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III: Zanzibar’s contribution to international law and humanitarian operations

7 The 1890 Brussels Conference:

The 1890 Brussels Conference: An apogee of imperial or humanitarian politic?

The 1890 Brussels Conference was not only one of the most significant international meetings on anti-slavery ever held in the nineteenth century but also reflected a time when imperial politics manipulated humanitarian issues to meet their own objectives, a movement described by Suzanne Miers as ‘the antislavery game’.1 This chapter will first dwell on the two main aspects of the Brussels Conference: humanitarian on one hand and imperialistic on the other. It will be shown that previous anti-slavery experiments in Zanzibar waters inspired the seventeen diplomatic delegations sent to Brussels. At the conference, two classic visions of international relations continued to confront each other. While France defended national sovereignty and advocated that each nation should control her own shipping, Britain called for an international system of police to repress the slave trade at sea. In short, the sovereignty of State was opposed to international intervention based on the supremacy of humanitarian principles and international law. Last but not least, this chapter investigates into one of the outcomes of the Brussels Act in looking at the international office for the repression of the slave trade set in Zanzibar between 1892 and 1914. Once more, the ambiguous and multi-faced relationship binding imperialism with humanitarianism will be examined in the light of this new development of abolitionism in international relations. All in all, this shows that Zanzibar’s nineteenth century anti-slavery experiments decidedly had global implications.

The influence of the Zanzibar blockade over the Brussels Conference

As was previously demonstrated in the last chapter, the Zanzibar blockade stopped the launching of an international conference on the Indian Ocean slave trade. Nevertheless, it also paradoxically played a crucial role in forcing its launching and setting its purposes a few months later. As Miers pointed out ‘the experiences of the blockade had highlighted the need for an international treaty against the slave trade’ and the arms traffic.2 The blockade had demonstrated ‘the inadequacy of naval measures’ unless universal procedures could be applied to the suppression of the slave trade.3

Above all, the question of the right of visit and search as well as the judicial procedures applied to slave traders - the German authorities often hanged them without trial - remained unanswered.

Moreover, Bismarck and Salisbury needed an international conference on the slave trade for ‘diplomatic as well as domestic reason’.4 Bismarck wanted to strengthen Anglo-German cooperation as France was trying to detach Italy from the Triple Alliance in order to weaken the Reich’s position in Europe. Moreover, he also used the rhetoric of the slave trade to win the support of the Catholic Centre Party at the Reichstag and stop the critics raised against the Zanzibar blockade.5 In the meantime, Salisbury was under pressure from the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) at Westminster. Liberals and Conservatives alike had united at the House of Commons and ‘passed a resolution calling for a conference of all the powers’.6 Harsh criticisms had been formulated in light of the poor results achieved by the naval blockade. The head of the BFASS, Sydney Buxton, leading again remonstrance against the British government, declared at the Commons: ‘On two essential points the Government was overly sanguine ... the French ... will not allow the right of search ...; and ... the Germans have ... gone in for what is practically a land expedition, and have destroyed ... peaceful towns’.7 If British abolitionists were clearly aware that political leaders had manipulated anti-slavery to win public support for their colonial intervention, they seized this opportunity to pressure their government and call for an international conference on anti-slavery. In a way, imperialists toying humanitarianism had been caught by abolitionists at their own game.

Launching a new international conference on the slave trade was therefore not only a good way to counter all the criticisms which had been raised against the blockade, but also a good occasion to offer public opinion a great celebration of Britain’s long efforts to suppress the slave trade throughout the world since 1807. This was clearly reflected by The Times when proudly printing ‘it was just a century ago last May that Wilberforce ... took what may be called the first step in the campaign of which the last step may now be in the course of being taken ... the Brussels Conference may indeed be the crowning effort of a century of labour’.8 As Miers noted, this gave Salisbury the opportunity to picture ‘the Brussels Conference of 1889-1890 as the first in the history to meet “for the purpose of promoting pure humanity and goodwill 9 In Belgium, Leopold II was equally eager to justify his colonial enterprise in the Congo by the suppression of the slave trade; the most popular humanitarian cause of the age. So doing, Leopold could easily win over both public opinion and the international community. As he did before in Brussels in 1876 and in Berlin in 1884-1885, Leopold wanted his colonial enterprise to be endorsed by the international community. He wanted ‘the occupation and the exploitation of Africa’ to be acknowledged as an ‘antislavery measure’.10 The conference gave him complete satisfaction.

