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French ‘engagés’ and British liberated slaves: the terrible paradoxes of freedom and labour in the age of abolition and empire

In 1856, the French government gave the authorisation to buy ‘captives’ to recruit ‘workers’ for plantations in her colonies, namely in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and La Réunion. Several companies - Chevalier, la Compagnie Générale Maritime, Régis Aîné, Vidal - were granted legal conventions allowing them to recruit ‘Africans’ to supply ‘the needs’ of these colonial territories less than a decade after the official abolition of slavery (1848).39 Slaves were first bought by the recruiter and ‘freed’ by a legal act called Tacte provisoire de liberation à temps’ which stipulated that the worker would be not sold or put back in slavery. The document only made interception by British or French anti-slavery cruisers impossible. Indentured labourers were shipped on vessels specifically equipped for this traffic - some of them being former slavers - and ‘signed’ a contract to work for a salary on French plantations for a period of 7 years in most cases. The indentured labourer would eventually become at the end of his contract ‘free’ from a juridical point of view. Meanwhile, a part of the labourer’s salary was taken every month to repay the sum which was first engaged to buy him. Understandably, these procedures were immediately denounced by British government and abolitionists as new forms of slave trade and slavery. Although not exactly similar to slavery, it undoubtedly was a new form of servitude.40 Several official pamphlets on the slave trade under the French flag were consequently published in Britain to denounce the recruitment of Africans on the east coast of Africa.41

Historians are still debating today the appropriate interpretation we should give to this new form of servitude.42 Unlike David Northrup, Alessandro Stanziani stresses that ‘it is not correct to interpret indentured labour as a simple and temporary substitute for slavery in the aftermath of abolition noting that it ‘began before slavery and persisted during and after it’.43 However, he also pointed that ‘abolition ... gave new life to indentured immigration’ highlighting that ‘emigration from Africa was a by-product of the abolition of slavery by colonial powers’.44 In the nineteenth and twentieth century indentured meant mass migration on a global scale: ‘2.5 millions indentured servants, mostly Chinese and Indian but also African, Japanese, and immigrants from the Pacific Islands ... were employed in sugar plantations and manufacturing’ throughout the world.45 As seen in Chapter Two, it has been estimated that around 50,000 indentured labourers, or engagés, were deprived of their freedom and sent to la Réunion during the second half of the nineteenth.46 Stanziani insists that indentured was a new form of servitude, nonetheless pointing it should not always be mistaken with slavery even though ‘contracts of indenture included coercion, and the identification of “free will” ... was, at best, a lure’.47 On a legal point of view, indentured laboured differed from slavery even if freedom was in reality quite relative. Unlike slaves, they were not the property of a master and could not be sold. Regarding French indentured labour in the Indian Ocean however, Edward A. Alpers has recently pointed that ‘distinguished scholars ... all have reached the same conclusions as the British abolitionists that it was little more than a disguised slave trade’.48 In short, if slavery was gradually ‘abolished’, it was replaced by new and powerful forms of coerced labour under the supervision of colonial powers.49

In Zanzibar, the recruitment of contracted labourers started in January 1854 and men were successfully ‘engaged’ by the brig La Panthère for the plantations of La Réunion.50 If the Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman, Seyyid Said, had agreed, he at once faced the remonstrance of the British Consul who denounced this recruitment as a revival of the European slave trade. Slave trading with ‘Christian Nations’ was actually forbidden by the Moresby treaty signed between Britain and the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar in 1822.51 Not surprisingly, the French Consul did not agree at all with British views. Writing to Paris, he argued that ‘this persistence to mistake temporary engagements contracted freely, and in return of a salary, with the slave trade; cannot be the result of a thoughtful and impartial judgement’.52 Napoleon III himself had to make an official statement to defend this recruitment system on the east coast of Africa. The French emperor claimed that ‘this ... differs completely from the slave trade ... the slave nigger, once engaged as a worker, is free and has no obligations but those resulting of his contract’.53 Due to the action of the British Consul, all recruitments in Zanzibar were stopped in 1856.54 In 1858, new attempts to recruit were made but failed.55 The Sultan refused to comply with any demands of recruitment from the French in virtue of the Moresby treaty.56

