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A diplomatic failure or a victory of gunboat diplomacy?

The Bartie Frere mission is also an interesting case because it shows that anti-slavery still was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a ‘new and vast branch of international relations’ as the Earl of Aberdeen noted in 1842.44 It illustrates as well the rise of humanitarian concerns in imperial politics.45 Finally, it highlights how Britain used her imperial power to impose a new treaty banning the slave trade within the Sultanate of Zanzibar.

In February 1872, the Foreign Office dispatched a circular to the governments of Germany, France, America, and Portugal. The circular urged those countries to use their influences upon the Sultan of Zanzibar and force him

Bartie Frere mission and the 1873 treaty 123 to abandon the slave-trade.46 In addition, the BFASS also took the initiative to send a memorandum to the Emperor of Germany and the President of the United States.47 Both governments answered the Society and instructed their consuls in Zanzibar to ‘render all their assistance in their power to Bartie Frere’.48 The Anti-Slavery Reporter proudly announced that the French government decided to cooperate ‘with our own [government] to put an end to the slave traffic from the East Coast of Africa’.49 Anti-slavery decidedly was an important part of international relations and diplomacy even for such a peripheral state as Zanzibar.

Unsurprisingly, Bartie Frere truly gave his mission such an international dimension. When he left England, he first went to Paris and met with the French President M. Thiers and M. De Remusat, his Foreign Minister. Then, he went to Rome and met with the King, Victor Emmanuel, and Venosta, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. There he also met Pope Pius IX.50 Besides, Frere’s strategy was not limited to European nations. Before Frere left England, British humanitarians at the BFASS had urged the government ‘to call upon the rulers of Turkey and Egypt to carry into effect... their existing treaties for the suppression of the slave trade’.51 The Bartie Frere mission was not just about Zanzibar. It was an attempt to revive Britain’s international activity against the slave trade throughout the world. After Frere left Europe, he first landed in Egypt in December 1872 to discuss new treaties with Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. After reaching Zanzibar in January 1873, Frere sailed to the south as far as Mozambique and crossed the channel to land in Madagascar. He later visited Mayotte and Johanna, the principal of the Comoro Islands. After returning to Zanzibar a second time in March 1873, he went to Muscat where its Sultan eventually signed the treaty Frere had failed to impose to Zanzibar.52 Additionally, he sent copies of this treaty to several rulers in the Persian Gulf such as the emirates of Bahrain and Dubai.53 Finally, he went to Bombay where he discussed the consequences of anti-slavery in Zanzibar with the governor who was in charge of British foreign policy in East Africa and Zanzibar on behalf of the Indian Office and the Indian government.54 It took Frere more than 6 months to complete his diplomatic journey against the slave trade in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

Ironically, Frere’s mission was a success everywhere but in Zanzibar. After spending a month on the island, Frere wrote to Granville in February 1873 to inform him that the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Barghash, refused to sign the treaty.55 Barghash argued he could agree to ban all slave trade within his African dominions because of ‘the ruined state of the island, owing to the late hurricane, and the necessity ... of conforming to the wishes of all his Arab subjects’.56 He expressed his ‘desire to be allowed a term of years before the final suppression’.57 Like Clarendon in London before him, Barghash argued that immediate abolition would lead to the collapse of his Sultanate. Indeed, in 1873 Zanzibar’s plantation economy was ruined. Consul Kirk estimated that after the hurricane ‘not one thirdof the coconut and clove trees are left standing’. The Sultan’s losses were estimated at around 400,000 Maria-Theresa Dollars.58 Moreover, trade in Zanzibar was at its lowest ebb. Almost all vessels had been destroyed during the hurricane. Beyond the economic and financial crisis faced by the Sultanate, there were also political factors explaining Barghash’s refusal. In 1859, he had led a rebellion against his brother, Sultan of Zanzibar at the time, considering that he gave ‘the country to the English’.59 Barghash was arrested and sent in exile to Bombay. In 1870, he eventually succeeded his brother when he died and became Sultan. But again, he opposed the British refusing a new treaty to limit the slave trade.60 In 1873, Barghash logically opposed once more the British abolitionist diktat. He not only refused to sign the new treaty brought by Frere but also threatened the 1861 Subsidy Arrangement on which the Indian Office relied to maintain India’s security. In 1861, the Canning Award had led to the partition of Zanzibar from Oman and its Sultan compelled to pay Muscat an annual subsidy.61

However, the Sultan could not understand or imagine why his refusal was not acceptable anymore. Times had changed. Foreign policy was not limited to the secrecy of cabinet politics anymore. Frere and Granville had to be successful with the treaty because at home expectations were high among public opinion. Foreign policy and public opinion were actually more and more intertwined in the late Victorian age. In the 1860s, Gladstone toured England and delivered speeches to large crowds about foreign policy such as in Newcastle in 1862. In 1876, he publicly denounced and engaged a campaign against the massacres of Christian minorities in Bulgaria then under Ottman rule.62 This movement reached its heights during the Midlothian campaign of 1879-1880 during which Gladstone made long speeches, enlightened by humanitarian principles, on British foreign policy and Empire.63 During the Bartie Frere mission, foreign policy makers already had to deal with public opinion and newspapers. When negotiating with the Sultan, Frere ‘had dwelt on the full determination of the Government and the people of England’.64 News of the Sultan’s refusal had reached England at the beginning of March 1873 while his final opposition was relayed in April both in the national and provincial press.65 The attention of public opinion was such that the Pall Mall Gazette and the Daily Telegraph had correspondents in Zanzibar!66 Negotiations were under the scrutiny of the press and public opinion. Foreign policy at home and abroad had entered a new age.

