The Hague international arbitration: The end of an old controversy?

In August 1905, The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) issued its award on the so-called Muscat Dhows Case. Established in 1899 by the first Hague Peace Conference, the Court was meant to provide peaceful settlements for the international community in an age of growing tensions.1 It was designed to avoid wars by the means of legal disputes and settlements. The Court not only heralded a new turn in international relations, but also reflected the hopes of a generation of politicians, diplomats, lawyers, and citizens, to establish peace as a new basis of international affairs.2 These dreams, however, were shattered to pieces by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.3 Less than a decade after Fashoda (1898), the Muscat international arbitration hoped to end the great tensions which had again recently opposed France and Britain over the right of visit and the French flag. Only this time, the scene of confrontation had moved to Oman and brought the two countries on the verge of war. In addition to the work of Guillemette Crouzet who analysed The Hague’s Award in the light of British and French foreign policies the Persian Gulf, this chapter argues that the 1905 arbitration was as well the conclusion of all the imperial disputes which brought Britain and France into a fierce naval confrontation around Zanzibar’s waters in the context of the abolition of the slave trade and the Scramble for Africa.4 The chapter will first demonstrate how Anglo-French imperial rivalry in the Indian Ocean in the late nineteenth century prepared the ground for this ultimate confrontation in Omani waters. Then, we should briefly look into the context in which the crisis nurtured. Finally, we will see how a minor incident led to an international crisis that could only be solved by international law as well as the diplomatic rapprochement of two great powers. It will be stressed that The Hague Arbitration was not another trivial episode of the Anglo-French imperial rivalry in the Indian Ocean but a cornerstone in the history of international relations and international law.

Imperial rivalry and anti-slavery in the Persian Gulf

While Zanzibar had become a British protectorate in 1890 in spite of France’s strong protests, Oman, along with the Trucial States of the Gulf, had more or less fallen under British rule. In 1891-1892, these nations signed treaties with the British government which forbade them to allow any concession of their territories - or privileges, whether legal or commercial -to any foreign power but Britain.5 Among other things, it meant that no state other than Britain could set up naval or military bases there. In 1903, when Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, triumphantly toured Oman and the Persian Gulf with a fleet of eight vessels of war, these seas had almost turned into a ‘British lake’, or so it was believed.6

This was the result of several decades of imperial policies. In 1820, a first agreement was concluded with the rulers of the then-called ‘Pirate Coast’ at the southern end of the Persian Gulf. These rulers agreed to impose a maritime truce in order to suppress piracy and the slave trade. In 1853, agreements were transformed into a ‘perpetual maritime truce’, giving its name to this part of the Gulf thereafter known as the Trucial Coast. From 1823 onwards, a squadron of six Royal Navy cruisers was set up in the Straits of Hormuz ‘to administer this truce and support the suppression of piracy and the slave trade’ as well as ‘to cruise pearl beds’.7 According to Crouzet, ‘the system devised by the Indian Empire ... had a specific goal: ensuring peace on one the most strategic buffer zones of this expansively minded empire’.8 As in Zanzibar, British naval operations against the slave trade and piracy eventually contributed to establishing the Union Jack’s informal paramountcy while securing the Empire’s most precious colony -India - and the Persian Gulf’s most valuable commodity - pearls.

As it was pointed earlier in previous chapters, this raises again questions over the relationship of British anti-slavery and imperial policies. Even in the case of the Persian Gulf, it seems however hard to believe, like Crouzet, that anti-slavery just was ‘an imperialist and political tool designed to further increase of British domination’.9 Mathew S. Hopper actually shows that empire and anti-slavery could sometimes be completely at odds in this part of the world.10 He for instance recalls how the slave trade Circular №33 issued by the Admiralty Office in July 1875 contradicted British anti-slavery principles in order to preserve Her Majesty’s imperial interests in the Gulf.11 In fear of jeopardising the Gulf pearl fishing industry which relied heavily on slave labour, the Admiralty had ordered all of Her Majesty’s vessels ‘to deny refuge to runaway slaves except in extreme, life threatening cases’ and to return them to their masters if they had been legally acquired.12 By this circular, ‘British officials recognizejd] the Gulf’s dependence on slave divers’ and defended the ‘colonial policy [built] around it’.13 The circular was only abandoned after a major parliamentary and public campaign took place in Britain throughout 1875-1876.14 Much like during rhe 1873 Bartie Frere mission, anti-slavery was again forced upon a reluctant bureaucracy

The Hague international arbitration 175 by the pressure of British public opinion and the anti-slavery movement.15 Imperial and anti-slavery policies did not go hand in hand so easily.

