Zanzibar, and the East African Slave Trade

The recall of the Zambezi Expedition in 1863, and the failure of the Universities Mission to Central Africa, largely as a consequence of mounting costs, not least in human mortality, and the failure of the expedition to find the practical highway into the interior that it sought, was a significant blow to David Livingstone’s personal prestige, his reputation, his self confidence and his fundamental sense of purpose…

By the failure of the Universities Mission my work seems in vain.’ He wrote soon afterwards in a personal correspondence. ‘Am I to be cut off before I can do anything to effect permanent improvement in Africa. I have been unprofitable enough...’

He returned to England in the aftermath of the recall a chastened man, and not a soul, not even his family, stood on the quayside to greet him. Officially he was acknowledged, and he continued to be entertained by polite society, albeit in a very low-key manner, but in general he was kept very much at a distance by the Victorian social and geographic establishment. Politically he had also become something of a liability. Alongside the obvious consequences of the failure of the expedition, his unrelenting rhetorical attacks against the Portuguese for their involvement in the local slave trade were nothing if not diplomatically ticklish…‘Nothing can be done with the Portuguese.’ He once wrote. ‘They are an utterly effete, worn out, used up, syphilitic race: their establishments are not colonies, but very small penal settlements.’

None of this helped Livingstone’s cause. He was, of course, quite accurate in his accusations – the Portuguese authorities were bound by treaty to act against the international traffic in slaves – but there was a degree of official collusion, tolerate dnot only by the Portuguese, but evidently by the British too. Portugal at that time was Britain’s oldest ally, a status dating back to the Anglo/Portuguese Alliance of 1386. So although there might have been some official sympathy for Livingstone’s position, Lord Russell, the British Foreign Secretary of the time, had naturally to be extremely cautious in his handling of a public figure of such ostensible authority as Livingstone, and of extending too open a welcome to the missionary explorer upon his return to Britain.

And there was also, of course, a great deal of reluctance in British society to reward Livingstone for such a conspicuous failure, and nor at that point to acknowledge too much of what he had to say. His consistent appeals on behalf of the suffering masses of central Africa had become inconvenient. Matters on the international stage had by then progressed somewhat, and it was now clearly recognized that the question of the East African Slave trade was not to be addressed quite as cleanly and easily as had been the issue of the more focused and industrial Atlantic Slave Trade. The reasons for this were complex, and had much to do not only with the character of the East African trade itself, but also with the nature and structure of British influence in the Indian Ocean trading zone.

By the mid 1860s the focus of the slave trade in East Africa was centers the Island of Zanzibar, located about thirty miles off the African mainland, adjacent to, and slightly north of the current Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salaam. The location of Zanzibar and its relative security had since antiquity made it a fairly obvious location from which to penetrate and exploit the interior. The first Europeans to land on the island were the Portuguese as they were exploring the southern oceans for a viable sea route to India. Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama was the first to complete the journey from the European mainland to India, visiting Zanzibar en route early in 1498. Soon afterwards the Portuguese succeeded in establishing their mercantile dominance of the East Coast of Africa, challenging the much older trading interests of the Arabian peninsular that had effectively dominated coastal commerce since time immemorial.

Soon afterwards the Portuguese claimed control of Zanzibar, retaining that dominance from more or less the turn of the 16th century until the end of the 17th, an effective two centuries, also occupying a number of key trading ports along the coast, later occupying the Omani capital of Muscat, and maintaining effective control for an impressive period of about 143 years, between 1507 and 1650. They were eventually forced out by a resurgence of Omani authority under local imams, and then progressively pushed south along the Swahili coast, eventually relinquishing Mombasa and Zanzibar, and then finally retreating south of the Rovuma River, thereafter limiting their hegemonic trading activities to within the coastal parameters of present day Mozambique. Zanzibar, and most of the adjacent coastline then fell under the control of the emerging Sultanate of Oman, control that in due course came to extend from the southern boundary of present day Tanzania to the coast of Somalia, and then, over the centuries that followed, progressively deeper into the interior.

