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I: The right of visit, the French flag, and the repression of the slave trade in Zanzibar

The repression of the slave trade: An impossible mission?

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy had, among many other imperial tasks, to complete a great humanitarian mission in the Western Indian Ocean. British sailing and steam vessels were engaged in the repression of the slave trade in this part of the world after having focused on the Atlantic in the first half of the century. This chapter will demonstrate how complex and difficult the task of the navy officers was. First of all, we will see that the Indian Ocean slave trade had nothing to do with what British sailors and officers had experienced before in the Atlantic. This proved to be a major obstacle to British repression because men on the spot lacked the knowledge which would have allowed them to tackle the traffic. Secondly, we will point that there was a great gap between the official political discourse in Britain and the means at the disposals of the men on the spot even though anti-slavery operations at sea made the pride of the British public opinion and government officials at home. The mission assigned to British navy officers could not be implemented because of the lack of resources dedicated to anti-slavery patrols in the Indian Ocean. The British government had given its navy a titanic task without providing the appropriate practical means. Finally, this chapter will demonstrate that far from being superior to native vessels engaged in the slave trade, the Royal Navy ships were, much like its officers, not adapted to patrols these seas whereas dhows fitted perfectly in their natural environment and could easily evade the control which a foreign imperial power tried to impose upon them.

Zanzibar dhows and the elusive Indian Ocean slave trade

In the age of steam, speed, and empires, one might have thought that dhows were but the romantic remains of a bygone age. Dhow - or boutre in French -was a generic term used to describe more than 80 different types of sailing vessels in the Western Indian Ocean also known as the ‘dhows’ countries’.1 Since the 1500s, dhows characterized the navigation in the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, East Africa, and the Persian Gulf as well as the Western shores of India.2 These vessels, with their elegant and long thin hulls rigged with one or two lateen sails, were, and still are, iconic. They symbolize the historical naval supremacy of Arabian societies - Oman and the Gulf States in particular - in this part of the world.3 On the coast of Zanzibar, dhows flying Oman’s red flag materialized the Sultanate maritime Empire over East Africa and its connection to the Persian Gulf.4 Part of the Sultan’s sovereignty resided in the more or less 600 dhows that made trading and political as well as cultural interactions possible between Oman and Zanzibar.5 Although they had been dominating the Western Indian Ocean trade for at least three centuries, Swahili, Omani, Arabian, Persian, and Indian dhows were gradually challenged by European vessels - sails or steamers - and lost their pre-eminence throughout the Victorian age.

In Britain, dhows became known to the general public in the context of the suppression of the Indian Ocean slave trade during the second half of the nineteenth century. This was accomplished thanks to popular narratives written by famous British explorers - such as David Livingstone - and well-known Royal Navy officers - like Georges L. Sulivan or Philip Colomb. In the meantime, a larger readership was reached by the engravings published by The Illustrated London News in the 1870s and the 1880s.6 In Britain, dhows became ‘especially well known in connection with the slave trade on the east coast of Africa’ and, one should add, Zanzibar.7 In France however, dhows were more identified with the trade and traditions of the Indian Ocean as it clearly appears in the survey published by the naval officers Charles Guillain in 1856 or the work of the international lawyer Charles-Brunet Millon in 1910.8 Millon, for example, described dhow owners not as slavers but as the ‘old masters of the sea’.9 Whether seen as evil slavers or beautiful oriental sailing vessels, dhows were one of the many icons, which embodied a complex and fascinating Middle-East in Europe throughout the age of empires. To a certain extent, dhows were then a metaphor of European Orientalism.10

It was quite ironic that most of the western public associated the Indian Ocean slave trade with the words ‘Dhows’ or ‘Arabs’ since this nefarious traffic had been dominated by the Europeans in the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century. It was for instance estimated by Richard B. Allen that more than half - nearly 60 per cent - of transoceanic slave exports from East Africa between 1801 and 1873 was carried out by European vessels, most notably French ones.11 Allen assesses that between 800,000 and 1 million people fell in the hands of European slave traders at the time while this traffic destroyed the lives of between 800,000 and over 3 million Africans in the nineteenth century as a whole.12 Paradoxically, the popular representation crafted at the height of the British Indian Ocean anti-slavery operations had somehow partly thrown these historical facts into oblivion.

