Britain and the slave trade

How Important Was The British Crusade Against The Slave Trade In developing Their Interest In East Africa?

The Nineteenth Century marked a turning point in many aspects of British history. The long process of industrialisation transformed the country, the population dramatically increased and with the changing society many attitudes and institutions centuries old changed very suddenly. One of these changes came in regard to the slave trade. Slavery as an institution had of course existed since time immemorial in Britain itself, and the international trade in slaves, especially to the Americas and West Indies, was well established by the end of the eighteenth century - and in this terrible trade in human beings the British had become the biggest culprits, being more successful slavers than any other nation. Opposition to the trade had however been growing for some time and with government in Britain becoming more and more representative, it was only a matter of time before slavery was ended.

Britain was in fact the first major slave trading nation to abolish the trade, when in 1807 they passed a law making the slave trade illegal for British subjects, and enforcing the law so vigorously that by the end of the Napolionic Wars there were hardly any British slavers left.The abolition of the slave trade was a major step, one of the undisputed achievements of the Imperial Era. Once the British had done away with the trade they then set to ending it throughout the world, making it a priority when making treaties and using the still dominant Royal Navy to enforce the ban wherever they could.

British influence was by the start of the Nineteenth century spreading to parts of the world she had previously had little or no contact with, and one such region is the East coast of Africa. When contact with that part of the world did come it was initially centred on the island state of Zanzibar, a place which few British ships had gone near in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and this only changed at the end of the Eighteenth century with the Napolionic Wars. The British were initially not much interested in the slave trade there, as the country was still preoccupied with winning the war against France, but it was not long before they started to use diplomacy to attack the trade. They saw that the trade, mainly carried out by Arab traders with the French and Portuguese, was centred on the Island of Zanzibar. To reduce the slave trade in the area they had to strike here, so they approached the leader, Sultan Sayyid Said and started to made treaties to win him over to British influence. Relations with the Sultan went well but he was very reluctant to strike a blow against the trade which provided much of his revenue. Two-thirds of Zanzibar’s population were slaves and the Sultan’s aristocracy based its wealth on plantations of cloves which relied on slave labour.

The Sultan was in a very difficult position, as to concede the British demands to end the trade he would lose a great deal of prestige among his aristocracy and his position would be threatened. He was the leader of a Moslem government and slavery was seen at the time as being an indispensable part of the Arab world. However, he remained aware of one fact - the British had been the masters of the Indian Ocean since 1811 and would not easily be ignored. They had shown their power recently in the Persian Gulf by suppressing Jawasami, something which secured the Sultan’s position in Arabia. In a treaty of 1822 he forbade "all external traffic in slaves" from his dominions in return for British power establishing him as the effective overlord of East Africa - but as with the European nations whom the British obtained treaties from at this time banning the slave trade, this did not have a serious effect on the trade.

By 1870 the campaign against the slave trade on the Western coast was drawing to a close, and there seemed little interest in Britain for continuing the fight on the East coast. Zanzibar remained a centre for a brisk slave trade - the success of clove production had meant a 50% increase in the trade from 1850-1870, though the British still retained influence with the Sultan. A Select Committee was set up on East Africa and there were some people who called on the British government to take over Zanzibar - but the government was unwilling to take territory there and decided to carry on trying to influence the Sultan there instead. In 1873 the policy of influencing the Sultan was at last successful when, under the threat of force, Sultan Barghash was forced to ban the sea-borne trade entirely, though the trade continued informally for some time.

To assess how important the crusade against the slave trade was for the British in their involvement in East Africa it is useful to see from what motives the crusade against the slave trade came. Britain had been one of the most successful slave trading nations, but in a relatively short space of time at the start of the Nineteenth century it outlawed the trade among its subjects and pursued it throughout the world. Explanations for this change fall into two main categories - that it was in Britain’s economic interest and that it was from genuine moral motivation.

One strong view of Britain being driven only by self-interest in attacking the slave trade when they did was given by the West Indian historian Dr Eric Williams in his controversial Capitalism and Slavery in 1944. He says that the West Indies sugar industry was of crucial importance - it had been very profitable and useful to Britain before the Nineteenth Century - but had become uncompetitive. The British attacked the slave trade because they no longer needed to protect the economy of the West Indies and because this would ruin their Spanish and French competition - East Indian sugar, not dependant on slave labour, could then capture the European sugar market. However, this explanation does not take into account the very real public outrage that was felt against slavery in Britain during a very religious age. There had for some years before abolition been calls for the end of the trade, even back in the 1780s.

