‘A slave trade jurisdiction’: attempts against the slave trade and the making of a space of law (Arabo-Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, circa 1820–1900)

Chapter 16
‘A slave trade jurisdiction’

Attempts against the slave trade and the making of a space of law (Arabo-Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, circa 1820–1900)

Guillemette Crouzet

In 1870, a British diplomat described the campaign led by the British against the slave trade in the Persian Gulf as follows:

I gather that the English and the better class of Indian merchants, our own fellow subjects, hold distinctly that the Slave Trade and legitimate commerce cannot hope to prosper side by side, that, either, the action of the slave dealers will succeed in killing all proper mercantile instincts and effort, or, that legitimate commerce will develop in proportion as arrangements to put a stop to the slave trade are energetically carried out.1

The ‘crusade’ against the slave trade was of considerable importance not only to the history of British imperialism in the Gulf, but also to the framing of British imperialism in the nineteenth century.2 Despite this, the Gulf has been neglected both by historians of the abolitionist process3 and also by those writing on the historiography of the British Empire.4 However, a careful study of the abolitionist ‘moment’ in the Gulf suggests that the space of the Gulf can be conceptualized as a laboratory for the later British action against slavery, one which sat at the intersection between the international, macro- and micro- regional levels. This moment demonstrates the role and the action of Britain as an emerging global power whose intervention went beyond Gulf frontiers to encompass other zones, including Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Ottoman Empire.5 By intervening in the Gulf, Britain reinforced her status and role in the region later known as the Middle East. The imperial discourse against the slave trade and the measures taken in the Gulf and in neighbouring zones illustrate the emergence of Britain as a world power and the development of a messianic interventionism in the early nineteenth century.6 Policies against slave trading, forged in part in the Gulf, came to underpin the ‘global’ humanitarianism that emerged in Britain in the nineteenth century.7 Imperialism, abolitionism and the birth of a maritime law met in the Gulf.

In order to shed light on the importance of the Gulf as a space of law, this chapter draws on recent work in historical geography.8 As a space of law, the Gulf appears as a ‘centre of calculation’,9 in the British struggle against the slave trade. This space was in part constructed by its interconnections across the globe, including with British India, Central Asia, the Ottoman Empire, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and South East Asia. British policy with respect to the slave trade in the Gulf was specific to that region. It was not framed in London on the basis of pre-existing concepts and policies, but adapted to the regional context. In British imperial discourse, a space of ‘legal trade’ and of peace was supposed to replace the sea of illegal trafficking in the Gulf. This was to be achieved through the creation of a ‘legal space’ constructed and governed through treaty alliances and maritime patrols.

Britain’s anti-slavery policies and the construction of a space of law in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean marked a second stage of the assertion of British rule in this region. Initially focused on combating piracy, particularly between 1805 and 1820,10 the 1820s to 1880s saw a consolidation of gains made. From 1840 onwards, the British signed new treaties with the sheikhs of the Gulf, including those of the so-called ‘Pirate Coast’ (Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain), and with the Imam of Muscat. After 1880, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean emerged as a transnational space of law, the ‘British Lake’ in which British cruisers patrolled. From 1820 onwards Britain built the ‘maritime boundary of the Indian Empire’,11 a frontier that formed part of the strategic artery protecting the Raj. This process only comes to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century. Of course, this is not to say that British rule, and British abolitionist policy, was not resisted. The Gulf can be seen as both a space of law and a space of resistance. Within the Gulf were spaces that resisted the imposition of foreign and British rule, where the slave trade continued to be carried on and where traffic in arms flourished. Such spaces of resistance could be found in the Gulf, in ports, in small cities and in some zones of the seas.

In this chapter, I will first briefly describe the slave trade that structured and connected the Arabo-Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. I will then analyse the British crusade against the slave trade and the construction of a space of law in the Arabo-Persian Gulf – resulting in the creation of a ‘British lake’ – and the concomitant spaces of resistance.