With the decline of the European slave trade, following British and French abolition of colonial slavery in 1833 and 1848, it is nevertheless undeniable that dhows quickly became the main purveyors of this ignominious traffic. Paul E. Lovejoy, referring to the works of Edmond B. Martin and T. C. I. Ryan, highlights that the East African slave trade to Arabia, Persia, and India amounted to 347,000 people between 1801 and 1896. On the East African coast alone, the figure rose to 769,000 (See Map l.l).13 The vast

ADAPTED FROM TROPICAL AFRICA, HENRY DRUMMONO, HOCDER& STOL GN TON , LON DO H , 1 8 3 8

Map 1.1 Slave caravans and slave hunters (from R. W. Beachey, The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa: A Collection of Documents, London: Rex Collings, 1976, 133). majority of these children, men, or women were, without doubt, carried by dhows and sold to work on plantations in East Africa - cloves - and Arabia - dates - as well as pearl divers in the Persian Gulf.14 Notwithstanding, as we will see in Chapter Two, these dhows were far from all flying the colours of Zanzibar, Oman, or the Gulf states. As colonisation progressed in East

Africa, more and more flew rhe French, rhe Brirish, or the German flag. In a report addressed in 1880 ro the French Consul of Zanzibar and the French Navy Minister, Admiral Aristide Vallon, commander of the French naval station in the Indian Ocean, remarked that: ‘all dhows sailed by Arabs whether they fly the French, the British, rhe Arab, or Malagasy flag are all equally tempted to get involved in the slave trade’.15

However, the Indian Ocean slave trade carried out by dhows in the second half of the nineteenth century is much more elusive than its Atlantic counterpart. First of all, archives are not as readily accessible and comprehensive as in the Atlantic. In this part of the world, not only is the slaves’ voice almost lost but historians also rely heavily on the estimates which British Consuls and Navy Officers crafted while they coordinated British anti-slave trade operations.16 It is only after he had critically compiled these sources that Abdul Sheriff was, for instance, able to give sensible estimates of the Zanzibar slave trade in the nineteenth century.17 Besides, the Indian Ocean slave trade is not only a difficult field for historians but it also appeared more puzzling to most of the contemporaries who confronted it. To sailors and navy officers, the Indian Ocean traffic was completely different from what they had previously experienced in the Atlantic. In fact, as Hubert Gerbeau ironically reminded all historians entering this world, ‘the Indian Ocean is not the Atlantic’.18

One of the most striking differences was that dhows were not, in most cases, specifically fitted for the slave trade. This simple feature was a great problem for men in charge of the repression of the slave trade there. G. L. Sulivan, for instance, stressed that ‘[we] could find out little or nothing about those [dhows] we boarded, excepting the name of the place they sailed from and wither bound; nor had we any instructions or documents relating especially to the east coast trade, or the experience of any officers who had been engaged in the service previously ... we expected to find “fittings,” “tanks,” “planks,” shackles, rice, if not fettered negroes doubled up in them, according to the experience gained by some of those who had seen the capture of American and European vessels, or which had learnt to look for from the wording of the official instructions on the subject. There are, however, no such fittings or preparations necessary in these dhows, though in some of the northern vessels, and in a few of those that were employed in carrying legal slave trade under Zanzibar colours and papers, extemporized bamboo decks are used to enable them to stow their slaves in “layers’”.19

As Sulivan deplored, the 1844 Instructions for the guidance of Her Majesty’s naval officers employed in the suppression of the slave trade framed for the Atlantic were not readily applicable in the Western Indian Ocean.20 In the early 1870s, Philip Colomb, a navy officer and an historian known for his theories on naval tactics and the importance of naval power in geopolitics, added that ‘there is no “Hand-Book” to the East African slave trade, and [we] must acquire [our] knowledge of it chiefly by experience’.21 Colomb added that ‘instructions are very precise’ but ‘relate to the boarding

Repression of the slave trade 'Ll and examination of large ships - ships which may belong to European States, able and ready to resent interference - and are hardly at all applicable to the crazy old Arab dhow often guiltless of name, papers, books, or flag, which carries on both the lawful and unlawful trade in East African waters’.22 Here the officer highlights some of the most important problems Europeans faced when dealing with the Indian Ocean slave trade. First of all, European ships engaged in the slave trade were, in the second half of the nineteenth century, quite rare. Secondly, no nation, in the European sense of the word at the time, could be associated with the traffic, because most of the dhows had no legal identification such as flags, names, or documents. On the one hand, this was a big issue as the Instructions took their legal basis upon bilateral treaties, but on the other hand, a ship with no flag or any other identification could be considered a pirate, and therefore be seized or burned on the spot without trial as we will later see in Chapter Four. Only in 1869 were a short set of new instructions added to the original Atlantic edition. Unfortunately, it did not provide any sensible or proper solution to the unsolvable problem of the vessels sailing without identification and papers.23