The British government needed reasons other than humanitarian ones, which had been accepted for some time - and it was only at the start of the last century that economic and political realities caught up. The West Indies were no longer vital to national interest. The slave trade was less important to the Atlantic economy - by 1804 only 150 of 1000 British ships were slavers. Therefore it can be said that the trade in slaves was abandoned by Britain because of humanitarian reasons - but that this was only possible because it was no longer in Britain’s interests to continue. The end of slavery itself was achieved quickly - the Anti-Slavery Campaign was founded in 1823 and only took around a decade to see emancipation passed. Arguments that the emancipation was passed for economic self-interest tend to ignore the £20 million paid in compensation to slave owners - an immense amount of money at the time. It was caused more by the obvious weight of public opinion, more influential with government as the 1832 Reform Act had greatly increased the electorate. A remarkable 1 .5 million people had petitioned against slavery.

However, if the emancipation was because of public opinion in Britain, the attacks on the trade world-wide that brought Britain to so many new areas was driven by more complex motives. It was a natural progression for the forces in Britain opposed to slavery to put pressure on government to pursue the trade elsewhere - but it is the case that once Britain had rid herself of slavery it was in her interests to get everyone else to follow suit - or they would have economic advantages through continuing slavery. There were other reasons tied to this - there was a growing belief that once slavery was ended legitimate commerce would spring up. Slavery was seen to use resources that could be used for more constructive trading, and also people saw the devastating effects that slavery had on societies, of the warfare it caused and grew from. We can now see that in truth, legitimate trade could co-exist with slavery and the costs of maintaining the navy against it were higher than any possible rewards, but that is only possible with the benefit of hindsight. The essence of the theory, accepted by so many at the time, that drove Britain to attack the slave trade with such vigour, is summed up very well by Palmaston :
Let no man imagine that those treaties for the suppression of the slave trade are valuable only as being calculated to promote the great interests of humanity, and as tending to rid mankind of a foul and detestable crime. Such is indeed their great object and their chief merit. But in this case, as in many others, virtue carried with it its own reward; and if the nations of the world could extirpate this abominable traffic, and of the vast population of Africa could by that means be left free to betake themselves to peaceful and innocent trade, the greatest commercial benefit would accure, not to England only, but to every civilised nation which engages in maritime commerce. These slave trade treaties therefore are indirectly treaties for the encouragement of commerce.


The enthusiasm for the attack on the slave trade was kept alive by pressure groups in Britain. They continued to call for further commitments to attacking the trade, and continued to play on a sense of guilt in Victorian Britain. They were greatly helped by Livingstone, who had become something of a hero because of his travels in Africa. His books on conditions there were widely read and influential - and he called for the pursuit of the trade, writing compelling reports of the horror of slavery, including from East Africa, which "wrung the hearts of Victorian readers"

Therefore there were very strong reasons for the British to pursue the slave trade in East Africa. They had already fought it on the West coast and substantially reduced it. The trade on the East coast of Africa was smaller and unlike the West had not had British involvement and so was dealt with later, but the same reasoning drove Britain to interfere in the East - religious pressure, the weight of public opinion, the belief other trades would fill the gap left by the end of slavery - through feelings of atonement and perceived self-interest, destruction of the slave trade in East Africa became a concern of the British government. However, to see the significance of this in the arrival of the British in East Africa for the first time at the start of the Nineteenth Century - we must also see the importance of other reasons the British had in being there.

The first British contact with East Africa was during and because of the Napolionic Wars, and at the time the campaign against the slave trade was eclipsed greatly by the need to fight the war successfully - indeed when Britain first came she was herself a slave trading nation. What drew her to the region was the renewed French diplomacy in the area, including the French invasion of Egypt. French dominance in the region of the Indian Ocean could threaten British concerns in India, Britain’s primary colonial and commercial concern.Her wealth and value as a market for British goods was greater than that of the whole of Africa and this has to be seen as at least the initial reason for British interest in the East coast of Africa. They attacked French power in the Indian Ocean, which led them into conflict with the slave trade, in which the French did participate in the early part of the century. This fear of the French in the Indian Ocean did not go away as they started to revive their power from Madagascar and RĂ©union.

The British feared the rise of an unfriendly power in the Indian Ocean because their trade to India was so important. British investment in the second half of the Nineteenth Century was second only to that in the USA and the value of the exports there was just as important. Through the century the fear that foreign interference could cut Britain off from India increased as the European powers also came to the area, and this increased in importance in 1869 when the Suez Canal was opened, bringing the route to India through Egypt. Charles Dylke summed up the importance of the area to Britain’s trading interests when he told the House of Commons :
"as regards the Suez Canal, England has a double interest; it has a predominant commercial interest, because eighty-two per cent of the trade passing through the Canal is British trade, and has a predominant political interest caused by the fact that the Canal is the principle highway to India, Ceylon, the Straits and British Burma, where 250 million people live under our rule".