The Gulf, the Red Sea and the north of the Indian Ocean: ‘seas of blood and plunder’

The slave trade network that connected the Gulf, the north of the Indian Ocean12 and the Red Sea was organized as a system of hubs – from which slaves were exported and distributed – and of markets where they could be bought.13 This network was connected by the coming and going of merchants and by the constant movement of ships transporting the slaves. The island of Zanzibar played a crucial part in this network. Zanzibar was a ‘hub’, or node on the network, from which slaves were imported from the Swahili Coast and the region of the African Great Lakes.14 The main exporting warehouse serving Zanzibar was in Kwila. Between 1820 and 1840, 8,000 to 20,000 slaves were imported annually from the coast of East Africa to the island.15 A small number of African captives were integrated into the plantation economy of cloves.16 However, the majority of the slaves were re-exported from the ports located in the north of the island of Zanzibar to the northern coast of Oman,17 to Muscat and Sur, which was an active port within this slave trade network. The northern coast of Zanzibar thus constituted an important interface in the regional space of the trade, and Muscat and Sur formed a networked port on the shores of Oman. As described by a British diplomat at the time: ‘Muscat and Soar are the principal if not only, primary ports to which all slaves from Zanzibar… are brought and whence they are eventually carried into Turkey, Persia, the Arab States and the western coast of India.’18 A system of re-exportation existed on the coast of Oman. Hence, in 1820 the city-warehouse of Muscat played a similar role to that of Zanzibar. The city-warehouse functioned as a redistribution platform for a regional space integrating the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. From Muscat, slaves were exported to a wide regional area, including the Red Sea and to the Arabo-Persian Gulf. On the Persian coast, slaves landed at Bunder Abbas, Bushire, Lingah and Kishm Island. In India, they were exported to the ports of Bombay, Kutch and Karachi. The ports of the so-called ‘Pirate Coast’ also imported slaves: Ras el Khaymah, Bahrain and Dubai. The network of the trade was not only structured around maritime spaces, but extended inland. There were thus trade ‘routes’, borrowed from the Bedouin populations who were responsible for redistributing the captives within the Arabian Peninsula, in Persia, as well as throughout a vast hinterland whose contours remained to be delineated. However, it was via the Red Sea ports, such as Jeddah and Massowah, that slaves were imported into Egypt. The slave network in this area was therefore extensive, with numerous markets. It linked, as outlined, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia and the Arab Gulf Coast; but more geographically distant countries were also fully integrated in this slave trade network, including the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, Crete and the Ottoman Empire.

There were two main categories of slaves. The first were known by the British as ‘domestic slaves’. These slaves, especially the women, were employed by the societies of the Gulf and of the Arabian Peninsula for ‘indoor tasks’, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. Some men could also be found in this category. Abyssinian women and men seem to have been considered particularly skilled for that type of household work. The second category of slaves was extremely important for the societies of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. This group, mostly composed of men, primarily worked outdoors. Men from Mombasa and other parts of Africa were bought to work in date plantations and in some of the oases of the Arabian Peninsula. There appears to have been considerable demand for slaves in Egypt from 1840 onwards as a result of the development of irrigation. Yet even before that, Cairo was known for its slave market. However, most of the African men captives were used as divers or pullers on the boats involved in the pearl fisheries of the Arabo-Persian Gulf and of the Red Sea.19 Pearl fishing was the main economic resource for the population of the Arabo-Persian Gulf. There was a high mortality rate among the pearl divers. Finally, the sheikhs of the Pirate Coast, like the sheikhs of Ras el Khymah and the Sultan of Oman, are said to have bought slaves from Abyssinia and Nubia to be soldiers in their armies.

Finally, for families, slaves represented true ‘economic capital’: they were sometimes leased out and thus represented significant extra income. The particular case of the Hubschee, tribes originating from Abyssinia, is instructive: these tribes sometimes received a rudimentary education. They then served as domestic help for wealthy families or as employees in small companies. Merchants or shopkeepers of the souks of Basra or Oman bought some of them. They often obtained positions of high importance.

The slaves exported to the Ottoman Empire belonged to yet another category. African slaves had very specific functions in Ottoman society. According to British sources, there was an important slave market in Constantinople in 1820–40. African women were imported from the Gulf for the harems of the Ottoman Sultan20 or for the harems21 of important members of the Ottoman administration or army.22 The route taken was extremely long, from Mohammerah or Basrah to the Ottoman capital, through the Tigris and the Euphrates and then via the Mediterranean. Some of the slaves travelled from Egypt and then via the Mediterranean. The convoys stopped on some islands, such as Crete and Cyprus, which played a role in the Mediterranean slave trade network.23 Women and very young men almost exclusively constituted these flows of slaves. They then were employed in wealthy families, to oversee the family harem, or simply to watch over the women and children of the household. Others rose up to become members of the imperial harems.24

