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Slavery in the Middle East

Slavery in the Middle East

Thomas Otte is Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of East Anglia. He teaches the history of modern war and conflict, military intervention and diplomacy, and British and European history, c. 1650-2000. Thomas is the author or editor of some twenty-one books, among them July Crisis: How the World Descended into War, Summer 1914 (CUP, 2014), and, most recently, Statesman of Europe: A Life of Sir Edward Grey (Allen Lane, 2020). He has been an adviser to the Foreign Office and is elected Councillor of the Royal Historical Society.

Thomas Otte is Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of East Anglia. He teaches the history of modern war and conflict, military intervention and diplomacy, and British and European history, c. 1650-2000. Thomas is the author or editor of some twenty-one books, among them July Crisis: How the World Descended into War, Summer 1914 (CUP, 2014), and, most recently, Statesman of Europe: A Life of Sir Edward Grey (Allen Lane, 2020). He has been an adviser to the Foreign Office and is elected Councillor of the Royal Historical Society.


Welcome ladies and gentlemen,

You may have heard the clock at Trinity College Cambridge sounding the hour twice and so we’re doubly sure that this is the time to begin our fourth and penultimate webinar in our first series on Britain’s struggle against slavery.

Welcome to all of you who are taking part. It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to welcome Professor Thomas Otte today who, he’ll be embarrassed by my saying this, but he is I think without doubt the leading academic expert on British foreign policy, its formulation the machinery of policy, political, diplomatic, consular in the high Victorian period and the and the early part of the 20th century. His works include the fascinating and invaluable analysis of the foreign office mind and more recently his magisterial biography of Sir Edward Grey, which, among other things, answers or disposes of some of some of the more fanciful analyses of the cause of the First World War, that we’ve been treated to in recent years. But his expertise also extends to the activity of the Foreign Office and its consular branch no less, against slavery in what was then called The East, and that’s what he’s going to talk to us about today.

Now, those of you who’ve attended when our webinars before will know that what we do is to have questions afterwards, and a discussion, and that you we ask you to write in your questions using the Q&A button which you should see at the bottom of your screen, and then I shall act as moderator and pass on the questions to Professor Otte. So, Professor Otte, over to you.


Well, thank you very much, Professor Tombs, for the kind invitation, and I shan’t thank you for the overly kind and overly flattering introduction. It is a great pleasure to be here. I thought that, like Caesar’s ancient Gaul, I’ll divide my talk into three parts.

So first of all, I want to talk about “The East” as it was called in the nineteenth century. So broadly, the areas we tend to refer to today as the Middle East, the Near East and the region from the east coast of Africa, opposite Madagascar, across the western part of the Indian Ocean. This was an area of special interest for Britain in the nineteenth century, but it was also an area with specific problems for Britain’s efforts to suppress the slave trade.

Then I will focus on the broad pattern of British policy with respect to the suppression of the slave trade through to the end of the nineteenth century, and then I will offer some concluding thoughts to sum all of those up. Before I do any of that, however, I’d like to make some general remarks about slavery, and British attitudes towards the issue of its suppression in the nineteenth century. Slavery is the most emotive and morally and politically charged issue in the history of humanity. It has a very high profile in public discourse, and that makes it a subject in which it is easier often to make assertions, general assertions, than to offer balanced analysis and to tell a story in the round, as it were. Now, I’m not saying any of that to deny or to minimise the impact of this awful practice on societies in Africa and elsewhere, nor to deny or to minimise Britain’s role in this shameful trade, I’m really saying it to remind all of us to deal with the past on his own terms. That’s to say, within its often complex and frequently contradictory context or contexts perhaps I should say. That, after all, is the role of the historian, to tell the story of change over time in a range of different contexts, and the suppression of the slave trade is a story that is part of the story of Britain’s engagement with the wider world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Now British companies and indirectly and directly, the British State of course, had been involved in slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The struggle against slavery was a long and a hard one. It’s a familiar story which I need not to repeat here. The years 1807 and 1833 are the key dates in this context.