After all his travels within and around the Sultan’s dominions, Frere also understood that the Sultan had ‘little authority over the land’ and ‘is further practically limited by the necessity for exercising it with the wants ... of his own Arab race ... notably the trading classes’.67 Frere understood that Barghash refused to sign the treaty because his power, both financial and political, derived from the slave trade. The ‘sultan was not some absolute “oriental despot” ... but primus inter pares among a collection of tribal shaikhs’ who all relied on the slave trade.68 Frere came to the conclusion

Bartie Frere mission and the 1873 treaty 125 that the Sultan’s authority was too weak to end the slave trade alone. Only a great imperial power such as Britain could achieve the suppression of the slave trade. Consequently, Frere stated that Barghash was ‘sincerely anxious that the English or any other Power would settle it [the slave trade] for him’.69 Frere’s hypothesis was confirmed during one of the meetings between Barghash and Reverend Percy Badger, Frere’s secretary known as an Arabic scholar and a missionary. According to Badger the Sultan was ‘moved almost to tears when he spoke of the consequences which he felt sure would result from the proposed treaty’.70 If true, the Sultan’s weakness was an argument in favour of British intervention. When Frere came back from his inspections on 12 March 1873, the Sultan’s attitude towards the treaty remained unchanged.71 Consequently, Frere had no further meeting with the Sultan and left the island on 17 March 1873.

After the departure of Frere, the matter was left to John Kirk. Two days after Frere’s arrival in London, on 14 June 1873, Kirk sent a telegram to the Foreign Office ‘stating that Barghash had signed the Treaty’.72 Kirk was able to get the treaty signed not only because he had influence on the Sultan but also as he was instructed by the British government to use the threat of a naval blockade. The Earl of Granville wrote to Kirk, on 15 May 1873, that ‘if the Treaty ... is not accepted and signed .... The British naval forces will proceed to blockade the Island of Zanzibar’.73 The threat was implemented by Kirk at the right time. Before he left, Frere gave instructions to the British Naval Officer in Zanzibar ordering him to ‘seize all vessels carrying slaves’.74 Frere also warned the Sultan that he had ‘been compelled to give such instructions to Her Majesty’s Consul and to the Senior Naval Officer ... to give effect to the determination of Her Majesty’s Government’.75 Already under stress since Frere’s mission, the slave trade was paralysed on the island and the coast.

This was the decisive moment when the diplomatic mission transformed into a demonstration of imperial power in breaking the rules imposed by international law. In London, Law Officers of the Crown did not fail to see that Frere had crossed the red line. They pointed out that ‘Frere’s instruction “imposed terms upon the sultan not imposed by the treaty of 1845” ... their execution would infringe the sultan’s independence and “would therefore amount to an act of war’”.76 Nevertheless, the government decided otherwise. Here the slave trade, seen as a humanitarian question, served as a justification to go beyond the Sultan’s sovereignty, as well as international law, and launch a full military intervention if necessary. This decision was not only the result of Frere’s or Kirk’s action on the spot. It had been on the mind of Gladstone since the East African slave trade became a major issue in Parliament and the press. Even before Frere left England for Zanzibar, on 7 November 1872, Gladstone had written to Lord Granville that he did ‘not want to forswear, but on the contrary to leave open, the question of the use of force, in any manner or degree which may be necessary for the suppression of the sea-going slave trade’.77 Gladstone’s statement nuancesthe importance given by most historians to Frere’s actions as the key factor leading to the threat of a naval blockade.78 This statement is also particularly striking since Gladstone was known in the 1850s for his attachment to ‘the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries’ as well as his lack of interest in anti-slavery.79 Perhaps he was changing under the influence of humanitarianism because he felt that it had become again one of the great historical forces of his time.

But the decision of the British government was also influenced by the Sultan’s reactions to the mission in Zanzibar. On 29 January 1873, Barghash declared to Badger, ‘if you want to force me to sign the Treaty, let the Envoy send me a few lines saying that Her Majesty the Queen imperatively orders me to sign it and I will do so’.80 Not surprisingly, when Kirk met Barghash to inform him that a naval blockade would be imposed on Zanzibar, he famously declared he had ‘not come to discuss but to dictate’.81 If the diplomatic mission had failed, gunboat diplomacy succeeded. As a result, Britain’s influence in East Africa and Zanzibar really came to light after its consul, Dr. Kirk, was able to force the treaty upon Barghash in June 1873. It was a great illustration of Britain’s informal empire or rule by proxy. In May 1885, the Graphic dedicated a whole page praising Kirk’s crafted diplomacy and influence over the Sultan in 1873. The enthusiastic journalist wrote that ‘that Kirk was able to extract from him [Barghash] ... [what] Sir Bartie Frere, with all his personal prestige and position, and with a fleet of ironclads behind him failed to extort’.82 The article was entitled: ‘Sir John Kirk at Home’. Zanzibar, as the reader could easily read between the lines, was ruled by a British Consul. In this case, humanitarian policies had led to pure imperial politics. As Richard Huzzey noted ‘Frere himself celebrated that his work meant that Britain ‘had succeeded without seeking it and almost without knowing it, to a dominant position’.83

 
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