Besides, ‘unlike their Atlantic ocean counterparts, Indian Ocean slaves rarely constituted a special cargo’.24 As a result, slaves were not always ‘found crowded and chained together... carried as a cargo to be sold’, a simple and clear evidence that a ship was engaged in the slave trade.25 Dhows’ cargo was composed of an incredible variety of products, amongst which one may find ivory, gum copal, cowries, food grains, sesame, cloves, textiles, beads or pearls, muskets, gunpowder, dried fish, dates, rice, and plenty more! However, this does not mean that slaves received a better treatment on board of dhows. The Indian Ocean Middle Passage sadly was as traumatic and frightful as its Atlantic counterpart.26

The fact that few dhows were specifically fitted for the slave trade is well represented in the British archives dealing with the repression of the Indian Ocean traffic. As shown by Table 1.1, the average number of slaves captured per dhow oscillated between 7 and 37 slaves between the 1860s and the 1880s. It is therefore important to note that only a small percentage of dhows were captured with more than 90 slaves on board, whereas a great percentage - between 30 and 50 per cent- had less than ten slaves. Between 1870 and 1875, 89 vessels were seized and 2,118 slaves captured. The biggest vessel had 268 slaves, the smallest just 1. Only 6 vessels out of the 98 had between 100 and 222 slaves. Between 1880 and 1884, 117 dhows were seized and 1,003 slaves captured. Only four dhows had more than 90 slaves on board. It was a completely different story to that of the Atlantic where vessels carried on average more than 200 slaves in the 1860s.

These figures completely contradict the view of the Indian Ocean slave trade - as well as dhows - publicised by anti-slavery campaigners in Britain during the late nineteenth century. In fact, only the most dramatic captures appeared in the popular press or in successful travel accounts, a logical fact on an editorial point of view. G. L. Sullivan, for

Table 1.1 Slave captures in the Indian Ocean according to the reports sent by Royal Navy officers to the British Treasury and published in the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers.

Year

Dhows Dhows

Slaves emancipated

Number of dhows where slaves escaped

Average number of slaves per dhow captured

Average number of slaves per dhow captured with slaves

Minimum number of slaves per dhow

Maximum number of slaves per dhow

Dhows with greater than 90 slaves

Dhows with less than 10 slaves

Dhows captured

without slaves

with slaves

Slaves captured

1864-1869

185

59

126

4,670

31

25

37

1

267

21

43

1870-1875

89

6

83

2,118

1,749

24 (more than 300 slaves)

24

26

1

268

8

43

1880

27

3

24

263

10

11

1

99

1

15

1881

37

12

25

289

8

12

1

137

1

21

1882

23

7

16

106

5

7

1

34

0

13

1883

18

1

17

141

8

8

1

103

1

16

1884

12

0

12

204

17

17

1

169

1

11

28 The slave trade in Zanzibar

instance, published a print of a slave dhow in 1873 (Sulivan, Dhow Chasing, 114.). This print, showing a large dhow filled with hundreds of slaves, was again reproduced in the very popular Illustrated London News (See Figure 1.1). The British public’s idea of the Indian Ocean slave trade

VESSELS USED IN THE

ZANZIBAR SLAVE TRADE

Vessels used in the Zanzibar slave trade (The Illustrated London News

Figure 1.1 Vessels used in the Zanzibar slave trade (The Illustrated London News.

1 March, 1873, 208). With permission of the Mary Evans Library.

was also influenced by the photograph taken on board of H.M.S. Daphne in 1868 (See Figure 1.2). In this photograph, we clearly see large groups of newly ‘emancipated slaves’. This photograph circulated as engravings in the illustrated press as well as popular travel accounts such as Sulivan’s Dhow

Rescued East African slaves taken aboard H.M.S. Daphne from a dhow, November 1868. With permission of the British National Archives (BNA, FO 84/1310; January-June 1869; 193)

Figure 1.2 Rescued East African slaves taken aboard H.M.S. Daphne from a dhow, November 1868. With permission of the British National Archives (BNA, FO 84/1310; January-June 1869; 193).

Chasing in Zanzibar.17 In reality, slaves were captured by navy officers on board of many different dhows before being all gathered on board of a mother ship, like H.M.S. Daphne for example, coordinating operations at sea. These images gave a skewed impression to the British public that large numbers of slaves were captured on board of most dhows off the East African coast. This could perhaps be interpreted as the need for British anti-slavery campaigners to craft efficient propaganda in order to garner the support of public opinion. In so doing, anti-slavery campaigners kept the British government under pressure to suppress the East African slave trade. This distorted view of the Indian Ocean slave trade influenced both the mind of the European public at the time as well as historians who hereafter studied this period.

If British public opinion was given a stereotyped vision of the Indian Ocean slave trade, we have seen that British navy officer had not the ‘cultural references’ necessary to understand the traffic either. Nevertheless, there was something more serious than this cultural gap. In the following section, we will see that the Royal Navy did not really have enough men and vessels to undertake the titanic task which the British government had ascribed her in the name of anti-slavery.

 
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