The international repression of the slave trade: a failure?
In order to overcome the Anglo-French disagreements, a famous international lawyer, Fyodor Fyodorovitch Martens, was asked to work out a compromise in order to prevent the conference’s failure.58 Martens (1845-1909) was a Russian diplomat who made substantial contributions to international law in the late nineteenth century. Most notably, he represented Russia at The Hague Peace Conference in 1899 on laws and customs of war and contributed to the so-called Martens’ clause inscribed in the preamble of The Hague’s Convention. Referring to the ‘laws of humanity’, this clause was an important step designed to ‘humanise’ armed conflicts through international law.59 Martens embodied an age which was hoping to settle peacefully national confrontations and ‘humanise’ international affairs, including war, by international law.60
Despite the major opposition between the French and the British proposal, Martens managed to find a consensus. His work was rewarded and eventually became the most important chapters of the Brussels Act issued on 2 July 1890. Britain had made four major concessions to meet an agreement with France. First of all, Madagascar’s territorial waters were excluded by 20 nautical miles from the slave trade zone in which the reciprocal right of visit could be implemented. Secondly, in Article XXII, the right of ‘reciprocal right of visit, of search, and of seizure’ between all the signatory powers was limited to the slave trade zone.61 Vessels of the signatory powers could no longer be boarded anywhere else outside of it. Besides, ‘the examination of the cargo or the search’ could ‘only take place in the case of vessels sailing under the flag of one of the powers that have concluded, or may hereafter conclude the special conventions provided for Article XXII, and in accordance with the provision of such conventions’.62 Thirdly, the right of visit was also limited, by Article XXIII, ‘to vessel whose tonnage is less than 500 tons’.63 This measure was designed to target only dhows or ‘indigenous vessels’. Limiting the right of visit to dhows was also a way to avoid the susceptibilities of all the signatory powers, among which France stood prominently, regarding their national merchant fleets. This safeguarded the rights of the European powers and only limited the freedom of the seas to indigenous populations now under diverse colonial rules. This served colonisation very well. Fourthly, international tribunals were abandoned and replaced by the establishment of at least one international bureau in Zanzibar staffed by representatives of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Portugal.64
Despite the compromise drafted in Brussels, the French Chambre des Députés refused to ratify the Brussels Act. France’s parliament rejected the limits of the maritime zone and, most notably, the articles dealing with the right of visit, search, and seizure. The French parliamentarians considered that Articles XXI to XXIII and XLII to XLI could not be agreed to since they restored the unacceptable right of visit abrogated in 1842, and threatened French shipping in the Indian Ocean as well as ‘the honour of the [French] Nation’.65 Consequently, the authorisation to ratify the Brussels Act was rejected by the French Parliament on 25 June 1891 by a large majority of 439 against 104 votes.66 As a result, France and Belgium engaged in diplomatic negotiations between July and December 1891 in order to save the Brussels Act. Ultimately a new protocol was drafted to meet French approval. France was allowed to ratify the treaty on 2 January 1892 without Articles XXI to XXIII and XLII to LXL67 France did not acknowledge the right of visit, search, and seizure of indigenous vessels as well as the limits of the slave trade zone.68 Moreover, France also evaded the clauses regarding ‘the stopping of suspected vessels’ and ‘the examination and trial of vessels seized’.69 The French government only agreed to follow the 1867 Confidential Instructions, already mentioned in Chapter Two, which just allowed the boarding of a vessel flying the French flag to check her nationality and papers. For domestic reasons, France had favoured the diplomatic status quo on the right of visit and search.