Now, it’s been suggested by some historians that essentially this was a question of economics. That the suppression of the slave trade was conditioned by economic factors, so in a nutshell, the fact that with the beginning of the industrial revolution a slave-based economic model had become redundant, it then made it easier to suppress slavery as an institution or the slave trade elsewhere in the world. There is some force in that, and it would be foolish to deny that. But it doesn’t give us all the answers.

I think it doesn’t answer the question why, in fact, the attempts to suppress slavery and the slave trade to some extent proceeded those economic changes that made slavery redundant, and it also doesn’t explain satisfactorily why it was that British governments of all political stripes, for practically three quarters of a century, devoted large sums of money to a policy of suppressing the slave trade for no economic gain.

So, if you take a strictly sort of economic model, a determinist and materialistic model, then this was a policy that didn’t make any sense. And in fact, there are some economic historians who’ve looked into this, and they said, “well, economically there are no benefits to diverting state resources into the suppression of the slave trade.”

The economic answer, the economic model, then, doesn’t give us all the answers. We need to look at some of the moral considerations are the moral impetus behind the efforts to suppress the slave trade.

And all of this effective British foreign policy in particular, as the instrument by which the slave trade could be suppressed internationally. I want to start here with 1815 and the Congress of Vienna and the peace settlement that came after the end of the long period of wars against revolutionary France and Napoleonic France.

Now, I’ve been waiting to say this for a long time: Next slide, please.

So there we are, Congress of the Vienna 1815. British diplomacy played a key role in ensuring that a declaration was enshrined in the treaty in the text of the treaty that provided for the universal abolition of the slave trade. This was not high on the agenda of any of the other powers, but for reasons partly domestic, partly of genuine moral concern, it was high on the agenda of British diplomacy, and of course, Britain had been instrumental in forging and then maintaining the various coalitions against Napoleon Bonaparte.

And this gave Britain leverage at the conference table, and so helps to ensure that anti-slavery measures were included in the Peace Treaty.

For the next 5 to 6 decades, Britain pursued what one might broadly call an ethical foreign policy campaign against the slave trade, and at some economic cost. In 1842, the then foreign secretary, the Earl of Aberdeen, referred to the efforts to suppress the slave trade as this new and vast branch of international relations. He accepted it. He pursued it himself. So this was part and parcel of the new international environment.

British policy relied on bilateral treaties. It relied on naval patrols of the high seas. And, in fact, those taking part in the earlier webinars will have heard Professor Andrew Lambert talk about the Royal Navy and its role in the suppression of the slave trade. A large proportion of Royal Navy activities were focused on the suppression of the slave trade. And Britain’s maritime dominance, her ability to patrol the major sea lanes of oceanic commerce made this possible.

In fact, it’s almost symbolic that one of the first major uses of force after the end of the wars against Napoleon was the bombardment of Algiers in the summer of 1816. This was in part an anti-piracy operation, in part an anti-slave trade operation, and it sort of illustrates the uses of the Royal Navy as the armed wing of anti-slavery diplomacy. And it certainly helped to establish a pattern in British policy over the next few decades.

The concern with the suppression of the slave trade was also reflected in Britain’s foreign policy apparatus. If you think of the Foreign Office as an idealised nerve centre of foreign policy operations where all the communications come together, where information is stored and then utilised for decision-making purposes.

Well, you will be surprised to hear that the Foreign Office was actually a very small establishment for much of the nineteenth century. There were no more than 44 people working in the foreign office.

That’s civil servants who were involved in diplomatic and foreign policy decision making. It’s very small, actually. But of the various departments of the Foreign Office, the Slave Trade Department was, in fact, the largest. It had anywhere between 6, and sometimes up to 10 people in it.

