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The 1889 Zanzibar blockade: An international humanitarian intervention or an apogee of imperialism?
The Zanzibar blockade, lasting from December 1888 to October 1889, was allegedly set up by Britain and Germany to end the slave trade in East Africa. In the 1920s, Ellery C. Stowell, the world-famous American professor of international law, mentioned the blockade as a remarkable, yet controversial, example of humanitarian intervention in the section of his book dedicated to ‘intervention for humanity or humanitarian intervention as it is more properly called’.1 Following Bismarck and Salisbury’s political rhetoric, this chapter will first show how, in times of colonial expansion, great leaders could manipulate key elements of the humanitarian discourse to deal with an uprising. However, we should see that serious critics were raised in Britain to question the sincerity of the alleged philanthropic motives publicised by the British government to justify the operation. Finally, this chapter will demonstrate that the blockade was more a military operation designed to bring down a significant anti-colonial insurrection than a genuine example of ‘intervention for humanity’. But once more, in manipulating anti-slavery political leaders gave abolitionists an unexpected opportunity to carry their movement back to the forefront of international politics.
Launching the Zanzibar blockade: humanitarian rhetoric and imperial politics
Throughout the spring and the summer of 1888, the political situation in East Africa rapidly deteriorated as the German East Africa Company (GEAC or Deutsche Ost-Afriakanishe Gesellschaft) and the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) gradually took control of the Sultan’s territories on the East African coast.2 Norman Robert Bennett points out that, ‘according to a British missionary reporting in May ’, there were ‘talks over the coast of making a clean sweep of all Europeans’. ’’ The provocations and the violence of the GEAC’s agents were the sparks that ignited a long-brewing insurrection. In Bagamoyo, the company’s agents forced the Zanzibari governor to hoist the company’s flag removing the Sultan’s flag from his office. The governor refused to howl down the Sultan’s flag and this situation repeated itself in other coastal towns such as Pangani, Tanga, Kilwa, and Lindi. G. A. Akinola explains that this opposition to the transfer of power took place because ‘the traditional ruling class ... were important local potentates with deeply entrenched interests which were bound to be endangered under German rule’.4 German troops reacted ruthlessly to these symbolic acts of resistance. In Pangani, a very influential member of the aristocracy, Said bin Hamadi, was beaten, his wife raped, and his house seized by the company’s agents.5 As a result of this type of colonial violence, the revolt quickly spread along the coast, and ‘various factions amounted to a wild army of 20,000 men' hunted down German agents.6 At the end of August, Vohsen, the head of the GEAC, realized that ‘all company authority had disappeared’.7 He was facing a vast and complex rebellion movement that went beyond the opposition to German colonial rule. It also was a social revolt joined by slaves and peasants living on plantations as well as an attempt to overthrow Omani rule organized by urban and merchant elites. This multifaceted insurrection was led by Abushiri ibn Salim, a sugar plantation owner who ‘had occupied a leading position in the Sultan of Zanzibar’s army’.8 Finally, the movement was joined by the ‘non-Swahili people of in the hinterland’ such as the Shambala in Pangani, the Zaramo in Bagamoyo, and the Yao in Kilwa.9 On 30 September, the French Consul in Zanzibar telegraphed the Minister of Foreign Affairs and insisted that ‘the whole East African coast has raised against the Germans’.10 For the British too, acting in the name of the new Sultan Khalifa ibn Said - he had just succeeded Barghash who died in March 1888 - the situation was out of hand. In Pangani, at the heart of the rebellion, Lloyd Mathews, the Sultan’s Brigadier-General, failed to restore order as his men refused to fight.11
In consequence, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck approached the British Prime Minister Marquess of Salisbury and ‘proposed, with British collaboration, blockading the Sultan’s coast, thus preventing both the slave trade and shipment of munitions’.12 In October 1888, the Germans officially communicated a memorandum to Salisbury’s cabinet in which they piously declared: ‘it is only by mutual cooperation, founded on reciprocal trust that the task of Christian civilisation in East Africa can be satisfactory fulfilled’.1’’ To a certain extent, the German government followed the spirit of the 1885 Berlin Conference and the call for military intervention delivered by Cardinal Lavigerie (1825-1892) throughout Europe during the summer of 1888.14 Touring France, Britain, Belgium, and Italy, the French Cardinal had not only reached large sections of the European public opinion but also impressed his message upon many important political leaders.15 Earlier that year, Lavigerie, famous for founding the White Fathers in Africa, had already succeeded in making Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical In Plurimis condemning slavery and the slave trade. So doing, Lavigerie revived anti-slavery in Europe while trying to restore the social and international influence of the Catholic Church.16