Serious incidents involving French vessels sent to recruit contracted labourers on the east coast of Africa changed French official attitude and discourse. In 1857, a French vessel, le Charles et Georges, was arrested and seized by the Portuguese coastguards off the Mozambique coast with chained Africans on board. The 56 ‘labourers’ found on board all declared that they were slaves and had been shipped without their consent.57 Other vessels such as L’Alexandre and La Glorieuse in 1858, or the Phenix in 1859, also proved to be involved in human trafficking.58 Due to this scandals, Napoleon III finally forbade, in March 1859, the recruitment of Africans from the east coast of Africa for the French colonies of Madagascar and La Réunion, with the notable exception of Mayotte and Nossi-Bé.59 A year before the French government also founded ‘la station navale de la Réunion et de Madagascar’ in order to prevent the slave trade under the French flag and also to control the recruitment of contracted labourers.60 As mentioned previously, its results were poor. This can be explained by the fact that this naval squadron depended upon French colonial authorities in la Réunion, which were generally more preoccupied by the labour shortage in the colony than with fighting illegal slave trade, as Sue Peabody demonstrated.61

While British authorities accused France of fostering a new slave trade in East Africa, the French press denounced the recruitment of former slaves ‘freed’ by the Royal Navy. When the 1845 Anglo-French convention on the repression of the slave trade was signed in London, Le Charivari, a French satirical journal, published a caricature of African slaves rescued by the Navy.62 Drawn by Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), the engraving (see Figure 3.1) was entitled, with a touch of irony, ‘the philanthropists of the day’. In the caption, Daumier mocked ‘the freedom’ gained by Liberated Africans as British authorities called them. Using a sort of French pidgin, the English Captain patronisingly addressed ‘the freed slaves’. He boasted that he had rescued them from slavers but, in the meantime, indicated that they will be beaten with bamboo sticks if they refused to work in British colonies for the next 14 years. Indeed, rescued from the slave trade, Liberated Slaves were far from being free. As the caricature pointed, most of them were forcibly ‘recruited’ as indentured labourers, generally speaking for a period of around 5-7 years. In the 1840s, ‘as Sierra Leone and St Helena became crowded with slaves’, they ‘were encouraged to emigrate as “voluntary” workers to the labour-starved tropical colonies’.63 Ironically, while French newspapers and politicians - as well as British


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Figure 3.1 Honoré Daumier, ‘Les philanthropes du jour’ (Le Charivari, 6 December 1844). Coll. Collectivité Territoriale de Martinique - Archives - 15FI 140. Used by permission of the Collectivité Territoriale de Martinique.

abolitionists - described British African Emigration Projects ‘as a resumption of the British slave-Trade’, French government officials also looked at it as an inspiring model for their own colonial recruitment schemes.64

Nevertheless, the 180,969 Liberated Africans ‘freed’ by the Royal Navy in the Atlantic experienced many different kinds of ‘freedoms’ as historians have now well demonstrated.65 A great number worked, for example, as domestic servants under the status of ‘apprenticeship’. In Sierra Leone, a colony specifically founded for ‘freed slaves’ in 1787, ‘the majority of “apprentices” were domestic servants, “redeemed” from slavery ... and bound to serve for an indeterminate period’.66 Apprenticeship, if not slavery, certainly was a new form of servitude. Apprentices in Sierra Leone were regularly victims of ‘violent’ and ‘abusive acts of degradation’ from their new ‘employers’.67 Apprenticeship also concerned newly freed slaves in the aftermath of the 1833 abolition of slavery in British colonies. It went under the fierce critics of many abolitionists and colonial officials who described it a new ‘forced servitude’ until it was consequently banned in 1838.68

Apart from apprenticeship, Liberated Africans were also recruited to work on sugar plantations or public works in the West Indies.69 A few were recruited as sailors or interpreters to assist anti-slave trade patrols in the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean.70 Some also became soldiers joining, for instance, the Royal African Corps while ‘very few ... emerged as major merchants in Freetown’ or ‘led self-sufficient existence’.71 For the overwhelming majority, ‘freedom’ must have had a bitter taste. Former slaves were not considered as equal human beings in the full sense of the term whether by colonial administration or individuals holding them under their legal authority. As archival records show in Sierra Leone, they still endured the violent legacies of 300 years of slavery and racism.72

In France, politicians were quick to denounce a pure hypocrisy. The fate of Liberated Africans was used to discredit Britain’s anti-slavery policies, particularly the right of visit and search. In the aftermath of the 1890 Brussels Conference whose Act established this right between all signatory powers, a French parliamentarian opposing ratification declared: ‘if anyone should be suspected of being engaged in the slave trade it should be England’. Another immediately added: ‘indeed! Everyone knows that England in engaged in the slave trade!’.73 Despites being voluntarily outrageous, these critics show how controversial the questions of Liberated Africans and indentured labourers were in the late nineteenth century. It shows as well how irrational the debate was in France when it came to granting Britain the right of visit.