As Daniel Laqua pointed, in Brussels, humanitarianism and imperialism went hand in hand in a most obvious and unambiguous fashion.11

At the opening of the conference, the Prince of Chimay, Belgium’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, welcomed the seventeen delegations, stressing that he was proud that they were gathered in Brussels ‘in the name of civilisation, with the highest humanitarian goal in view’.12 The conference, following the most recent example set by the Zanzibar blockade, gave the opportunity to Leopold II and all the other colonial powers, to establish a convenient moral justification to the recent imposition of colonial rule in Africa. The first article of the Brussels Act claimed that only colonial rule could lead to the extinction of the slave trade. It argued that ‘the most effective means of counteracting the slave trade in the interior of Africa’ was ‘1. Progressive organization of the administrative, judicial, religious and military services in the African territories placed under the sovereignty or protectorate of civilised nations .... 3. The construction of roads, and in particular of railways .... 4. The establishment of steam boats .... 5. Establishment of telegraphic lines ... ’.n According to Miers, this was adopted at Leopold’s instigation who wished to conceal its colonial project under the humanitarian cloak.14

In short, colonisation and industrial progress, introduced as an expression of humanitarian benevolence, would finally bring the slave trade to its last breath. This reflected the positivist spirit of the age, greatly influenced by Livingstone’s credo, upon which most of the supporters of imperial expansion relied to forward their colonial projects as already noted in Chapters Five and Six. Miers also highlighted that ‘King Leopold ..., assisted by the other colonial powers, seized the opportunity [of the conference] to craft a treaty to serve their purposes and carried the antislavery game to an apogee unequalled before or since’.15 Following this lead, Mairi S. Macdonald argued that ‘The Brussels treaty is breath-taking in its cynicism’ since it stated that ‘colonial rule was the best, even the only, way to accomplish the humanitarian objectives of “effectively protecting the aboriginal populations of Africa” and of “assuring to that vast continent the benefits of peace and civilisation’”.16 In the light of the terrifying colonial violence which devastated the Congo’s population afterwards, the Brussels Conference inevitably appears as one of the greatest historical examples of a cynical, if not criminal, manipulation of humanitarianism. Macdonald legitimately questions the role played by Brussels’ abolitionist discourse in the widespread violence which contributed, with other factors such as virus and diseases, to kill an unaccountable number of people - several millions, ten possibly - in Leopold’s Congo between 1885 and 1908.17 While the conference was taking place, she demonstrates that reports of colonial violence in the Congo were ignored by the Foreign Office to secure talks and agreements in Brussels.18 Macdonald concludes that the humanitarian speech dramatised at the conference created ‘a moral hazard’ making ‘any behaviour permissible as long as it advanced [Leopold’s] “civilising mission” in Congo’.19 In justifying imperial domination by ‘pure humanitarian motives’ had the international community not favoured the terrible metamorphosis of fine humanitarian intentions into a monstrous beast only governed by hideous greed and violence? Or as Fabian Klose puts it, does the Brussels Conference not ‘reveal most vividly the close and infamous entanglement of European humanitarianism with nineteenth century colonialism and imperialism’?20