This is almost up to almost a quarter of the entire personnel in the Foreign Office actually in the slave trade department. And some of the key people in that department, such as William Henry Wilde who was the head of the department for a long period, played a very powerful role in formulating policy with regards to the suppression of the slave trade. His father had been, I think, the head of the slave trade department. His son went into that department and William Henry when he retired from the Civil Service, in fact, became the President of the Anti-slave Trade League, so there’s a strong connection with extra parliamentary lobby groups that shape public opinion and parliamentary opinion with respect to the slave trade. You can actually see Wilde here, he’s one of the 3 chaps sitting on the bench. He’s the one on the left in the lightly coloured trousers, and waistcoat and wonderful mid-century sideburns.

What about the East, then? Historians have tended to look at the slave trade and the suppression of the safe trade in the Atlantic area and they have tended to stay away from the Eastern, as it were, part of the story of the slave trade. There’s a variety of reasons for this that I don’t propose to go into now, but I think Bernard Lewis the historian was absolutely right when he said that to study the history of the region without slavery is about as meaningful as trying to study the American South, or the Roman Empire, without slavery. You can’t really understand Imperial Russia without looking at serfdom. So it’s part of the whole story of the Middle East, and when British policy sought to suppress the slave trade there, it encountered a number of problems.

Now anyone dealing with a slave trade will very quickly discover that this raises questions of definition, and, in fact, it seems to me that it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of different types of slavery and multiple slave trades. In the Islamic world, slavery was generally speaking domestic rather than economic. As an integral part of the household, slaves thus fell under the law of personal status, which is the core of the Sharia. Now, this cuts both ways. It actually provided slaves with a degree of protection against abuses as well as carefully defined routes of escape from their current status.

But this was a law honoured as much, if not more so, in its breaches than its observance. Nor did liberation mean being freed in the Western European sense. Manumission left slaves, and their progeny clients in perpetuity of their former owners and successors, and of course, concubines by definition servile, they were free if they bore their master’s child, they could be freed under other circumstances as well, but as women, of course they remained in the immutable position of adult inferiors.

Any attempt then to challenge the practice of slavery, represented a challenge to the personal authority of the male in his home, and it was thus a threat to Muslim polity and society. So this was one challenge for official efforts, British efforts to suppress the slave trade in the wider East.

Now I said earlier that slavery was largely domestic, rather an economic but an important exception to this, were the Arab dominated plantations on the east coast of Africa, which were largely dependent on enslaved Africans, imported from the interior of the continent.

So there’s that to be borne in mind as well.

Now as for motivation, on the British side, the moral dimension, I think, was genuinely enough. It was fuelled by sentiments of Christian charity, and it was inspired by the idea of progress. If you read Jb. Barry’s old account of progress in the early 1900s, you will know how hard wired that was into a contemporary consciousness.

So this reflected wider Victorian moral sensibilities in a sense of a civilising national mission to suppress barbarous practices abroad, and I’ve given you a quote from a minute by Lord Palmerston, who was at that stage already Prime Minister, and he was commenting here on what he called the barbarous practices of the slave trading native rulers of Dahomey. Think Benin Bronzes. That’s basically where all of that is located. And he was quite clear that this required deep cutting, and often repeated to eradicate the cancer of the slave trade. So that was a key to British policy if you like, in respect to slave trade in certain areas. This sense of mission, divinely ordained to extirpate retreating humans is a frequently recurring trope in mid-Victorian moral discourse. It’s based on assumptions of Britain’s assumed moral superiority over other nations in the world.

It appealed especially also to the non-conformist conscience which was becoming a potent political force in the wake of the 2 franchise reforms in this country.

And in fact, if you read non-conformist journals and newspapers, you will find frequent references to Britain’s special vocation in the world to suppress the slave trade. It’s equally true that this served as a kind of political pressure valve, helping to reconcile radical reformism with parliamentary constitutionalism. But there was something else. Historians have frequently commented on people like Andrew Porter for instance, and frequently and rightly commented on the symbiotic relationship between humanitarianism and Empire. Without the Empire, humanitarianism would have had no field of action. So slavery existed in a context in which British governments could plausibly exert their authority, and this gave you domestic humanitarianism, a sense of purpose and direction.