Until recently, much less was known of the 12,000 Liberated Africans in the Indian Ocean.74 To a certain extent, their ‘freedom’ was very similar to what was experienced by liberated slaves in the Atlantic. The major divergence resided in the fact that no colony had been specifically created there for them.75 Before Zanzibar and British East Africa became protectorates in 1890, Britain hold no colonial territory on the East African continent. This meant that Liberated Africans had to be shipped to distant places, namely Cape Town, Natal, Seychelles, Mauritius, Aden, or even Bombay.76 In the 1850s and 1860s, many were for instance sent to Bombay where they received a European education. They were consequently known as ‘Bombay Africans’. A few, like Sidi Mubarak Bombay, Abdullah Susi, James Chuma, Mathew Wellington, or Jacob Wainright, achieved fame in guiding and organising geographical explorations led by men such as Grant, Speke, Burton, Livingstone, Cameron, or Stanley.77 Even if they were most often confined to the role of the ‘faithful servant’, especially in travel literature, some of them became significant actors the British anti-slavery movement, notably in supporting the creation of missions for Liberated Africans in East Africa.78

In 1865, it was decided that Indian Ocean freed slaves could only be landed in Mauritius and Seychelles. The ordinance stipulated that ‘they may be engaged in contract of service’ and insisted that ‘such contract of service may be for any period not exceeding five years’.79 Between 1861 and 1875, 2,667 individuals were settled in the Seychelles as Liberated Africans.80 In 1875, the Seychelles Civil Commissioner highlighted that ‘adult men and women are, as a rule, apprenticed to planters and proprietors for the purpose of field labour... orphan children have hitherto bee, as a rule, allotted as domestic servants’.81 However, Mauritius and Seychelles quickly became more and more reluctant to accept freed slaves since they were abusively considered them as a source of great public expense and a less reliable workforce when compared to Indian or Chinese indentured labourers.82 In 1875, Captain Prideaux wrote to the Earl of Derby that Seychelles islands were not an appropriate destination for Liberated Africans because ‘no provision whatever was made for their proper maintenance and support, and that, for the most part, they fell into immoral courses, and threw disgrace rather than credit to our efforts for their rescue from slavery’.83 Again, a navy officer, as seen in Chapter One, was denouncing the lack resources allocated to anti-slavery in the Indian Ocean.

In the Zanzibar Sultanate, Liberated Africans were considered as a thorny issue for consular and naval authorities. It was certainly very difficult to care for them in an environment where slavery was not only legal but also central to economy and society. In the absence of direct colonial rule, all kind of initiatives were taken. In 1871, 711 liberated slaves were for instance recruited as contracted labourers by a former navy officer, Captain Frazer, who possessed a plantation on the island.84 A year later, Dr Kirk, then British Consul in Zanzibar, proposed to solve the question of liberated slaves by creating a specific colony within the Sultanate.85 In 1873, Sir Bartie Frere, before leading his diplomatic mission to abolish the slave trade in Zanzibar, also advocated the creation of ‘a colony for liberated slaves on the main land’ before a parliamentary committee in London.86 The committee, however, only advised the creation of a depot on the island.87 This recommendation was never implemented except when H.M.S. London was stationed in Zanzibar harbour between 1874 and 1883. By the late 1880s, Liberated Africans were mainly sent to French or British missions around the island.88

