403 (2019): 107-126, and ‘The French Flag in Zanzibar Waters 1860s-1900s: Abolition and Imperial Rivalry in the Western Indian Ocean’. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, (2020) DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2020.1783115.

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