Even though France had rejected the clauses of the Brussels Act related to the suppression of the slave trade at sea, she nonetheless cooperated with the other signatory powers to set up an international bureau in Zanzibar. Article LXXIV established that ‘an international office shall be instituted at Zanzibar’. This bureau was designed to ‘centralise material on the slave trade in the maritime zone and to keep archives for the use of naval or consular officers or other interested officials’.70 The article XLI stipulated that the signatory powers of the Brussels Act engaged themselves to provide a long list of documents as follows: ‘1. Licence to carry the flag; 2. The Crew list; 3. The negro passenger list; ... 1. As regard the authorisation to carry the flag: (a) The name, tonnage, rig, and the principal dimension of the vessel; (b) the register number and the signal letter of the port of registry; (c) the date of obtaining the licence ... 2. As regard the list of crew: (a) the name of the vessel, of the captain and the fitter out or owner; (b) the tonnage of the vessel; (c) the register number of the port of registry, its destination ...’.71 This article aimed at establishing better supervision and control of dhows and the trade they carried across the Indian Ocean. As Valeska Huber demonstrated for the Suez Canal or Guillemette Crouzet for the Persian Gulf, this represented the imposition of a new imperial maritime order upon the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.72 While imperial order was gradually being imposed on land, colonial powers also wished to exercise their rule over the sea in this part of the world. The attempt to bring dhows under better supervision shows that colonisation had indeed a maritime dimension.
Apart from Zanzibar, another bureau was set up in Brussels ‘with the duty of collecting, exchanging and publishing whatever information on the slave, arms and liquor traffic the various powers sent’. This bureau was to be a part of the Belgium Department of Foreign Affairs.73 The Zanzibar and the Brussels bureaus both existed until the Great War broke out. Thanks to the Brussels bureau, an incredible volume of documents was consequently published between 1893 and 1914 on the arms trade, the liquor traffic, ‘the protection of the natives’, or the abolition of slavery, and the suppression of the maritime slave trade.74 All these printed documents offer an excellent overview of all the treaties, conventions, instructions, and official reports published by European colonial states in the early stage of their rule in Africa. In these volumes, the question of the arms trade often dominates all the others while the suppression of the slave trade at sea becomes more and more peripheral. Even though figures published are often fragmentary and uncomplete, a short survey of this printed archives makes it possible to assess the impact the Brussels Act had, or not, over the suppression of the slave trade in the Western Indian Ocean.
Between 1892 and 1913 Zanzibar hosted a bureau where the five delegates of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Portugal met several times a year in order to coordinate the repression of the slave trade at sea. Persia and the Ottoman Empire refused to send any representatives while Russia did not officially inform the other powers of what she intended to do. Having recently lost its Consul in Zanzibar, Belgium also failed to send a representative.75 Holding its first meeting on 9 November 1892, the bureau was reduced to the five colonial powers present on the western shore of the Indian Ocean. Its international dimension was reduced to what can be described as an imperial level.
In 1893, the first year of the bureau’s activity, the Royal Navy was the only power to communicate official statistics regarding the repression of the slave trade on the east coast of Africa. According to the figures delivered by Captain Charles Campbell, 2,159 dhows were boarded by the navy between 2 April 1892 and 1 April 1893. Out of this total only eight dhows were condemned for being engaged in the slave trade.76 For instance, ‘On the 1 February 1893 a dhow under British colours was detained by H.M.S. Sparrow and the case brought into court’ but ‘however dismissed’.77 Between 9 January 1893 and 18 November 1893, ten dhows were seized and seven condemned for being engaged in the slave trade. The British Consul and political Agent in Zanzibar, G. H. Portal, reported that ‘it may be estimated that the [British] Squadron collectively has boarded about 130 dhows per month or about 1,200 in eight months. As a result, 6 cases, involving 77 slaves, have been brought in the Vice-Admiralty Court attached to this agency, and 70 out of these slaves have obtained papers of freedom’.78 At the time the Royal Navy employed six vessels to undertake this task; namely the H.M.S. Philomel, Blanche, Swallow, Racoon, Widgeon, and Sparrow.79 These facts clearly show that Britain continued to dominate the suppression of the slave trade in Zanzibar in using the Royal Navy to police East African waters. Britain maintained her naval pre-eminence in the region and imposed it at the Zanzibar bureau. Between 1892 and 1913, no proper coordinated action was ever undertaken by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Portugal - except when the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau sat and published its activity report each year. It must also be noted that the year 1893 provides by far the greatest volume of information regarding the suppression of the slave trade at sea while, in the following years, documentation becomes poorer and poorer. This shows that, in spite of their great abolitionist discourses at the Brussels Conference, colonial powers did actually little for the repression of the slave trade in the Western Indian Ocean after 1893.