I mentioned earlier serfdom in Russia, British policy was not concerned with serfdom in Russia because there was no way that the British could exercise any kind of pressure or authority over Russia to stop the institution of serfdom.

So this already indicates that there are certain limits to what British governments felt British foreign policy could achieve. Efforts to suppress the slave trade were feasible only where Britain could make her authority felt, as was the case with marginal European parts, such as Portugal and Spain, both of whom were involved in the slave trade or inferior naval powers, like the United States in the Atlantic. In the East, by contrast, the parameters were quite different, and here it was often the weakness of near Middle Eastern polities that placed limits on Britain’s ability to pursue a forceful anti-trade policy.

So humanitarian inspiration and geopolitics were always jostling for influence with each other. If you look at diplomacy British diplomacy, and the suppression of the slave trade, you will see that slave trade in the Islamic world, gained steadily in importance for policymakers from the 1840s onwards and then really becomes quite dominant by the late 1850s and 1860s. There are a number of things that that come together at this point.

One, of course, is the victory of the Union in the American Civil War. The other was the perceptible increase in the Arabs-Swahili slave trade. At a very cautious estimate, around 2 million Africans were enslaved by Arab traders on slave hunting expeditions in the interior of the continent, and taken from the east coast of Africa, either by sea or overland caravan routes, to the Barbary coast, to Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, or the Persian Gulf area.

Now in general, the government in London was very well informed about the extent of the slave trade, its fluctuations, as well as the range of routes along which traders moved their human commodities. Britain’s extensive consular network saw to that and Britain’s consuls really had a whole range of duties. One of course was the legal protection of British subjects living in their districts. Given the intense competition with Russia, and to some extent France in the Near Middle East, the consular network also acted as a kind of political early warning system. But, thirdly, it also provided London with observation posts for monitoring the slave trade and directing naval and other pressure against local authorities, deemed to be lackadaisical in their attitude towards the trade, or indeed, found to be conniving in it. Now the government in London didn’t issue any general slave trade instructions to its consuls, beyond routine reminders of the legal prohibition for British subjects to be involved in slavery. In practice this gave consuls a considerable degree of freedom of action. But all of them furnish London with information about, and analysis of, the nature of slavery in the Islamic World.

There was a general assumption that, as I indicated it earlier an institution of slavery was essentially domestic, and this features very strong, very prominently in the reporting by consuls back to London.

But the consuls also produced intelligence on the patterns and the routes of the slave trade, and I will pick out one example here from a report by Robert Colquhoun who was the Consul General in Cairo, who reported on the official connivance in the slave trade as well as the commercial stimuli that affected the trade.

So official protestations to the contrary he could prove that the Egyptian Government, maintained barrack style places where the enslaved Africans were held prior to their being sold off. You could show that the ranks of the Egyptian infantry were made up of Africans mostly captured in the Sudan and modern day Ethiopia. And he also offered statistics. So he said that for every 10 slaves who actually reached Cairo and the Cairo slave markets “50 miserably perished in the transit, which has been described to me as worse than the middle passage in the Cuban slavers”.

What he also reported on, was the nature of the traffic. This was a traffic controlled by Arabs in the Bar El Ghazal region, so north west of the Sudan, they carried out organised raids on native tribes, and what they sought was ivory elephant tusks, cattle, and slaves. In fact, what they understood is the connection between the ivory trade and slave hunting. Indeed, there was perhaps an element of European hypocrisy involved. From the 1850s, Europe had developed a voracious appetite for ivory, for a whole range of household and luxury goods, from combs and cane handles to billiard balls and piano keys. With the ever increasing demand for ivory, the demand for slaves also increased.

What happened in essence was that there are Arab slave rating parties. First of all, either bought up tasks or killed the elephant and removed the tusks. They then hunted down natives as carriers. They carried the tusks to the market in Egypt and elsewhere, and once they’d reached their destinations, and the tusks have been sold, then those carriers themselves became sellable commodities.