To a much greater extent than Lavigerie’s campaign, the Berlin Conference General Act inaugurated earlier a new era in international relations through its Preamble as well as Articles Six and Nine.17 Echoing Livingstone speech at Cambridge in 1857, the preamble first stressed, like the 1888 German memorandum, that the signatory powers declared to commit themselves to ‘the development of trade and civilisation in certain regions of Africa’ and to the improvement of ‘the moral and material well-being of the native populations’.18 Most importantly, Article Nine proclaimed for the first time that the slave trade was illegal according to international law.19 Blending the Preamble and Article Nine, Article Six pointed out that ‘all the Powers exercising sovereign rights or influence in the ... [Congo Basin] bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes, and ... to help in suppressing slavery, and especially the slave trade’.20 Connecting the ‘moral and material well-being of the native tribes’ with the suppression of slavery and the slave trade, the Berlin Conference took the relationship between humanitarian ideology and the colonisation of Africa to another step. This decisively influenced Lavigerie during his 1888 campaign. He referred to Articles Six and Nine of the Berlin Act to justify the duty which, according to him, fell upon European governments to intervene in Africa to suppress slavery and the slave trade. At Cathedral St Gudule in Brussels, in one of his most popular conferences, the French Cardinal declared that ‘it is the European Governments who must have the duty to abolish slavery in the African continent they have conquered’. Addressing directly his audience, he added: ‘to prove it to you, I only need to read you two articles [Articles Six and Nine] of the Constitutive Act approved [by Leopold] in Berlin.21 Lavigerie called for military intervention and even considered creating a new military order, modelled on the experience of the crusades, to carry out the repression of the slave trade.22 In autumn 1888, Germany’s memorandum not only adhered to the Act of the 1885 Berlin Conference but also clearly followed Lavigerie’s call.
The justification for the intervention seemed simple. Britain and Germany had to intervene because it supposedly was their duty, as representatives of ‘Christian civilisation’, to protect the natives of East Africa against the evils of ‘the Arab slave trade’.23 This was the spirit of the time established by the Berlin Conference and Cardinal Lavigerie as we just saw. Labelled as ‘the Arab slave trade’ the East African traffic was then commonly caricatured as a purely ‘Arab’ phenomenon. This stereotype had a lasting influence over the historiography and European popular culture. As Edward Alpers pointed, ‘all who participated in the slave trade [in nineteenth-century East Africa] ... were generally regarded as “Arabs”, whatever their true identity’.24 Using this rhetoric, the memorandum wanted to put the stress on the fact that the Arab insurrection not only destabilised the whole region, the authority of the Zanzibar Sultanate but also Europe’s ‘noble crusade against the slave trade’. After the death of General Gordon during the siege of Kharthoum in 1885 - an event which embodied the defeat of the
Anglo-Egyptian occupation of Sudan by the mahdist movement narrowly described as a revolt of ‘fanatical Arabs’ at the time - it was a clever way to demonstrate that the British were compelled to intervene because their colonial and humanitarian interests were both at stake.25 The memorandum was written to convince the British Prime Minister and Westminster. It insisted that ‘the German and the British Governments are united in the opinion that the first thing to be done is to restore and uphold the authority of the Sultan of Zanzibar against the insurrectionary movement on the mainland’.26 According to this document, the aim of the intervention was straightforward: Britain and Germany had to intervene because the Sultan’s power and European anti-slavery policies were threatened. Ironically, it was not made clear at all that the insurrection was originally not directed against the Sultan but the imposition of German rule in his dominions. On the contrary, Bennett pointed out that Sultan Khalifa, according to his own words, had possibly encouraged ‘his Arab and African subjects’ to ‘thwart German enterprise of the mainland’.27
Nevertheless, British Members of Parliament were not blind. Some of them pointed out that German agents - and not Arab slave traders - should be held responsible for this vast insurrection. Salisbury himself was aware that German rule had triggered the uprising.28 The Earl of Harrowby at the Lords, 6 November 1888, declared that: ‘the German name had become very much out of favour with the whole of the Natives of all kinds and sorts along that coast’. He warned that ‘If therefore, we were going to unite with Germany in more forcibly repressing the Slave Trade, it might lead to very unfortunate results’.29 At Westminster, the protection of the Sultan’s rule was therefore not enough to justify an Anglo-German intervention. The intervention needed to appear with a greater purpose if it wanted to convince Parliament and public opinion whether in Britain or Germany. Since Lavigerie’s campaign over summer 1888 had been so popular across Western Europe, it was quite easy to use the argument of the suppression of the slave trade as a justification for a colonial intervention in East Africa.