Diverse groups benefited from the demand for slaves of the societies of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. First among these were the sheikhs and the Sultan of Oman. Some of their revenue came from ports customs and from the taxes that had to be paid on every slave imported. Some of them were more closely involved in the slave trade, for example the Sultan of Zanzibar, who had a fleet specifically dedicated to the slave trade with the coast of East Africa. Abolition, therefore, had significant implications for the economies of the Gulf societies. According to a member of the Persian administration, the abolition of slavery risked ruining the livelihood of thousands of traders, who would be bereft of their main source of income.25

There were a number of categories of merchants involved in the trade. Together they constituted a vast transnational network. Some merchants specialized exclusively in the buying and selling of slaves. For them the trade was a mono-activity. Captives constituted the main merchandise transported, with other goods, such as spices, wood, ivory or pearls, being of lesser importance. For a second group of traders, slaves were only part of a supply of another type of merchandise, and thus, a source of extra income. For example, fishermen and Bedouins traded slaves as a complement to their other main activities. Thus, fishing boats served to transport a handful of slaves here and there, along with dried fish, dates, spices and some fabrics. The Admiralty archives reveal the dimensions of the trade. The big traders could carry up to 150 slaves at a time, while the smaller merchants, for whom slave trading was a minor economic activity, had smaller dhows which could only carry around a dozen slaves at a time. A memorandum drafted in 1869 regarding the ‘East African Slave Trade’ gave a concrete description of the traders in the second category. Merchants navigating in the Red Sea and who were involved in the trade were referred to in the following manner: ‘These people are sailors and fishermen who carry on a small trade with Confuda, Hodaida and Mocha, where they deposit a few slaves.’26 The Arab fishermen frequented the coast in order to procure fish that they then dried. When they returned to the Oman Sea and the Gulf, they often took along a few slaves.27 Was this part of a barter economy that was only partially monetarized? This is a strong possibility, given that money, such as Maria Theresa thalers, was quite rare among the small traders.

Let us then return to the first category of slave traders. These were, above all, Indian Banias – Indian merchants with a very wide commercial scope. Sir Bartle Frere,28 in 1873, singled out Banias in his description of the island of Zanzibar. According to Frere, these people were earning an immense fortune from the slave traffic,29 which they controlled as a monopoly along with Arab traders. Banias controlled the economic chain of the Zanzibarite trade from top to bottom and if they chartered most of the black slave boats, they also owned the entire slave market.30 Among these Banias, some served as intermediaries for others who remained in India but also participated in the slave trade. Conversely, there were those Banias who resided permanently in Zanzibar and kept significant links with the Indian subcontinent. In Zanzibar, the Banias frequented the wealthy Arab, Persian and Ottoman traders. The latter were the only people with the economic clout and possessed of a socio-commercial network who could, to some degree, be compared to the Banias.

The documents also refer to the intense activity of those designated as ‘Mahomedans’. In 1846, a British diplomat posted in Zanzibar described the situation of the traders from the Gulf: ‘The whole of the slave trade is into the hands of Persian and Turkish subjects of Lingah, Karrack, Bushire, Kuwait and Bussorah.’31 These traders’ practices in the space were in fact different. Indeed, the Arab, Persian and Ottoman traders did not frequent Zanzibar and the waters bordering the Swahili coast except during the enslavement season. At that time, they would establish themselves there for a few months, rent a group of houses,32 and then leave once their slave purchases were made, departing on the monsoon winds.

British legislation against the slave trade: the gradual construction of a space of law

A web of treaties and legislation underpinned the fight against the slave trade and slavery in the Gulf. Analysis of the various agreements concerning the slave trade signed with regional powers shows the emergence of a ‘British Lake’ in the Gulf and in the connected areas, as well as the nature of British domination in these zones. As highlighted by the documentation, the British led the campaign against slave trafficking in the name of the ‘moral values’ that some advocates had been preaching since the late eighteenth century, when the anti-slavery movement had built up a head of steam in Britain.33 The consequences of the trial of Warren Hastings and reflections on the notion of imperial trusteeship also had an influence on this vast anti-slave trade campaign. The crusade against the slave trade is described in the British archives as a ‘burden’, a task that Britain had to undertake as a result of its role as a ‘global power’.34