This was a well-established pattern, and this was well understood in London. The snatching and selling of children into slavery at Mecca during the annual Hadj was also well understood and monitored by consuls in Damascus, for instance, and occasionally, when one reads the reports from the consuls, one is really reminded of John Buchan’s Greenmantle.

We have people who are fluent Arab speakers, they probably speak various dialects as well, and they dress up in local costumes and they frequent the slave markets, strike up conversations with slave traders, pick up information and they go to places, where European would not normally go. One of them was Thomas Reed, was the consul general in Cairo. He reported and provided annual statistics on enslaved Africans, brought down the Nile to be sold in Cairo.

I quote from one of the reports where he says “The cruelties and the abominations perpetrated by the dealers and their agents, who supply the Egyptian market are not less atrocious than those ever committed by slave traders in any part of the world.”

And yet, Reed was also acutely aware of the fact that even where the liberation of slaves could be secured, it was questionable whether their social position was, in fact, such that they were better off after they had been released from slavery. There was a sort of manumission certificate, which was then usually issued, often, in fact, British consuls put pressure on local officials, sometimes they bribed them to issue those certificates. But this did not prevent newly manumitted slaves from being detained by the local police until someone could be found to engage them as domestic servants and freed slaves were not infrequently recaptured, and re sold often with the connivence of local police and local authorities.

Now consular offers where the principal agents in Britain’s efforts to suppress the slave trade in the region.

But local officials acting in cooperation with those consuls were also useful and often necessary. One example for instance, is to be found in Persia at Bushir where there was a Slave Trade Commissioner who was Persian and who worked with the British. Now, under a previous Anglo-Persian convention, for the suppression of the slave trade, British warships operating in the Persian Gulf, where allowed to intercept slavers sailing under the Persian flag, they were not allowed, however, to take the captured vessels as prizes to be auctioned off, so they had to hand them over to the Persian authorities who then arranged for the captured enslaved people on board to be released.

But this required the cooperation of the local authorities there, and often this meant that they had to be bribed by the British delegation in Tehran or British consuls on the spot. So there are a number of factors that conspire to constrain the ability to act as they wished to act in the Persian Gulf area. One constraining factor was the ill-defined boundary between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire around Shatt al-Arab waterways in modern day Iraq.

A second constraining factor was the fluctuating strength of Britain’s naval presence in the Gulf. This was always dependent on the defence needs of India. For much of the period until 1857 of course, the ships were provided by the East India Company, and if you look, for instance, at 1853, there’s not only the impending Crimean war, there’s also war in Ava so modern-day Burma and this meant that there were practically no EIC Vessels operating in the Persian Gulf, and the slave trade took off in that year.

And the third factor, constraining factor, was the venality of noble Persian functionaries, which is often commented upon in the consular reports. And so, in fact, the British paid a secret bribe paid out of the Secret Service fund, which is under the discretion of the permanent under Secretary of the Foreign Office, so they were not accountable to Parliament for that, and in fact no one knew about it, not in this country, not, in fact, in Tehran either. But it sort of worked, not perfectly, but it worked, so that by 1876, the slave trade along the Persian coast was practically extinct and the Slave Trade Commissioner was withdrawn.

So what does this tell us?

It tells us, I think, something about the largely pragmatic nature of Britain’s anti-slaved trade policy in the East. It reflected the fact that there was no single uniform slave trade. Now in terms of volume, the import of African slaves largely to serve menial purposes, formed the largest part of the slave trade. The trade in white slaves, mostly females, from the Caucasus region, played a more significant role. And in the middle of the nineteenth century Circassian and Georgian women even underage girls, were required in substantial numbers for the harems of the senior officials and other members of the wealthy elites in the Ottoman Empire. As concubines or as menials, two functions not always differentiated in practice.

Suppressing the African trade, had the potential to affect slave owners economically restricting so-called white slavery entailed a challenge to the sanctity of the Muslim home and thus threatened the fabric of the Ottoman Society.