In 1894, the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau reported another six cases forwarded by Britain. In 1895, the bureau reported four cases of slave trade judged by the British Vice-Admiralty Court. Again, the other powers made no important contribution.80 In 1896, two cases were reported by the British delegate.81 In 1897, no case was mentioned at all.82 In 1898, two cases were briefly mentioned.8’ In 1899, two cases appeared in the annual report.84 In 1900, only one case, a French dhow called the Dirihi, was reported to have been involved in the slave trade.85 In 1901, another case of slave trade was reported by the German delegate.86 In 1902, no judgement in relation to the slave trade was forwarded to the bureau.87 The report argued that this absence of slave trade cases was mainly due to the fact that Zanzibar did not play a central role in the exports of slaves any more. In this view, of course, this was due to the coordinated action of the European powers. Between 1903 and 1908 no cases were brought before the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau either.88 In 1909, one case of slave trade, for the first time in a few years, was mentioned.89 Finally, between 1910 and 1913 no case was reported by any of the European powers.90 Consequently, the British delegate proudly declared in 1913 that ‘the infamous traffic had, at last disappeared’ and concluded it was about time to close down the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau.91
In fact, since 1895, the bureau had argued that the slave trade declined thanks to the strict implementation of the Brussels Act by the European powers.92 However, historians such as Matthew S. Hopper have demonstrated that the Indian Ocean slave trade only died out in the 1920s when the ‘Arabian date and pearl markets [collapsed] as a result of globalization’.93 The statements made by the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau might be explained by the fact that the suppression of the slave trade at sea was not a great priority for the European colonial states any more. The lack of will was evident from the very beginning of the experience. No powers except Britain, and occasionally Germany or Portugal, had really shared information on rhe repression of the slave trade on the east coast of Africa. The reason is probably that there was not much naval activity against the slave trade to report anyhow. It could also be pointed that colonial powers were also eager to hide that the traffic continued under their rule because, if acknowledged, it would
The 1890 Brussels Conference 165 publicly have exposed their failure to carry out the humanitarian principles they originally had claimed to fulfil in taking part in the Scramble.
The Great War eventually did put an end to this multilateral body and the Zanzibar experiment fell into oblivion. Looking at its results, one could ask whether the experience was worth anything. Indeed, the great declarations made at the Brussels Conference looked quite hollow when confronted with what had been achieved in Zanzibar. Nevertheless, it does not mean that these humanitarian ideals were nothing but a bitter manifestation of pure cynicism. It just stresses that European colonial states, and their political leaders, lacked the political will to implement the ambitious humanitarian policies they had pretended to carry out to win public opinion. In that sense, it is not surprising that the reports of the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau only mentioned one of the ten serious slave trade cases in which French dhows were involved in Muscat between 1893 and 1902.94 France did not want to officially acknowledge before the other powers that there was a problem with French dhows. It is also remarkable that no mention was made at all of the slave trafficking taking place in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, or Madagascar - with the exception of the great Portuguese operation of 1902 in Mozambique during which more than 700 slaves were freed and around a 100 slavers from Sur captured.95 While official representatives of the five powers sat at the Zanzibar bureau, ‘the slave trade between East Africa and the Gulf persisted and perhaps grew stronger after 1885, particularly between 1885 and 1910’.96 Hopper stressed that ‘naval patrols and diplomatic manoeuvrings may have reduced slave trade trafficking towards Arabia, but they did not eliminate it’.97
