Part 4: Slavery, the Slave Trade, Abolition, and Ironic Consequences

When comparing slavery in different historical contexts, it is important to remember that it is always a form of subordination and that the acts of violence at the core of any slave society's mechanisms of social control are those of "the enslavement process itself" (Cooper 1977: 156). Enslavement always entails the painful separation of persons from their homes and communities. The new lives that slaves make for themselves, insofar as they are permitted to do so, are shaped by prevailing norms where they reside. Slavery on the East Coast in the early nineteenth century was much like that in other Islamic societies of the region (see below) and thus very different from the plantation complex of the Atlantic world. Frederick Cooper argues that Zanzibari paternalism was different from that of the American South, because on Zanzibar, "the agricultural roles of slaves grew out of a form of slavery that had emphasized the relationship between leaders and followers, within a society characterized by closely knit communal groups and patriarchal relationships," whereas in the South "paternalism grew out of the plantation" (1977: 156).

By the early nineteenth century, the slave trade was rapidly expanding and centered on Zanzibar rather than Kilwa, yet this expansion was not sufficient to "transform the slave sector" (Sheriff 1987: 34 to 35; 48 to 60). This transformation did occur, but in conjunction with the development of clove plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba, where "the lives of slaves... were altered by the demands of plantation agriculture" (Cooper 1987: 156). The word plantation should not lead to misconceptions, for "clove trees are not sugar cane," and growing cloves did not allow the economies of scale possible in the sugar industry. After examining the reports of a variety of observers, Cooper concluded that the evidence is "accurate enough to confirm that nothing like a Caribbean work routine befell Zanzibar's slaves" (1977: 160).

Living in Slavery

Clove production requires much skilled labor during the two harvests each year. The buds have to be picked carefully to avoid damaging the trees, and it is necessary to repeat the task a number of times for each tree. On Zanzibari plantations, slaves normally worked five days a week until noon and sometimes until 4 PM, but when harvesting, they worked seven days and longer hours, and they were paid for the two extra days. As they worked, they were supervised by an older, more experienced slave. Female slaves detached buds from the stems and set them out to dry. Slaves carried the dried cloves to Zanzibar town.

Each slave or family received a plot and built its own house. Slaves were expected to grow their own food on their plots, and they were allowed to raise goats and chickens. They could market any surplus, so surpluses were common. This self-reliance gave them "more control over the rhythm of daily lives," as was also the case even in Jamaica, where slaves also produced their own food. This does not mean that masters did not try to control slaves, but the evidence suggests that they rarely resorted to harsh measures. European sources mention punishments and occasional acts of cruelty, but "European officials and visitors made it clear that they had not observed overwork and brutality of the sort evident in accounts of West Indian slavery" (Cooper 1977: 167). Cooper explains how the master-slave relationship was shaped by certain features of the Zanzibar context: 1) rural life was dominated by Islamic law and local custom; 2) both masters and slaves had adapted to the agricultural requirements of clove cultivation; 3) Zanzibari masters did not have external means of coercing slaves or exacting punishment (no police, no militias, no slave patrols). Nevertheless, "the slaves' means of enforcing these norms on the master were weaker than the master's means of coercing his slaves" (Cooper 1977: 169).

The lives and working conditions of slaves providing agricultural labor in mainland towns were different. In Mombasa, there were a few large farms producing grain with slave labor. These slaves lived in slave villages, while their masters lived in town. Like slaves on Zanzibar, they grew their own food. With very little supervision, they worked both their own fields and their masters' fields. When their owners demanded it, they had to turn over a portion of their grain. However, small farms and garden plots were more typical in and around Mombasa. On small plots, slaves tended coconut trees and grew subsistence crops. Taking care of coconut trees was not a difficult task as little labor was required. These farms persisted because land was scarce, making it profitable to grow grain or coconuts on a small scale. The situation in Malindi favored the development of grain plantations. More land was available, so greater returns were possible if slaves worked more efficiently. Slave owners turned to a form of closely supervised gang labor. The supervisors, usually slaves, put a great deal of pressure on both male and female slaves. Despite these more rigid conditions, slaves were still expected to cultivate crops for their own subsistence. The demand for slaves was high in Malindi. Its plantations were capable of absorbing a thousand slaves in a single year.