Primarily because of its importance as a trading center, in particular in relation to the East African Slave Trade, the island of Zanzibar began to assume an ever greater importance within in the Omani empire, so important in fact that in 1837 the seat of the Omani Sultanate was moved from Muscat to Zanzibar by the then Sultan of Oman, Siad Bin Sultan. There it remained until the death of Bin Sultan in 1856, upon which a significant succession dispute was resolved, with the help of British diplomacy, by the division of the sultanate between two sons, creating, in effect, two Sultanates, the Sultanate of Oman and the Sultanate of Zanzibar, the latter including the islands and mainland territories of the east coast of Africa.

Zanzibar thereafter became in effect an independent state, its economy premised almost entirely on the handling and processing of commerce and finance related to a growing trade empire extending from the coast south and east towards the Great Lakes, and beyond, probing ultimately into the catchment of the Congo River, northeast throughout Kenya and Uganda and north towards Somalia and southern Sudan. This, of course, was also the wider catchment of the East African Slave Trade.

Livingstone’s ire and disgust expressed towards the Portuguese was largely as a consequence of their involvement in the southern branch of this trade, primarily along the Zambezi River, and mainly under the control of semi-autonomous prazeros. Prazeros, or Prazos, where a peculiarly Portuguese institution, active on both sides of the continent, but most notably in Portuguese East Africa, were they acted as proxy government on behalf of a by then weak and ineffectual Portuguese crown. The essence of the prazo system was the grant of comprehensive leases by the Portuguese Crown to individuals who thereafter enjoyed wide trade monopolies over huge areas of territory, forming in effect miniature quasi-governments with more or less full rights to exploit and control territories under their remit. In exchange they were required to display nominal fealty to the Portuguese crown, and when required, to defend Portuguese interests.

By the turn of the 19th century the prazeros had evolved into a virtual amalgam of African and Portuguese identity, in a way not dissimilar to the development of coastal societies further north that claimed to be Arab, but which were in fact simply an Arabized merchant class, speaking the Swahili language, and identifiable mainly through adopted dress codes and the practice of Islam. Likewise Portuguese assimilation had created a local cultural synthesis of Africans, identifiable in the Portuguese context as mulatto, speaking Portuguese, availing themselves of Portuguese institutions, but in almost every respect full blooded Africans.

By the time Livingstone made his appearance on the Zambezi River, the prazero culture in the region had been established for generations, in particular on the lower reaches of the river, surrounding the settlements of Tete and Sena. And of course by then the prazero had adopted slaving as their primary activity, superseding the more ancient trade in gold and ivory. The reasons for this sudden evolution were partly the difficulty that rogue Portuguese slave traders were experiencing in obtaining slaves from the west coast as a consequence of the British blockade, and partly the rapid growth of demand and consumption of slaves on the French Indian Ocean plantation islands.

The prazero culture would ultimately disappear in the face of European influence and competition in Africa, which required the Portuguese government to take more direct control of the administration of her colonies. But in the late 1850s they were still very much in the picture

Livingstone’s utter distaste for the Portuguese was for the most part directed at local administrative personnel, usually the scapings of Portuguese prisons, and of course the racial intermingling of both these and the prazero. Being a full blooded Victorian, his sense of moral probity was such that exposure to such unashamed miscegenation and corruption offended him deeply, and the open and casual conduct of slave trading in both centers was an outrage to him. Interesting too is the fact that Livingstone felt justified in disregarding prior Portuguese claims to most of his celebrated geographic discoveries because early Portuguese travelers and explorers were rarely full blood Portuguese, allowing him to claim to be the first ‘white man’ to witness such spectacles as the Victoria Falls and Lake Nyasa among others.

However, be that as it may. Livingstone’s return to England in 1864 was not greeted with anything resembling the enthusiasm and acclaim of yore. He was better received in Scotland, unsurprisingly, but even there his public appearances were carefully choreographed. And although he was called upon frequently to enlarge upon his interest and concern for the African slave trade,  increasingly he found himself being distracted and absorbed into the topic of the moment, which was the question of the source of the Nile.