It is not surprising that the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, consequently referred to Lavigerie and the surge of the East African slave trade when he wrote to the Foreign Office to justify the initiative of an Anglo-German blockade.30 Bismarck also seized the opportunity.31 He gave Germany’s colonial and foreign policy a new surprising turn just a few years after the Berlin Conference.32 Taking the initiative of the blockade, Bismarck engaged a more active colonial policy and developed better relations with Britain to the detriment of France. Suzanne Miers pointed out that Bismarck was able to win the support of the Catholic Centre Party at the Reichstag only when he linked the German colonial project in East Africa to the suppression of the slave trade.33 It is in this context that the German Emperor William II made a speech on 22 November 1888 in which he declared that the suppression of the slave trade was one of Germany’s colonial priorities. Even in Germany, anti-slavery was now such a popular issue that it could be used as a part of national politics to mobilise broad support for colonisation. Who could oppose such ‘noble motives’ after all?
Lavigerie’s campaign had indeed sparked all sorts of plans in the minds of European politicians and diplomats. In August 1888 for instance, Clement Hill, a high ranking Foreign Office official, had proposed, following Lavigerie’s idea, an international conference - the future 1890 Brussels Conference - to discuss the possibility to set up an international armed force to suppress the slave trade in Central and East Africa.34 According to Hill, this army could have been under the high command of an international council which would sit in Brussels.35 Even if Salisbury completely rejected Hill’s utopic motion, the idea of international military intervention against the slave trade in Africa circulated. It consequently was quite logical that the German memorandum referred to it. The document claimed that ‘it appears desirable ... to establish a blockade of the coast of the mainland of Zanzibar ... to cut off all traffic with the insurgent coast districts, and especially that in slave-vessels, and the carriage of arms and ammunition’.36
On 3 November 1888, Count Hatzfeldt, then German ambassador in London, wrote to Salisbury and detailed Bismarck’s proposition.37 Hatzfeldt insisted on the suppression of the slave trade and the opening of Africa to legitimate commerce as the main justification of the naval blockade. In his letter, Hatzfeldt stressed that ‘in view of the increasing extent of the hostility that the slave traders of Arab Nationality oppose the suppression of the slave trade and to the legitimate commerce of Christian peoples with the natives of Africa, the Imperial Government propose to Her Majesty’s Government to blockade in common with, and with the consent of the Sultan of Zanzibar, the coasts of East Africa’.38 Hatzfeldt’s arguments in favour of the blockade had been particularly well chosen. They were the most popular themes of the British abolitionist rhetoric throughout the whole nineteenth century as seen in previous chapters. More importantly, he did not describe the blockade as an operation designed to crush an uprising against German rule in East Africa but as a movement of ‘hostility that slave traders of Arab Nationality oppose [to] the suppression of the slave trade’.3’ This last argument echoed perfectly the popular stereotype, recently revived by Lavigerie in his conferences, arguing that ‘Arabs’ were responsible for the horrors of the slave trade and strongly opposed its suppression.40 It matched perfectly the idea the influential cardinal had spread of a ‘crusade’ designed to suppress slavery on the African continent. If it succeeded it would not only appear as a victory over the evils of slavery but also over the alleged ‘evils’ of Islam.
On the fifth of November, only 2 days after Hatzfeldt’s letter, the British government accepted the German proposal. Salisbury replied to the German Ambassador ‘in view of the increasing of the slave trade on the East Coast of Africa, and the disturbances and impediments to legitimate trade which it produces, Her Majesty’s Government accede to the proposal of the Imperial Government to establish, with the ascent of the Sultan of
Zanzibar, ... a blockade against the importation of munitions of war and the exportation of slaves’.41 No mention was officially made, whether by the Germans or the British, of the real causes of the East African insurrection. On the contrary, the suppression of the slave trade and the protection of legitimate commerce were abusively used by both governments to justify their military intervention. Allegedly, the blockade was designed to stop the destruction of the civilian populations of East and Central Africa caused by the trade in slaves and arms. In truth, Germany and Britain wanted, above all, to quell the revolt that had spread throughout East Africa and threatened their fragile colonial rule in the region.42 The British felt that if German rule fell, British rule would suffer the same fate. We should now see how the British and French Parliament reacted to the opportunist humanitarian rhetoric of Salisbury and Bismarck.