When governments were not forced into other directions, imperial interests came first. This was the case for Oman and the Trucial States because they were considered ‘strategically important for protecting the communication lines between British India and Europe’.16 Any intrusion of a foreign power was therefore seen as a potential threat. Lord Lansdowne, then British Secretary of State, declared in 1903 to the British Parliament: ‘we should regard the establishment of a naval base, or of a fortified port, in the Persian Gulf by any power as a very grave menace to British interests, and we should certainly resist it with all the means at our disposal’.17 Lansdowne’s statement was grounded in tangible historical reality. His doctrine had already been put to practice in Oman against France. In November 1898, only 4 years after the reopening of a French consulate in Oman and a few weeks away from Fashoda, a new diplomatic crisis broke out there because France planned, with the approval of Sultan Faysal bin Turki, to set up a coaling station in Bandar Jissah, only 5 miles from the capital of Muscat.18 Unlike what some British Members of Parliament then feared, there was no colonisation plan hidden behind this project.19 There ‘only’ was an imperial policy allowing France to counterbalance British influence in the Gulf of Oman.20 Present on the Somali Coast, in Obock, and Djibouti, France needed another coaling station in the Indian Ocean to enable both her navy and her merchant’s vessels to reach French Indo-China and Pondicherry. France also wanted to exercise her influence in Muscat because it controlled the access to the Persian Gulf. In 1894, the French government had reopened a consulate in Oman’s capital after more than 70 years of absence even though it had long been a place of strategic and diplomatic interest.21 It was logic that France wished to complete her diplomatic presence by a coaling station which would allow her gunboats and merchant’s vessels to be seen in the Gulf of Oman. As a result, Oman became the new focal point of Anglo-French tensions in the Indian Ocean at the turn of the century, much like Zanzibar between the 1860s and the 1880s.

To the Indian government, especially the Viceroy Lord Curzon, a French coaling station could not be tolerated. Oman was a strategic port in the system of protection he had built for India in the Gulf. As early as 1895, he had declared that ‘Oman may be regarded as a British dependency; we pay a subsidy to its sovereign, we dictate its policy; we cannot tolerate any foreign influence there’.22 Consequently, the British Consul in Oman, Major Christopher G. F. Fagan, logically ordered in January 1899 the gunboat H.M.S. Sphinx to sail for Oman and stop the French coaling station project at once.23 Curzon even recommended to cut, if necessary, the subsidy paid each year by the Indian government to force Oman’s Sultan to abandon the territorial concession he had promised to France.24 Last but not least, a bombardment ultimatum was brought to Sultan Faysal bin Turki by Rear-Admiral Archibald Lucius Douglas on H.M.S. Eclipse.15 The threat musthave sounded more than serious since Zanzibar’s royal residence had just been bombarded two and a half years ago, on 27 August 1896, to force the Sultan Khalid bin Barghash to abandon the throne, only to be replaced by Seyyid Hamoud bin Muhammad who ‘suited’ more the interests of British colonial rule. On 16 February 1899, Oman’s Sultan logically yielded to British demands. The concession would not be granted. Fierce reactions followed this event at the French Parliament. After diplomatic negotiations, however, a compromise was found and direct confrontation eventually avoided. It was decided that a French coaling station, just separated by a wall from the British one, should be built in Makalla Cove near Muscat.26 Besides, ‘Her Majesty’s Government ... expressed [officially to France] her deepest regrets’ for what had happened in Oman.27 The French government had saved face and honour. Most of all, armed conflict had been avoided.

In this context of continuous imperial tensions, dhows flying the French flag in Omani waters were denounced as a serious threat to British antislavery policies in the Gulf. It was true that a relatively small but highly visible fleet of dhows sailed under the French flag in Sur. This town was Oman’s largest port on the Persian Gulf and ‘one of the most important dhow ports of the Indian Ocean’.28 In 1905, it was officially estimated that 26 captains sailed with French papers in Sur. These 26 men possessed a total 56 dhows. As a result, a total of ‘about 1,060 men forming crews’ claimed to be under French protection.29 Even if this constituted a negligible part of Oman’s most influential merchant community estimated at around 10,000 inhabitants, it was nevertheless symbolically significant. Not to mention that Sur was ‘famous’ for its key role in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Even without a coaling station, France had already foothold in Oman and on the Hormuz strait. Most importantly, Suri dhows flying the French flag connected this important harbour to French colonies in other parts of the Western Indian Ocean, namely Djibouti, Mayotte, and Madagascar. To a certain extent, the Muscat dhow crisis was the continuation of the imperial confrontation which had recently been revived by the Muscat coaling station, a confrontation which had long opposed France and Britain over the right of visit and the French flag in Zanzibar’s waters as this book demonstrated earlier.

