THE standard line on Victorians is that they were bad for Africa. In a multitude of ways that was true. Yet the irony is that English-speaking Africa today (in its respect for elders, thirst for education, attitude to criminals, its piety and primness) is probably more Victorian than anywhere else in the world. The journey that African boys now make from village to heaving cities has a Dickensian feel; not David Copperfield but David Odhiambo. And why are Anglican and Presbyterian churches still the pillar of so many African communities? Weren’t these de facto assemblies of colonialism? Up to a point. As Alastair Hazell reminds the reader in this compelling new history, the Victorians were also responsible for ending the slave trade in Africa. For that, and for the evangelism that followed, their influence has outlasted that of the Marxists and pan-Africanists.
ReprintsMr Hazell has a cracking character in John Kirk. A Scottish botanist blessed with a strong and supportive wife, Kirk was the British representative on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar from 1866 to 1886. He arguably did more than anyone else to abolish slavery in the sultanate. The author shows just how extensive that trade was. Zanzibari agents trekked deep into the interior buying up human beings. The limits of their range, in Congo, are the limits of where the native coast language, Kiswahili, is spoken today. Slaves were manacled and marched to the ocean. Many perished on the way. Those too emaciated to make the crossing to Zanzibar were left to die on the shore. Richard Burton, a British explorer, described slave corpses floating in the island’s sewage.
Burton was one of several men who crossed paths with Kirk. Earlier in his career Kirk accompanied David Livingstone up the Zambezi. And Henry Morton Stanley, an American journalist-adventurer, visited Kirk in Zanzibar for advice before setting out to find Livingstone. Mr Hazell describes Livingstone as uncommunicative, morose and “often ill at ease with himself.” Kirk was steadier. He worked patiently to gain the trust of traders and made meticulous records of the slave markets.
Zanzibar was the main conduit of slaves from Africa to Arabia, as a sculpture in the town commemorates (pictured below). Abolitionists railed against the trade. But the island’s Omani rulers were implacable, arguing that the Koran gave the right to enslave infidels. Britain itself sent out mixed messages. Zanzibar was nominally under the control of the India Office and officials there valued stability. Besides, the slaves came along with flawless and easily worked ivory from jungle elephants that was in demand in England for billiard balls, piano keys, trinkets, knives and forks. “The cutlers of Sheffield alone took 170 tons [a year],” the author notes.
The Zanzibaris learned that the best course was publicly to give in to the British, and then just continue trading slaves. When Kirk took the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin-Said, to London, taking advantage of the national mourning following the death of Livingstone in 1873, the public declared a victory for British civilisation. Barghash played along, telling the Church Missionary Society that “spreading the light of godly knowledge among the ignorant in Africa” was a “praiseworthy object and as such will meet with recompense from God.” Less advertised was that on the journey back home Barghash could not resist buying a selection of women slaves in Egypt for his harem.
There is much to enjoy and reflect upon in this carefully researched and briskly told account. Some quibbles remain. The author has a bias towards the stories of resolute Britons like Captain Atkins Hamerton over Arab adventurers. And while he clearly feels for the enslaved Africans, he shows little curiosity to explore further. Which peoples were the slaves from? What became of them? The documentation may be insufficient, but whether through genetics, linguistics or archaeology it is important to know more.