I can’t actually remember whether this is Alma Tadema, I think it’s not. But you’re all familiar with those ghastly paintings, so there’s undoubtedly sort of prurient aspect about Western fantasy is about Oriental decadence, and the ‘lustful Turk’.

But nevertheless, even the sanctity of the harem did not grant the humanitarian impulse that informed British policy in the East. And here is Turkey’s relative international weakness during the Crimean War that gave British diplomacy a degree of leverage. I say a degree of leverage, because this leverage was never absolute.

The ambassador in Constantinople, Stratford Canning, a very forthright man and not afraid to use strong pressure and gunboats if that suited Britain’s purposes. Nevertheless he always warned of the usages of society in the sanction of religion, which directed us, [unclear] around the practice of slavery, and he always warned that therefore, the ability of Britain to affect significant changes was limited.

Nevertheless, the Foreign Secretary at the time, the Earl of Clarendon, increased pressure on the tax over this matter. In fact, he said, “the honour of England no less than the interest of humanity, require that no effort should be spared at this moment for the suppression of slavery in the Ottoman dominions.”

Now that sounds like the sort of thing you might say in Parliament. Actually, this is from a minute. So it’s a departmental minute that no one saw other than the officials in the Foreign Office. Under the given circumstances of the war with Russia going on, and the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman Government needing the support of Britain and France of course. British diplomacy made some progress, an imperial Firman, an edict by central Government, is issued prohibiting the traffic in Circassian and Georgian slaves in the Black Sea region around the port city of Batum.

But the Ottoman Government resisted efforts to negotiate a comprehensive anti-slave trade convention, and, in fact, it’s soon transpired that Turkish officers in the army in the caucuses and Senior Ottoman officials were deeply implicated in the traffic. So pressure was continued to be applied and Clarendon made this note, he said: “only a course of unceasing remonstrance would force the Turks to accept what is due to humanity”, and this this notion of “unceasing remonstrance”, in fact, became almost the leitmotiv of British diplomacy in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s in this matter.

Even so, progress was painfully slow because anti-slave trade diplomacy in the East now ran headlong into the immovable obstacle of cultural and social practices, in the Islamic work. Even Palmerston, always ready to send in the Gunboats had to concede that it was “uphill work to urge morality on principle upon Turk or Frenchmen”.

So he was quite indiscriminate in that. But, he said, instead we need to concentrate now our effort on the suppression of the African slave trade. After a brief flourish in the 1850s, the focus shifts back onto the slave trade, the African slave trade into Turkey.

There are two factors I think I think that came together here. The most important one, was the strategic interest in maintaining the Turkish Empire. That outweighed any abolitionist ambitions. And the other one was that, in fact, the efforts by consuls to suppress the slave trade have some effect. Our man in Tripoli for instance, was very good at taking measures against the slave trade but was then diverted. So it then focused more in Egypt, which became a new focus of activity.

There was also cause for concern that matters should not be pushed too far, because pressure on local officials could backfire, and a case in point was the riots in Jeddah in July 1858.

Jeddah is a Red Sea port, it was the centre of the Red Sea slave trade. It was a centre of resurgent Wahhabism and it proved to be a difficult, dangerous, even, consular observation post. In July 1958, the French and the British consuls were killed, and a number of Europeans were also killed.

The British responded, as they always did in the second stances, they sent in a gunboat, HMS Cyclops, a steam frigate, in fact, which was sent in to bombard the place.

It did not have the desired effect, not least because it was then also felt that this could serve as a pretext for France to project her naval power into the Red Sea. But above all, it was understood in London that, in fact, previous efforts to suppress the slave trade in Jeddah had led to the massacre, and that any further efforts to use naval power to intercept slavers and suppress the slave trade there, would lead to further massacres of that kind. One consul in fact spoke of a general insurrection amongst the Arabs, the consequences of which might be disastrous to the Ottoman authority.

So there you have it again. It’s the survival of the Ottoman Empire that seems to be at stake. Colquhoun, whom I mentioned earlier, the consul General in Cairo, in fact concluded that the suppression of the Red Sea slave trade must be the work of time.