The question of the source of the Nile had for centuries been one of the great conundrums of African exploration, and by the mid-1800s, it had become the geographic holy grail of. Navigation up the Nile had  since time immemorial been frustrated by the great wetlands of the Sudd, and in recent years the quest for the source had continued via overland expeditions from the coast. The fact that the Blue Nile rose from the highlands of Ethiopia had been understood for some time, but by the third quarter of the 19th century the origins of the White Nile still remained a mystery. The issue was also at the root of one of the great professional rivalries of the period, that between the august figure of Sir Richard Burton, arguably one of the most prolific explorers of the period, and his one time companion, John Hanning Speke. In 1858 Speke first sighted the expanse of Lake Victoria, concluding it to be the source of the Niles. Burton, exploring further south along the shore of Lake Tanganyika, angrily refuted this claim, after which a lively public debate ensured until the matter was settled by Henry Morton Stanley, circumnavigating the lake and confirming a massive outflow at Rippon Falls. Stanley also, somewhat later, located what in the opinion of many was a more authentic source when he first glimpsed the glacier capped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains, or the fabled Mountains of the Moon, one of the sources of the many streams and rivers that ultimately fed into Lake Victoria.

None of this was of much professional interest to Livingstone, but in order to remain viable as a current African explorer he was forced on some level to involve himself. His primary objective remained his attempts to draw and keep attention focused on the Portuguese involvement in slave trafficking in the Zambezi and Shiré catchments, in contravention of international treaty, while at the same time laboring to produce his seminal work: A Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambezi and Its Tributaries and of the Discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa (1858-1864), which was published in 1865 to considerable public interest. However, the question of the source of the Nile, and by extension the mystery of the Great Lakes of Central Africa, required answering, and as an avenue back to Africa Livingstone accepted a commission on behalf of the Royal Geographic society to explore and map the southern Great Lakes region as well as attempt to confirm the actual source of the Nile.

His determination, however, was to proselytize, and to chronicle the African Slave Trade, and only as an afterthought apply himself to the geographic objectives of his commission. In 1865 he sailed from England to India, and soon afterwards form Bombay to Zanzibar. From there he set out of the mainland, beginning his exploration of the southern lakes by penetrating the interior up the Rovuma River, immediately finding himself embroiled in the turmoil of the Arab branch of the East African Slave Trade. The devastation he witnessed was more extensive and more devastating that anything the Portuguese were responsible for, but not, unfortunately, subject, in quite the same way, to the limitations of international treaty.

The Arab trade centered on Zanzibar, and Zanzibar at that point existed as an independent Sultanate which enjoyed extremely cordial relations with the British, and within which, the trade and factoring of slaves remained a legal enterprise. There was in both practical and legal terms nothing that Livingstone or anyone could do other than to witness and chronicle what was taking place, and this he did.
At that point Britain was the engine driving the global movement towards the full abolition of slavery, but the diplomatic and legal difficulties of dealing with the East African Slave Trade amounted to a great deal more than simply coercing fellow European powers and enforcing British imperial objectives in the Atlantic Ocean by a powerful Royal Naval Squadron. The Atlantic Slave Trade had been for the most part a strictly commercial venture, something that in a modern context could be seen in terms of energy and industry. It was in any case gradually being superseded by technology and undermined the increasing politicization of the issue, so a market driven decision that slavery, barring residual investment and capital issues, had become a simple anachronism was somewhat inevitable.

Within the Indian Ocean and Arab context, the matter was a great deal more complicated. Within Arab society slavery was deeply institutionalized and entrenched, with a history dating back to pre-biblical times. Under Islam, the ownership of slaves was not only acceptable, but was subject to a raft of finely crafted laws pertaining to the ownership and usage of slaves – laws that governed details as complete as the admissibility in a court of law of the testimony of a slave, the validity of property owned by a slave, the right of a slave to bequeath property, the circumstances and conditions of slave marriage, the rights and liberties, if any, of slave progeny, the particulars of punishments under the law applicable to slaves, the relative values of slave, and so on and so on.