On the other hand, as Amalia Ribi Forclaz, Daniel Laqua, and Olivier Grenouilleau pointed, the Brussels Conference also constituted a major step towards the internationalisation of anti-slavery and humanitarianism in spite of all the political manipulations it suffered from imperialists like Leopold.21 Forclaz and Laqua demonstrate that the Brussels Conference contributed to the international revival of anti-slavery in the late nineteenth century along with the renewed activity of numerous humanitarian societies like the BFASS, the Société Antiesclavagiste de Belgique, or the Societa Antichiavista d’Italia.22 Grenouilleau highlights that the Brussels Conference gave the repression of the slave trade ‘an unparalleled international judicial dimension’ as we will see throughout this chapter.23 In this sense, it reveals the ‘Janus-faded nature of internationalism’ as Laqua puts it.24 In manipulating antislavery for imperial purposes, political leaders unexpectedly gave humanitarian questions the international exposure they lacked for more than half of a century, thus contributing to the revival of the movement. Anti-slavery once more fell under the scrutiny and the pressure of a global public opinion led by non-governmental organisations as the campaign conducted by the BFASS during the conference exemplifies. British anti-slavery activists ‘organised large scales meetings in Birmingham and London’ and were responsible for 150 of the 155 petitions that are preserved at the Belgian Ministry Archives’.25 As a result, European leaders found it difficult to manipulate humanitarianism just for their own benefits. Anti-slavery organisations and activists actually struggled to re-establish a balance in favour of ‘truthful humanitarianism’. Less famous than the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, the 1890 Brussels Conference was one the most important diplomatic gathering of the late nineteenth century. Nearly 50 years after the first World Antislavery Convention of 1840, the conference opened for the abolitionist movement a new and decisive chapter.26 This time, it was the seventeen most powerful nations of the age which gathered in Brussels to force the repression of the slave trade into international relations and international law. European states such as France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and the United States thus met with Persia, The Ottoman Empire, the Congo Free State, and Zanzibar. On the other hand, The Brussels Act was also later ‘used by interested parties [imperialists] to force a reluctant government into action’ as it happened in the 1890s in Uganda.27

Zanzibar, much like the Congo Free State, was represented by two European delegates: Sir John Kirk, the most influential of all former British Consuls on the island, along with his former German counterpart, Dr. Arendt.

The 1890 Brussels Conference 157 Interestingly, Kirk, with Lord Hussey Crespigny Vivian, head of the Slave Trade Department at the Foreign Office, also represented Britain at the conference.28 Having agreed to participate, the two delegates from Zanzibar reported being sick before the start. In November 1889, there was some speculation about them seeking to avoid inconvenient discussions over the Sultanate’s role in the Indian Ocean slave trade. In this regard, Kirk’s appointment shows how the Sultan had finally lost important aspects of his sovereignty even though the British Protectorate had not yet been established on the island.29 In the view of his diplomatic career in Zanzibar, Kirk certainly had in mind all the anti-slave trade policies implemented there by Britain over, at least, the past 20 years. Zanzibar’s delegation was not only a symbol of European domination, but it was also a demonstration of how important the island had become to international relations in the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, the former French Consul-General in Zanzibar, Lacau, assisted the French Ambassador at the conference. In short, the Zanzibar anti-slavery experiments were on the minds of the two most important diplomatic delegations present in Brussels.

The question of the suppression of the slave trade at sea - the right of search, the problem of indigenous vessels flying European flags, and the trial of slavers - constituted a central part of the debates along with the measures to be taken by colonial powers on the continent.30 The final act of the Brussels Conference reflects very well how crucial these questions were. Out of 100 articles, 41 were dedicated to the suppression of the slave trade at sea’, and just five ‘to Resctrict the Traffic in Spirituous Liquors’.31 Lord Vivian, on the opening day, insisted that ‘in the opinion of Her Majesty’s Government the suppression of the export of slaves by sea is the object to which the efforts of the conference should be primarily directed’.32 The British anti-slavery experience in Zanzibar and the Western Indian Ocean clearly guided the works, if not the thoughts, of Lord Vivian when he exposed to the delegates the views of his government: ‘the actual limitation of the export trade in slaves to the area comprised between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and the African Coast southward as far as the island of Madagascar will probably facilitate the labour of the conference, and enable it to concentrate its attention on that zone. Within this area it will be necessary to concert measures for combined action against slave-vessels on both shores of the Red Sea and on the coast to the southward;... for establishing effective machinery for the detection and punishment of slave dealers and those aiding them and abetting them, and efficient tribunals for trying them,... and for the adoption of a system which would render it impossible to obtain, for his protection in nefarious practices, registration under the flag of any of the Powers’.33 Vivian’s words mirrored all the anti-slavery measures Britain had implemented in Zanzibar since the middle of the nineteenth century; measures on which this book has so far focused. In accordance with the principles he had espoused, Vivian presented the British project of an international resolution for the suppression of the slave trade at sea on 28 November 1888.34

158 International law and humanitarian operations

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