This amazing forgetfulness of the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau is emblematic of the colonial age. Colonial powers systematically overlooked the slave trade or slavery once they had set up their rule. All claimed that colonisation had instantly led to the destruction of slavery or the slave trade whereas this was not the case.98 Slave trade and slavery had only ended in the mind of colonial officials because it suited them. Most of them argued that the complete abolition of slavery would destabilise indigenous societies and thus make colonial rule impossible. Historians, like Suzanne Miers, Frederick Cooper, Kevin Grant, Richard Huzzey, Matthew S. Hopper, Moses D. E. Nwulia, and many others, have all emphasized the terrible paradoxes of colonisation when it came to abolition.99 While colonial powers argued that colonisation would put an end to slavery, ‘they took minimal action to end the institution and sometimes even supported it’ once colonial rule was established.100 Nwulia noted that ‘although the protectorate over Zanzibar was officially proclaimed on November 4, 1890, it was not until July 6, 1909, that the institution of slavery was formally abolished’.101 In Zanzibar as elsewhere, the lack of political will was evident. Appointed First-Minister of Zanzibar in 1891, Lloyd William Mathews argued that slaves themselves preferred slavery to freedom and pointed with disdain that those ‘who claimed their freedom were prostitutes, vagrants, drunkards, and thieves’.102
It was only through the continuous pressure brought by the BFASS over the Zanzibar colonial government and the Foreign Office between 1890 and 1909 that the final abolition of slavery - in law only - took place on the island.103 These facts show again how reluctant an abolitionist the British colonial administration was. So was the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau.
However, even though it achieved very little, the Brussels Conference and the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau contributed to set a small and fragile foundation upon which humanitarian activists, both in civil society and official bodies, were later able to build new institutions against human trafficking.104 When the abrogation of the Brussels Acts finally took place in 1919, it was replaced by Sixth Committee of the League of Nations. A few years later, in 1926, the Slavery Convention, ‘the first international treaty against slavery as well as the slave trade’, was finally adopted in Geneva by the League of Nations.105 The Convention’s preamble explicitly made reference to the Brussels Conference and Act.106 This shows that the conference, even if it did not lead to major humanitarian achievements at the time, was a watershed for international law and international relations. When it came to putting anti-slavery and humanitarianism at the heart of international relations before 1945, a historical filiation - in spirit and letter -existed between the endeavours of the Brussels Conference, the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau, and the League of Nations.107 After all, humanitarianism had somehow survived to imperialism and tried to provide new answers to questions that remained greatly unanswered.
Despite allowing us to reflect upon colonial expansion and the making of international law, the history of Zanzibar Bureau is also a captivating moment because it demonstrates how Britain got hold of most of Zanzibar’s fleet of dhows and gained a dominant position in the so-called indigenous trade. As the figures published by the bureau show, a vast number of dhows trading in Zanzibar flew the British flag between 1893 and 1913 as shown by Tables 7.1 and 7.2. Even though British dhows were still slightly inferior
Table 7.1 The Zanzibar dhow trade in 1899 according to the archives of the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau.
Table 7.2 The dhow trade in Zanzibar in 1912 according to the archives of the Zanzibar Maritime Bureau.
in number around 1899 to Zanzibari’s they nonetheless carried a more important volume of trade. In 1912, British dhows not only outnumbered Zanzibari’s but also undermined the trade of others European powers. Consequently, Britain maintained its dominant position at sea in Zanzibar and the Western Indian Ocean as illustrated by Table 7.2. Anti-slavery this time had served very well Her Majesty’s imperial and economic interests. In fact, as we will see in the following chapter, dhows flying a rival’s flag were perceived as a threat to this newly built order. The final dispute over French dhows in Oman at the turn of the century perfectly illustrates how dhows were integrated into both imperial strategies and international politics. Anti-slavery was again at the crossroads of empire and international law.
Parts of this chapter were published in an earlier form in ‘Le blocus de Zanzibar 1888-1889: entre “intervention d’humanité”, colonisation et droit international’. Outre-Mers, no. 402-403 (2019): 107-126, and ‘The French Flag in Zanzibar Waters 1860s-1900s: Abolition and Imperial Rivalry in the Western Indian Ocean’. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, (2020) DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2020.1783115.