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French dhows: vehicles of a new imperial order in the Indian Ocean

In the same report mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, Captain Meara ironically remarked that, on the dhow he boarded off Madagascar, ‘no one ... spoke one word of French’.40 To him, this was no trivial detail. This dhow flying a French flag was nothing but some sort of legal and cultural nonsense. To a certain extent, Meara was right. Dhows flying the tricolour were far from being ‘typically French’, or so it was believed. In fact, how could dhows and their crews - a patchwork of Swahilis, Arabs, Africans, Comorians, Malagasy, and Indians - possibly fly the French flag and be French subjects whereas they were the very symbols of the Indian Ocean native cultures?

Dhows and their crews reveal how complex the issue of nationality and sovereignty had become in the age of empires. Colonial expansion had durably broadened and enriched the scope of what it meant to be French.

In 1893, Louis Renault, a French jurist specialised in international maritime law, defined two main conditions upon which a vessel could be considered as French, and be granted the right to fly the French flag. The first condition was that ‘the ship, or at least half of it, should belong to French subjects’. The second condition stressed that ‘the captain, the officers, and at least three quarters of the crew should be French’.41 However, these legal requirements had been adapted by the French authorities to colonial realities. Renault noted that ‘on the west or the east coast of Africa’ where ‘French vessels involved in local trading are all almost exclusively maned by native sailors’, it is only required that ‘the captain must be French’.42 It is rather strange that Renault lost his judicial accuracy here whereas he must have known that in 1846 colonial authorities in Mayotte and Nossi-Bé had allowed by decree that the French flag could be granted to dhows if ‘individuals placed under French [colonial]’ domination possessed at least half of the vessel, and also if the captain, as well as half of the crew, were ‘French subjects without distinctions of origins’.43

Another French jurist, Charles Brunet-Millon, added further precisions to this colonial ordinance. He wrote: ‘regarding the interpretation given to the expression “individuals placed under French domination and French subjects without distinction of origins”, an ordinance issued on 15 October 1880 by the Minister of the navy and the colonies admitted that individuals who were not born in the colony could nonetheless possess and command dhows [under French flags] if they had been established in the colony for a long time and occupied a respectable position’.44 As we can see, French colonial regulations had a rather broad definition of who could be considered as a French subject and so could claim the French flag as well as French protection, for himself or his vessels. The legal definition of French subjects in the 1880 ministerial ordinance show that the decision was ultimately left in the hands of local colonial authorities. This lack of a clear legal definition created the conditions in which French flags were attributed to dhows by local authorities, as they wished, in Mayotte, Nossi-Bé, Obock, Aden, Muscat, and Zanzibar.

To legally fly the French flag, dhows had to carry several legal documents. First of all, as Louis Renault phrased it, vessels ‘have a name, a sort of home address known as the “port d’attache” or “port de matricule’”.45 Renault noted that French vessels have also ‘a sort of birth certificate used mainly to attest their nationality and called “l’acte de francisation’”.46 It is this document which was at the centre of all British critics with the ‘rôle d’équipage’ or the list of the crew members on board of a vessel. Finally, the captain of a French vessel should be in possession of a ‘congé’ - an authorisation to sail [leave the port] delivered by French customs.47 In the Indian Ocean, the ‘congé’ and the ‘rôle d’équipage’ had, in theory, to be renewed every year. If not, the vessel was not considered able to lawfully fly the French flag and no protection could, therefore, be granted.48 In 1871, French authorities adopted ‘a new measure in order to prevent any abuse of rhe French flag’. French maritime documents would only be delivered ‘if the owner is a resident in the [French] colony, or if the captain of the ship can provide a guarantee from a person residing in Mayotte or Nossi-Bé’.49 The ‘acte of francisation’, the ‘congé’, and the ‘rôle d’équipage’ were the papers that dhow captains had to keep aboard while sailing with the French flag. Without them they could be considered as a pirate illegally flying a flag they had no rights to raise. These papers were the symbol of a new era, the age of empires, where dhows had to be registered according to European standards whereas they used to sail across the Indian Ocean without papers or flags for centuries. Dhows, as we will see in Chapter Eight, were bound to no nations in the European sense of the word. They belonged to the Indian Ocean and its numerous coastal communities. So did their crews.