So gradualism rather than big signature policies, as we would call them today, were the order of the day.

So relative weakness, of Britain’s naval positions, one factor; the increased importance of Egypt now as the final destination of enslaved Africans is the other reason why the focus now shifts onto Egypt. And here we have again the usual pattern of pressure being applied to the Viceroy of Egypt, the Khedive, Cairo, and his officials. Assurances were readily given but they were not matched by deeds. Checks were not really carried out on Egyptian steamers on the Nile, and often it then actually transpired that, for instance, the Azizieh steamship company, of which the Viceroy was the majority shareholder, was heavily implicated in the transport of enslaved Africans in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.

So all of this caused much soul-searching in London in the Foreign Office and there were no real breakthroughs, in a sense. It was understood that pressure had to be applied, and continued to be applied, but at the same time it was again feared that undue pressure would drive the Egyptians or the Ottomans into the arms of France, a power that took a more relaxed attitude towards slavery in the East.

Now an opening came in 1873 with the mission of Sir Bartle Frere, who was part politician, part colonial official, to Zanzibar. On route to Zanzibar, he stopped in Cairo, had a conversation with the Khedive emphasised his willingness to put an end to the slave trade in Central Africa.

In reality he was fishing for a deal in which he wanted to have concessions and promises of support by Britain for Egyptian interests in Sudan and in Ethiopia in return for any measures that he might take to suppress the slave trade.

Egypt was practically bankrupt or approaching bankruptcy. In fact, by 1875 it was bankrupt, and all of this increased Britain’s leverage. And yet progress was slow, and it was not until August 1877 that the British could conclude an anti-slave trade convention with the Egyptians. This marked a turning point in Britain’s efforts to suppress the traffic in slaves in the Islamic world. It established a sort of agreed framework for further measures to curb the trade.

Now Frere mission to Zanzibar encountered similar problems. Here you have a sultan at Zanzibar who’s involved in the slave trade. Zanzibar itself was a key staging post in the Arabs-Swahili slave trade between the interior of Africa and the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

The regional slave trade was extensive as the British political agent on the island reported in the 5 years between 1862 and 1867 for instance, he reckoned that close to 100 000 enslaved Africans were exported from the Island. As for the Sultan, his principal concern was financial. The slave trade brought in revenue, and any measures to suppress the slave trade required some form of financial recompense or subsidy for the Sultan.

Fortunately for British anti-slave trade measures, by the early 1870s, of course the major regional competitor, France, was much weakened. A consequence of France’s defeat by Germany in the 1870-71 war, and the French navy was practically non-existent.

So France and French competition was not to be feared in 1873, and in fact, it helps to secure the anti-slave trade treaty with Zanzibar.

It gave Britain the right to intercept slavers in the waters around Zanzibar, and it effectively turned the Sultan into a client of British power. So these two conventions of 1873 and 1877 marked important milestones, and they encouraged British diplomacy to resume efforts for such a convention with the Ottoman Empire. But here again, progress was very slow and it did not result in a treaty until 1880 and then it was delayed by the Turks, ratifications delayed until 1883. And in fact it was clearly understood in the Foreign Office and I think historians need to understand that as well, that the convention does not mark the end of slavery.

The ambassador, Henry Elliot, warned that any direct interference in slavery on our part would excite the susceptibilities of the whole Turkish people. So again, we have here the constraints of geopolitics coming into operation, and in practice British diplomacy continued along its gradualist groove if you like.

There is a sort of piecemeal approach in suppressing the slave trade. But here also the arrangements come to especially that with Egypt had, unintended, and indeed very grave consequences, because the workings of the convention were such that it gave rise, or put fuel on the flames of the proto-nationalist, quasi-Islamist revolt led by Urabi Pasha, a Colonel in the Egyptian army against the Viceroy. It was a revolt that was supported by the Egyptian religious establishment.