The Arab Slave Trade centered on the city of Zanzibar, where a century old economy had been built, not just on slave trading, but a multifaceted trade out of the interior of Africa, with slaves, arguably, being the most consistent and lucrative commodity, perhaps with the exception of ivory. Customs duties were levied, a complex financial system existed and a dedicated infrastructure was in place that was specifically configured for the trade in human beings, and supported by a vast and complex commercial network that had evolved within the adjacent interior of the continent. This involved key mainland ports, Kilwa, adjacent to the northern reaches of Lake Nyasa the largest and busiest among them, another was Mombasa, with associated trade routes reaching as deep into the interior as the eastern regions of Congo, north as far as Uganda and as far south as the Zambezi. Needless to say all of this was extremely lucrative.The British, in the meanwhile, not withstanding their championship of the global anti-slave movement, maintained a delicate and complex diplomatic relationship with the Sultanates of Oman and Zanzibar. Both states fell under the consular authority of the British Indian Government, separate from, and often somewhat antagonistic towards the central imperial government in Whitehall. There was a conspiracy of indifference on the part of British authorities in India towards metropolitan anguish over the question of the ongoing slave trade emanating from Zanzibar. Beyond the maintenance of the few Royal Navy ships necessary to satisfy public option, and a naval adjudication court established in Zanzibar in 1867 to deal with cases of dhows caught smuggling slaves, in general there was a conspicuous interest in doing nothing that might in any way upset the status quo.

The question of smuggling was also an interesting one, because, of course, the trade remained legal within the sultanate, but under treaty with Britain, established in 1845, the export of slaves out of Africa was prohibited. So therefore slaves were consigned up the coast to Somalia, in fact to the Island of Lamu on the coastal border between modern day Kenya and Somalia, from where they were then further, and surreptitiously, shipped across the Gulf of Aden towards the long established markets of the Persian Gulf. It was this last leg of the journey that was in contravention of international treaty, and although it continued with the more or less active connivance of both the Sultanate and the Indian Government, it was nonetheless remained illegal.

Much of this had to do with the fact that, while the ferment of the abolition movement, and the horrors of the middle passage and the subsequent treatment of slaves in the Americas excited high passions among aboriginal protection organizations, evangelical societies and other social mediums, there was a permissive attitude among British civil servants and government officials, particularly those in India, many of whom expressed open admiration for the standards of social achievement in Muslim societies, taking note of the fact that slaves in the emirates tended to be better treated than a majority of factory workers and miners in industrial Britain, and about the general social order under Islam there was a great deal to admire.

And among those admired by the British was Siad Bin Sultan himself, who had been a staunch British ally for over two decades, intimately involved in British policy in the Persian Gulf,  as a consequence of which he was held in particularly high esteem among officers of the British East India Company under whose remit British foreign policy in the Gulf fell. There was as consequence a particular reluctance to rock the boat by leveling too pointed a criticism of the fact that this most staunch British ally and his heirs also happened to control the world’s last great slave trading economies.

In the meanwhile, Doctor David Livingstone penetrated the African interior, and was almost immediately disappeared. Nothing more than a few poignant briefs detailing the horrors he confronted on his journey inland, and one or two personal letters reached the outside world. Soon even these ceased, and it was not long before it began to be assumed that Livingstone had perished somewhere in the deep interior.

In fact he ambulated and explored extensively within the south/central region in the years between 1866 and 1871, investigating the southern lakes Meru and Banhweulu in modern day Zambia, penetrating the as far west as the Lualaba River in modern day Congo, and concluding that this, what was in fact the headwaters of the Congo River, was the elusive source of the Nile.