Economic trading reasons in India were not the only ones seen in the area. There was an impulse to find new markets that drove many from Britain to the region. This did not just include government but also many traders and industrialists. This was from the desire to create markets for manufactured goods and also to seek out new sources of raw materials that was created by the Industrial Revolution. There was from the end of the Eighteenth Century a renewed interest in the poorer and less developed areas of the world - Latin America, the Far East and China - and this also included Africa. There was presumed to be almost limitless demand in these areas for the very kind of goods easily mass produced, such as blankets.This belief in these markets was widely held in the Victorian era - although they did not turn out to be as profitable as they were hoped to be, largely because the people in these areas were too poor and too few resources to afford great imports from abroad. Still, this can account for at least some of the British activity in East Africa.

Reasons for European intervention generally in Africa at this time rather than earlier can be seen in economic and social changes in Europe. There was a humanitarian impulse to Africa, expressed in missionary activity. Concern flowed from feelings that there was a duty to help the African now that slavery had been ended - a sense of atonement, leading to a desire to civilise and convert the "noble savage". There was a feeling that Africa should be developed economically - and that wasteful economic systems there, including that of slavery, would be destroyed as Africans saw a legitimate demonstration of legitimate commercethrough such things as steamships coming up the major rivers. They would be shown a superior system in the religion and values of Europe. This all comes from the general attitude towards Africans that was held in Europe. Earlier respect for other cultures was leaving popular ideas in Europe, partly because the process of industrialisation in Europe had increased the European sense of self-worth, making other systems seem backward. Industrialisation had also changed the dominant social groups in Europe (and especially in Britain where the process was most advanced) - shifting politics and economic control increasingly away from old conservative elites and towards more middle class and frequently evangelical groups, interested in international trade and the spread of civilisation. All this adds up to both economic and humanitarian reasons for official and unofficial British interest in East Africa which, while they often include concerns for the end of the slave trade, include a great deal of other motives.

If we look at the actual events of the British involvement in East Africa we can see a remarkable continuity in official British actions. This continuity was in the remarkable lack of enthusiasm shown by the British government to become involved in East Africa directly. For example, in 1822 a British Captain, Owen, arrived in Mombassa while surveying the East Africa coast. He was warmly received by the rulers of Mombassa and they asked if the area could become a British protectorate. With no way to check with London he agreed, on the condition they end the slave trade there. They did this and the British flag was raised. The protectorate was short lived - London disowned him and the flag was lowered again in 1826, allowing the Sultan of Zanzibar to take control of Mombassa later on. Mombassa could have been useful in the suppression of the slave trade and the increasing of British power in the area - but the government was unwilling to take it. Half a century later, in 1877, there was a chance for the trader William Mackinnon and associates to receive the Sultan’s mainland African territories on a lease to be ruled on the model of the East India Company. The British government failed to encourage this and Lord Salisbury used one of the negotiators to tell the Sultan it was not in his interests.

This was done because it was feared that the company could lead to more involvement in the area for the British government. Gladstone’s government of 1880-85 again avoided direct control of East African lands, despite increasing German interest in the area. They only changed this policy and revived the idea of Mackinnon’s Company when the Germans declared a protectorate over some of the Sultan’s lands - to keep what influence they still had in East Africa.

Does this lack of enthusiasm for becoming any more involved in East Africa than influencing the Sultan of Zanzibar and patrolling the Indian Ocean mean that the British were not interested in attacking the slave trade there? The British were there for many reasons, none of which were to the British government important enough to take the political risks and economic costs associated with the gaining of colonies. This reluctance was partly from the newly dominant theory of laissez-faire, which said that colonies were a wasteful economic luxury. But economic theories aside, governments do tend to interfere in the business of a foreign power when it is their interests - and the British simply decided that they could fulfil their objectives in East Africa influencing local rulers, without any need for the expense of colonies. Elsewhere, as in Egypt in 1882, they showed themselves willing to take over territory if their interests were great enough - but in East Africa they were not sufficiently concerned to allow their involvement to be increased. They still believed that the possible trade advantages of East Africa could not possibly cover the costs of colonies there. They remained the dominant European power in the area for much of the Nineteenth Century - but never tried to capitalise on this position by assuming direct control. In a sense, they were there with specific objectives, including keeping foreign powers from dominating the Indian Ocean, the expansion of British trading interests, and the crusade against the slave trade - and the policy of informal rule satisfied these. When other European powers, especially Germany, started to expand into the area their policies changed - but that they changed to getting colonies and protectorates only in the 1890s and for this reason shows that they were not in East Africa simply to expand their empire. No major British politician showed any real interest in East Africa for itself - its importance was always conditioned by other concerns. Therefore, if Britain was not involved in East Africa for imperial purposes and if the government did not take seriously the possibility of trade there - then the primary reasons remain the protection of India and the suppression of the slave trade. Both of these were taken very seriously by the British government - but only together, and with the pressure for humanitarian and civilising action from groups at home, did they lead Britain to East Africa.

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