According to Roland Oliver and Lindsay Doulton, the absence of direct colonial rule and ‘the lack of provision for Liberated Africans was one of the principal factors attracting European missions to the East Africa regions’.89 Doulton highlights that seven missionary societies were ‘established [for that purpose] between 1863 and 18 8 8’.90 In the aftermath of Frere’s 1873 diplomatic intervention, a mission named Frere Town was created by the Church Missionary Society near Mombasa.91 Thirty years earlier or so, another mission had already been created at Rabai. By 1876, Frere Town reached a population of 342 people but soon faced various threats. The mission had first to deal with attacks from the outside world as fugitive slaves often found refuge there. Moreover, missionaries sometimes encouraged slaves to revolt and leave their masters. In 1880, Frere Town became famous for flying a white flag showing the word freedom written in Swahili.92 As a result, the mission was attacked several times between 1876 and 1880. In the East African context, Liberated Africans probably had less ‘freedom’ than in the Atlantic since ‘any attempt to run away from the station [mission] would have involved instant re-enslavement’.93 Life in the mission was not characterized by ‘freedom’ either. Work, rest, education, marriage were all decided by the missionaries. In this world, free will and consent were fairly relative. Moreover, even within the mission’s fences, former slaves sometimes suffered, once more, the kind of violence that used to be attached to slavery. In Frere Town and Blantyre, a mission founded to honour the memory of David Livingstone, scandals broke out in 1881 and 1885 revealing that some Liberated Africans had been flogged, beaten, and even executed. Due to the public outcry, the missionaries responsible of these crimes were condemned and removed from their positions.94

For many East African freed slaves, ‘freedom’ must decidedly have been bitter. The inhuman conditions attached to African slavery for many centuries had partly survived their so-called liberation. The terrible legacies of slavery could not so easily be abolished, even in the mind of abolitionists who fought it earnestly. Considering the situation of Liberated Africans, it is important to point that a lot of them ran away at the time they were rescued by Royal Navy officers. In the 1875 for instance, the official records sent by navy officers to the Admiralty attests that slaves escaped in 10 out of the 35 seizures led by the British squadron. On one occasion as many as 80 individuals escaped.95 This situation was far from unusual. It appears in most of the records regarding East Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century. Runaway slaves’ communities even existed on the coast, representing perhaps a true alternative to slavery and ‘a real freedom’.96 In 1874, Dr Kirk even reported that a settlement of runaway slaves had been unsuccessfully attacked by the troops of the Sultan of Zanzibar.97

To conclude this chapter, we must now look at these children, men, and women that were called Liberated Africans. Thanks to the ground breaking works of Edward A. Alpers, Matthew S. Hopper, or Lindsay Doulton, we are now also able to restore parts of their lives.98 For too long a time, their voices were buried in the deep silence of the archives. They were reduced to the state of ‘wretched creatures’, an image and status meant to raise pity and compassion in the context of the humanitarian campaign led by abolitionists. A point well illustrated by the poignant photograph taken by G. L. Sulivan in 1869 (see Figure 3.2).99 This image, which at the

A photograph of children ‘rescued’ from the slave trade by G. L. Sulivan. With permission of the British National Archives (BNA, FO 84, 1310, January-June 1869, 191)

Figure 3.2 A photograph of children ‘rescued’ from the slave trade by G. L. Sulivan. With permission of the British National Archives (BNA, FO 84, 1310, January-June 1869, 191).

Dhotvs and the Indian Ocean slave trade 89

time only appeared as an engraving in Sulivan’s successful narrative, is not only an exceptional historical document, but it is also a vibrant historical fragment of a terrible human reality.100 On this document, children rescued from a slaver almost appear like silent shadows of history. Some of them have even nearly disappeared from the image due to the relentless work of time. If their voice is lost, their glance has been vividly captured by the photographer. When we look at them today through the medium of this photograph, it is impossible not to feel their distressing and penetrating look. Their eyes question the narrative we have given of their history, of the history of slavery, and its abolition. It is crucial that research helps to restore their dignity in building a universal historical consciousness of slavery and the slave trade, hoping to tackle, once and for all, their infamous legacies in today’s world.101 This is perhaps what we owe to these children, and to all the voiceless victims of slavery, past or present.