Restriction of Export Slave Trade

The slave trade was so lucrative that British efforts to stop it were strongly resisted by nearly all participants. From 1780 to 1840, the dynamics shaping relations between the British government, the British in India, the French, the Omanis, and the Swahili were very complicated (Were and Wilson 1970:103). The British governor in Bombay was expected to influence the Omani ruler, but British interests in India were better served by cordial relations. To satisfy French colonists on Mauritius who wanted slaves, France tried to improve relations with Oman, growing ever more vexed by Oman's growing ties to Britain. Oman's treaty with Britain in 1799 set the stage for a close relationship. By the 1820s, Seyyid Said was determined to assert Omani control over Mombasa, but needed British support. He did not, however, want to lose tax revenues or offend those who were profiting from the slave trade.

Eventually the British negotiated a series of treaties that restricted the export slave trade, each treaty more restrictive than its predecessor (see timeline; for details see Cooper 1977: 270-71; for a map see Sheriff 1987: 36). Seyyid Said agreed to these very reluctantly. The treaties of 1822, 1839, and 1845 (effective in 1847) were difficult to enforce, but they did result in lower prices. These treaties provided cheap labor for Zanzibar's and Pemba's clove plantations, for Malindi's grain plantations, for Mombasa's slave villages, and for small estates up and down the coast. They did not ban the trade within Zanzibar's African possessions.

During the late 1840s, as the export trade faced more severe restrictions, the growth of slave imports into Zanzibar itself reached its peak. (Feierman 1995: 353). Additional regulations and decrees affecting trade that was still legal were announced in the 1860s. In 1873, when the British were negotiating the treaty that would ban all shipments of slaves by sea, thereby ending mainland exports to Zanzibar, Sultan Barghash pleaded for more time with a poignant metaphor: "A spear is held at each of my eyes. With which shall I choose to be pierced?" He agreed to the treaty under pressure, but only after discussions with John Kirk. And he closed Zanzibar's slave market. This treaty cut off the supply of slaves from Kilwa, but revived the slave trade in areas closer to Zanzibar. In 1876, as part of another treaty, Barghash issued a proclamation making it illegal to organize slave caravans, but raiding continued. The export tapered off although smuggling did occur.

Four Great Ironies

Four great ironies emerge from a study of British efforts to restrict and abolish the East African slave trade (Feierman: 353-54).

The first irony is that these efforts, regardless of their humanitarian impulses, actually pushed the raiding frontier into new areas. Each restriction that was imposed on the export trade inspired new ways to use slave labor because slaves were not only cheaper, but also available in greater numbers.

The "legitimate trade" that was supposed to replace the slave trade was usually commerce in commodities—cloves, copra, coconut oil, grain—produced by slave labor. Slaves dug up copal and collected wild rubber or they farmed so that their masters go out and collect commodities for export. (In West Africa slaves produced palm oil, a staple of "legitimate trade" but peasant farmers grew other export commodities such as peanuts.)

The European and American demand for ivory—an almost insatiable desire for luxury goods (as "trivial" as combs and billiard balls)—illustrates very ironically the profound disparity between the economic development of Africa and that of the West. It is mind-boggling to think that ivory "revolutionized the economy of an entire region."

Finally, a great opportunity for substantive development slipped away in the ships carrying ivory to India, Europe, and America. The ivory trade depleted a limited resource that was exchanged for cloth and for the firearms that were used to kill more elephants, to raid for slaves, and to wage war. This provided no basis for long-term development. This outcome is even more ironic when viewed alongside the statistical data that demonstrate how the terms of trade favored Eastern Africa throughout the nineteenth century (for details see Sheriff 1987). During the course of the nineteenth century, the export price of ivory increased steadily (rising by six percent annually during the period 1823 to 1873), while the prices being paid for cloth were generally low and often decreasing (Sheriff: 88: 102).