Throughout this period Livingstone was exposed to the gathering turmoil of the rise and concentration of a style of gangster warlordism with the economics of the slave and ivory trade as the principal engine. By the late 1860s the internal turmoil in central Africa had spread beyond the continental divide and into the catchment of the Congo River. Trade was dominated by ivory and slaves, and the organization and violence associated with it amounts, in practical terms, to the first, large scale man made humanitarian disaster to be recorded in Africa, and the chronicler of this massive scale of human misery was David Livingstone.

The irony too was that Livingstone traveled, as had been his fate for most of his career, impoverished of supplies and with the bare minimum necessary for survival. He was frequently ill, and was often beholden to the slavers for food, shelter and care. A dichotomy that struck him frequently was kindness and generosity that he was shown by the same men who exercised and wielded almost inconceivable cruelty to those that they captured, and perhaps more so the same cruelty meted out by those who were slaves themselves, deployed as soldiers and enforcers to the vast and growing organizations that controlled turf and resources across great swaths of the region.

In the outside world Livingstone was widely assumed to be dead, and although interest and concern for the plight of slaves shipped in numbers out of East Africa ebbed and flowed with the conscience and disposition of responsible public servants, in general there existed a stable status quo that appeared ultimately to be impervious to pressure for change. As the 1860s ended and the 1870s began, however, the worm began to turn, and the agent of that change was a brash, self serving and highly motivated American newspaper journalist by the name of Henry Morton Stanley.

Much has been written about Stanley, and extensive have been his adventures and influences in Africa, but perhaps his most famous exploit was his successful search for David Livingstone. In a lavishly funded expedition, Stanley, in 1871, encountered Livingstone weak and destitute in Ujiji, a vibrant trade center and slave post close to present day Kigoma in western Tanzania. It was from this encounter that the famous, but very likely apocryphal greeting ‘Doctor Livingstone I presume?’, was recorded.

Stanley was certainly a man of mixed reputation, and if this snippet of history was fabricated, it can be hardly surprising because much of what Stanley reported of this journey, and others to come, was at the very least over-dramatized, and at worse manifestly false. Nonetheless, he passed a few months with Livingstone, and emerged back on the east coast on May 1872, arriving in Marseilles two months later to a triumphant welcome. The news of Livingstone’s discovery reached an enthralled British public on July 25, 1872, in the morning editions of the Times and the Daily Telegraph.

This prompted something of a perfect storm of events that would within a few years finally bring an end to the East African Slave Trade. This re-surfacing of the Livingstone legacy, now considerably embellished under the extremely fanciful pen of Stanley, who of course embellished his own career by lionising Livingstone thus, regenerated public interest in this obscure foreign tragedy that the great Doctor had devoted his life to witnessing. Public emotion reached a fever pitch a year later when news emerged that Livingstone had died lonely and destitute in the dark heart of Africa, carrying forward his mission with his last dying breath. The great missionary explorer’s body was duly transported out of Africa and received in London, and thereafter interred in Westminster Abbey with a degree of pomp and expenditure that Livingstone had been denied for most of his life.

But nonetheless, in his last dispatches and journals, and in the drama of his passing, he succeeded in igniting the flame that would light the way down the last corridor of this dark phase of human history, and the bearer of that flame would be another Victorian worthy, but a man of entirely different character. The pompous, opinionated and empowered Sir Bartle Frere, ex-governor of Bombay, soon to be High Commissioner for Southern Africa, and for the time being Special Envoy to the court of the Sultan of Zanzibar, charged with negotiating a treaty to finally end the slave trade in East Africa.

Frere was an interesting character. He represented the vanguard of the next generation of British imperialists who would step into the shoes of the missionaries and the explorers in order to drive forward the acquisition of vast areas of central and East Africa to the British Crown. This was as much for the commercial value of colonization as for the prestige associated with the jostling of the great European powers that followed the Berlin Conference (1884/5), which in turn sparked the iconic Scramble for Africa. It was Frere, for example, in his efforts to confederate the different states of South Africa, who initiated the Anglo/Zulu War of 1879. He was a man gifted with an unassailable self belief, buttressed even further by his confidence in the support of British diplomatic and military might, and fortified by the fact that for the most part he did enjoy that support.