In the case of Zanzibar and Muscat, all legal documents had to be delivered - and checked - by French consuls. In the colony of Nossi-Bé or Mayotte, French colonial authorities were in charge of these procedures; most of the time this duty fell into the hands of the ‘commandant supérieur’ [a colonial military governor]. In territorial waters and on high seas, the French naval station had to exercise the control of these documents. With anti-slavery, this mission was one of the most important that French ships-of-war had to undertake in the Indian Ocean. The French naval station was a sort of new French anti-slave trade squadron, a reminder of the one set up in the Atlantic during the first half of the century.50 Between 1858 and 1904, 234 French vessels served in this naval division; an average of five vessels a year with a minimum of one in 1858 and a maximum of 28 in 1885 in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference.51 In 1880, the commander of the French naval station, Aristide Vallon, declared ‘to exercise a strict watch’ over French dhows and he added that ‘in many cases [he had] removed the French flag and taken away papers that had expired’.52 In the meantime, he also stressed that ‘francisation papers were sometimes delivered too easily and without enough guaranties’.53 Despite the fact that he was convinced of the dubious nature of French dhows, the French admiral concluded that ‘all our efforts should tend to minimize these irregularities and prevent foreigners from meddling with our business in order to make sure that we are able to police ourselves’.54 The Admiral’s position was clear. He did not want Britain to interfere with what he considered as a French domestic affair. So did the French Consul in Zanzibar when he stressed in 1879 that ‘the policing of our navigation should be our business’.55 It was clear that France did not want any country to interfere with her sovereignty as well as her imperial policies overseas. The French arguments were simple. The authorities preferred the evils of dhows under the French flag - the slave trade in which they were potentially involved - to the humanitarian goods of the right of search because it was in British hands, and therefore seen as a potential source of national humiliation as well as a threat to French interest.

Besides, dhows were also perceived as important vehicles of French colonial influence throughout the Indian Ocean. In 1868, Eugène de Bure, then French Consul in Zanzibar, wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs that ‘the security of French dhows is the only way to keep our influence in this country [Zanzibar] and in our colonies’.56 French authorities refused to stop to deliver French flags and papers because ‘such a measure would deprive our colonies of Mayotte and Nossi-Bé of some crucial resources ..., besides it would have an unfortunate political impact, completely ruining our prestige, already so small, in this part of the world’.57 In another report sent in 1890 by the French Consul in Zanzibar to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, rhe same argument was used. The Consul justified that dhows could fly the French flag because it was necessary to ‘establish commercial relations between our possessions of the Indian Ocean and Zanzibar as well as East Africa’, while he deplored that most dhow owners were not from the French colonies of the Comoros or Madagascar but ‘Arabs from Muscat, Mukalla [in Yemen on the Gulf of Aden], Sur, Shihr [near Mukalla], or Zanzibar’.58 As the French Vice-Consul of Muscat highlighted in 1897, France refused to deprive these owners of French papers, flags, and privileges because ‘it would bring irreparable damages to our prestige in these parts where French dhows are a powerful element of influence; it would harm the commercial and political interests of our colonies in the Indian Ocean’.59

In fact, local authorities in the Comoros or Madagascar were dependent upon the local people to run the colony’s economy and affairs. As Johan Mathew points out, ‘French officials, like British ones, were frequently the only official and possibly the only European in a port. ... These officials were entirely dependent on African or Asian subordinates and found it simply impossible to rigorously implement many regulations’.60 Flags and papers were therefore easily granted to dhow owners. Furthermore, local officials also earned money when they delivered the right to fly the French flag or ‘l’acte de Francisation’. A tax was thus collected for each act which was delivered.61 In this context, some local officials in Mayotte or Nossi-Bé might have been tempted to accept bribes in return of the right to fly the French flag or simply issue many papers to increase their revenue. However, no documents were found in the archives which could confirm this theory.

To conclude, French authorities were aware that dhows flying the French flag could engage in illegal activities such as the slave trade but tolerated it because it provided them with some sort of influence in the region while the Royal Navy was paramount. The French flag flown by dhows in the Indian Ocean embodied French imperial influence there inasmuch as the right of search embodied British imperial power and its humanitarian ideal. While France would not haul down her flag on dhows, Britain would not abandon the right of search either. Both embodied their imperium - their ability to exercise sovereignty and their imperial might - in an age of colonial rivalry.

 
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