The faded photograph taken by Sulivan is indeed an important historical document. It reveals the state of shock and suffering in which these children must have been at the time they were rescued. Like in the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean Middle Passage often meant sufferings and death.102 Historians have estimated that death rate was around 10 per cent on board of Indian Ocean dhows in the nineteenth century, much like in the Atlantic at the same time.103 Besides, a lot of them also died after they had been ‘freed’ by Royal Navy officers. Matthew S. Hopper notes that ‘a third of the Africans “liberated” ... sent to Aden and Bombay died shortly after their rescue’.104 It is therefore not surprising that, on the page siding the engraving, Sulivan had put the stress on ‘the deplorable condition of some of these poor wretches’ adding that ‘some of the slaves were in the last stages of starvation and dysentery’.105 This kind of image, representing emaciated children in a state of starvation, later became ‘icons’ of major humanitarian campaigns like in Biafra in the 1960s, Ethiopia in the 1980s, or Somalia in the 1990s.106 Even today, these images regularly continue to appear on our screens in times of great humanitarian crisis such as in Yemen throughout the year 2018.107 Like in our present days, Sulivan’s image was designed to raise sympathy and gather support for the cause. For this reason, the engraving was, at the time, published in the popular illustrated press.108 Seeing this engraving, made it impossible not to react and call for governments’ immediate action. Nevertheless, if Sulivan wanted to appeal to the humanity of the reader this did not mean that he himself looked at the freed slaves with complete humanity. Racial bias against African slaves was still strong, even on the mind of dedicated abolitionists such as Sulivan. Looking at the newly ‘rescued’ slaves, he recalled bluntly: ‘one of the first things, we are told, Adam did, was to name the animals, and one of the first things done by us was to name these slaves on their being received on board’.109 This revolting analogy between animals and Africans reveals how centuries of Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, both contributing to the development of the ideology of race, had rooted racism into the European mind-set.110 In spite of the abolitionist revolution, theories of racial hierarchy implied by plantation slavery were still powerful, even gaining new strength in times of colonisation.111 We should nonetheless bear in mind that, like Sulivan, most abolitionists ‘whether addressing lower classes in Britain’s slums or the people of Africa’ believed they dealt with ‘“uncivilised” people’.112 It was also not unusual for Victorian upper classes either to describe Britain’s lower classes as ‘animals’ as it is appears in one scene of’ David Copperfield."3 Notwithstanding, racial bias had human and historical consequences far beyond the scope of other social prejudices. For instance, the way anti-slavery militants, like Sulivan, perceived former African slaves shows the overwhelming obstacle which racial bias constituted to the fulfilment of the abolitionist’s ideal of freedom and equality for all human beings.

In 1874, G. L. Sulivan was appointed at the head of naval operations in Zanzibar and took the command of H.M.S. London. It was partly the result of the long campaign he had led against the East African slave trade, both at sea and in London. It was not just rhetoric. Sulivan’s views on British anti-slavery policies were far from apologetic. He, for instance, doubted ‘whether the slave is better off by falling into British hands’ and even denounced in his final report ‘the complacency of those who thought that the signing of a treaty meant the immediate end of the slave trade’.114 As we have seen, the ‘freedom’ enjoyed by most Liberated Africans in East Africa, and elsewhere, was undoubtedly very limited and often most appalling. It certainly failed to fully match - yet - the most ambitious humanitarian ideal which had fuelled the abolitionist movement in Europe since its foundation. The reality had failed the ideal famously embodied by the words of a supplicant African slave engraved on the popular medallion designed by the Society for the Abolition of the slave trade in 1788: ‘Am I not a man and a Brother’. Liberated Africans were the captives and the victims of the paradoxes of abolition in the age of empire. The abolitionist movement and anti-slavery policies failed to stop at once, as official celebrations wrongly claimed thereafter, not only slave trade and slavery but also the emergence of new forms of servitude. However, despite these great failures, anti-slavery and abolitionism were a decisive step - however small and limited it might look today - without which slavery and the slave trade would never have been universally acknowledged as a crime whether in international law or popular culture.115 Most importantly, as Seymour Drescher argued, ‘without abolitionism ... not just millions, but tens of millions of Africans might have continued to be captured and deported’ as European empires expanded throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.116 Despite the terrible realities hidden behind the word ‘liberation’, freed slaves and abolitionists had nonetheless taken a decisive step towards complete freedom, equality, and the universal abolition of slavery. But this was only the first step of a long struggle, a struggle far from being over yet.117

The following chapters will continue to show that fulfilment of antislavery’s promises were long, difficult, painful, and often disappointing. In the light of the ‘freedom’ reserved to Liberated Africans, abolitionists’ speeches, or anti-slavery policies could appear, if one only looks at their immediate aftermath, to have produced poor results. Much like the 1789 Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen, it took the abolitionist movement and former slaves more than a century of permanent struggle to imperfectly fulfil some of the incredible promises made by anti-slavery on freedom and equality. Is this so surprising if we consider that universal suffrage was only won by French women in 1944 after more than 150 years of harsh political battles which militants, like Hubertine Auclert (1848-1914), had relentlessly led? In fact, the French historian Michel Winock stresses that 1789 ideals of freedom and equality never ceased to fuel the struggle of many nineteenth century activists and intellectuals while facing most appalling political or sociological realities.118 So was it the case with abolitionism and abolitionists.

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