What followed then was a contest between the famously obtuse and nebulous system of politics and diplomacy of the Zanzibar Sultanate and the blunt instrument of British gunboat diplomacy. Early in 1872 Bartle Frere sailed into Zanzibar harbor on board a Royal Naval yacht, and there he established himself over several months as he attempted to browbeat the Sultan of Zanzibar into signing a treaty with Britain banning the trade in slaves in all of his territories.

And interesting comment attributed to British parliamentarian and activist Lord Acton in relation to Bartle Frere might shed some light on what followed: ‘…he is rather too plausible, and will gain is end by cooked paths when he has tried the straight in vain.’

There were others, usually on the receiving end of this style of negotiation who would have described it as standard British diplomatic procedure, known later  simply as Britannia Waives the Rules.

But be that as it may. Bartle Frere was essentially attempting to negotiate the end of a system of commerce that had sustained a society for centuries, and an intrinsic social culture that also somewhat defined the history and ideology of Zanzibar, the Oman and the wider Arab world. Frere himself commented, with uncharacteristic phlegm, that the speculation at the slave market in Zanzibar was not unlike a stock auction at a Yorkshire rural fair.

For Zanzibar Arabs, even of the highest class, the speculation in slaves seem sto have the same sort of attraction which horse dealing has for an ordinary Yorkshireman. They examine and discuss the points, bargain and bid, and if they purchase an animal they like, they keep it until tired of it, then exchange or sell it…

This was something altogether different to the industrial level, feed-lot type movement of stock associated with the Atlantic slave trade, the impersonal, unsentimental and wholesale trade in a commodity.

But time, technology and progress was in any case catching up with the medieval world of Zanzibar, cut off from the wider world since the opening of the Suez Canal, and set in an arc of undisturbed culture, like a quiet eddy in a furious current, where little had changed for centuries, but upon which change, for better of for worse, was imminent. The dark interior of Africa, an obscure and hidden stage for a massive machine of violence and lawlessness to churn, was being illuminated more clearly every year. Livingstone was the first, and others followed, but behind the explorers came the capital imperialists like Cecil John Rhodes, George Taubman Goldie and William Mackinnon, men who between them secured on behalf of the Crown the three great British African territorial blocs of South Africa/Rhodesia/Nyasaland, Nigeria and Kenya/Uganda, effectively removing African traditional rule, or at least, in the context of the interior, what was left of it.

So notwithstanding the fact that Bartle Frere, much to his consternation, failed to coerce the Sultan of Zanzibar to sign a treaty banning the trade in slaves in the territories that he controlled, those territories were in any case declining, so the point was largely moot. Nonetheless, a deeply chagrined British Special Envoy then resorted to force, and declared a blockade of all the coastal ports. And while this did indeed begin the slow strangulation of the formal trade on the island, on the mainland it simply drove the traffic underground, forcing local traders to use long overland routes up the coast as far as Somalia, significantly worsening conditions for those on the capture end of the market, and burdening the trade with a shocking mortality rate, and the consequent rise in prices.

But the blockade, and the subsequent diplomatic work on the ground by the British consul, eventually undermined the trade where it was at its most vulnerable, at the core of the subterranean finance system that lay at the heart of the Zanzibar economy. The journey was slow, something akin to a weaning process, but it culminated in the signing of a treaty on June 6, 1873, a day after the Zanzibar slave market, an ancient institution, and the last of its kind surviving in the world, was closed.

The sultanate was inherited a further four times, with the island diminishing in reach to its own borders as the German ad British imperial authorities created protectorate over the mainland. After the shortest war in history, the Anglo/Zanzibar War, lasting just forty minutes, Zanzibar became a British Protectorate, a status it retained until independence from Britain was granted in 1963. In April 1964, the republic merged with mainland Tanganyika. The United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was soon renamed (as a portmanteau) the United Republic of Tanzania, within which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.