To the Indian government and the British Resident, Suri dhows flying the French flag were not only an intolerable threat to British imperial policy in the Gulf, but also a challenge to the Royal Navy anti-slave trade operations in the Western Indian Ocean. While, Major Fagan wrote, in October 1897, a letter to Sultan Faysal in which he stated that dhows flying the French flag were a threat to His Majesty’s sovereignty, the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury pressed, around October 1898, the diplomat Edwin Henry Egerton ‘to bring to the attention of the French government the existence of slaves trafficking on board of vessels flying the French flag along the East African coast, and to urge that measures should be taken to stop this abuse’.30 In April 1902, Lord Lansdowne, British Prime Minister

The Hague international arbitration 177 at the time, handed a memorandum to the French government pointing that the French flag was responsible for most of the slave trading in Oman.31 A few years earlier, in 1895, the Earl of Kimberley had already sent to Lord Dufferin, the British Ambassador in Paris, another report ‘proving the expansion of the slave trade, in Oman and the Persian Gulf, on Suri dhows under the French flag’.32 The document, written by Major Sadler then British Consul in Muscat, claimed that all slaves landed in Sur had been carried by dhows under French colours. As already demonstrated in Chapter Two, it was quite unlikely that the small fleet of French dhows carried alone Sur’s slave trade.33

Once more, British officials accused France of being the main obstacle to the complete suppression of the Indian Ocean slave trade. The myth that France carried most of the traffic was revived in a context of renewed imperial tensions. In 1898, Sir William Lee-Warner, then Secretary in the Political and Secret Department of the India Office, lamented: ‘it is disastrous to our prestige not only in the Gulf but in India for British Indians to see that our national policy of a century old for the suppression of the slave trade is paralysed by French action’.34 Again, as already demonstrated in Chapter Two, dhows flying the French flag provided a convenient explanation to the fact that the slave trade persisted in the Western Indian Ocean ‘in spite of... a British naval presence’.35 According to this official narrative, Her Majesty’s vessels failed to end human trafficking there only because France had let the infamous trade develop under her flag. British public opinion was easily diverted towards the evils of the French flag and all the shortcomings of British governmental policies were ignored. This was easier than to look at the lack of political will and resources from which anti-slavery suffered greatly in the Indian Ocean, as noted in Chapter One.

Nevertheless, France certainly had her part of responsibility in the persistence of the traffic. Even if French governments had declared that they wanted to tackle the problem of slave trafficking under their flag, they had not made it a true priority for the French naval station as seen in Chapter Two. British public opinion could easily adhere to the government’s official narrative. Between 1893 and 1902, a series of significant slave trade cases under the French flag was revealed both in Muscat and Zanzibar. For British officials and public opinion, these highly publicised cases confirmed what they had always argued: the traffic was encouraged -if not protected - by France. Britain’s greatest imperial rival could, therefore, be discredited and portrayed as evil, a recurrent theme in British politics since the French Revolution. In 1893, the French dhow, Fath el Kheir, was arrested by H.M.S. Philomel with 77 slaves on board in Zanzibar harbour.36 Additionally, two French dhows, the Saad and Salama, were seized near Oman by H.M.S. Sphinx with 170 slaves including 40 children under the age of 12 in 1896.37 In 1898, the Majunga and Selama were seized in Pemba, near Zanzibar, while transporting seven slaves.38 Again in 1899, another French dhow, also named Fath el Kheir, was arrested with slaves.

In 1900 finally, two French dhows, the Diriki and the Fath el Kheir were seized with slaves in Zanzibar and in Langa, Mozambique.39 Meanwhile, arbitrary seizure continued to be sometimes conducted by the Royal Navy as it had already been the case in the past. In August and September 1897 for instance, the Fath el Kheir in Mombasa and the Majunga in Pemba, were visited and arrested by the Royal Navy whereas they were not engaged in the slave trade.40 These incidents equally contributed to keeping the vicious circle of tensions spinning between France and Britain whether in East Africa or in Oman. As a result, diplomatic and political controversies over the right of visit, slave trade under the French flag, or the protection granted to dhow captains and their crews, reached a new and final height in Oman between 1900 and 1905.

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