So not only did it then lead to turmoil in Egypt, which only came to an end with Britain’s military intervention and the occupation of Egypt, something that the British had not envisaged and was far from what they wanted to achieve, it also then led to another crisis, the Sudan crisis, the so-called Mahdi revolt in 1885-6 which was fuelled by the hostility of the slave traders and their private armies, and their opposition to the efforts by British officials and the disruption of the fabric of local society helped to rally most of the Muslim Sudanese to the Mahdi’s flag, and so helped to bring about the collapse of Egyptian overlordship in the Sudan which then led to the Gordon expedition which resulted in the massacre of that British expeditionary force.

So after that British officials accepted the nexus between the suppression of the slave trade and the potential fragility of Britain’s position in Eastern Africa and in Egypt, and slavery was not abolished in Egypt until November 1893.

The client relationship with Zanzibar shows also the constraints of a slightly different kind on British policy. In 1885 it transpired that the Sultan had purchased slaves at Jeddah in breach of any promises that he’d made.

Now this was a time when the European powers were meeting in Berlin, the so-called Berlin conference, at which they tried to carve up the continent of Africa and East Africa had been earmarked as a British zone of interest, sea of interest, and the British did not want to lose the Sultan of Zanzibar as a client, so they did not antagonise him. So it was better to let the Sultan’s slavers slip in between the British cruisers in East African waters, and then to protest about this later.

So such reluctance to tackle the last vestiges of the old slavery systems are more accentuated after the formal establishment of Britain’s protectorate over Zanzibar in 1890. We talk about a protectorate but this was more an aspiration than a reality. The majority of the population of Zanzibar accepted the protectorate, but resisted attempts to curb slavery, or to have Britain supervising the illicit trade in slaves. And in the end, the Foreign Office concluded that if one wanted to suppress the slave trade, then the owners have to be compensated financially. After all, that is what had happened in Britain.

There you have Lord Salisbury in his late Victorian splendour, who concluded in 1896, with the slightly cynical observation that he could see no justice in excluding people from the benefit of the eighth commandment, Thou shalt not steal, because they have not adopted our very modern doctrine on slavery. So compensation had to be paid and was paid after 1897, when the legal abolition of slavery was proclaimed.

And again, you have here considerations of imperial administration and imperial security prevailing. That is perhaps also where bearing in mind that the Empire was the framework within which abolitionism could work, but it was not to be at the expense of the Empire itself. So, what conclusions are there to be drawn from all of this. I think in the first place, the anti-slavery impulse was very strong, but British diplomacy encountered unique problems quite different from those in the Atlantic slave trade.

To some extent it was perhaps the sort of clash of cultures in the face of deeply rigid cultural practices, seemingly sanctioned by religion, economic calculations based on Victorian assumptions of the beneficent nature of trade in general, had little relevance nor could superior British naval power be easily be brought to bear. If anything, it seems to me that the weakness of the Ottoman Empire and its Egyptian dependency made it difficult to apply such pressure consistently. The massacre at Jeddah, moreover, served as a warning, one that was heeded by successive Foreign Secretaries. So if ever a Foreign Secretary felt particularly Palmerstonian, and wanted to do something drastic, an official was sure to whisper into his ear the word “Jeddah”, and that usually brought him to his senses.

So Jeddah served as a warning that one had to work as a with the grain of local sensibilities. So Britain had the ability to nudge the Sultan and local officials in the desired direction. That ability was stronger whenever Turkey faced serious existential threats such as Russo-Turkish war between 1875 and 1878.

Whenever those threats receded, British leverage was much diminished. For much of the nineteenth century, the second half of the nineteenth century, the Foreign Office’s slave trade department kept up the pressure for more energetic measures for the suppression of the slave trade.

Even so, the wearing effect of the slow grind of anti-slavery policy and the stubborn recalcitrance  the problem of slavery in the Arab and Ottoman world, was considerable. And the quasi-legal framework created by the conventions with Egypt, Turkey, and Zanzibar, seemed to furnish the best guarantee of success.

So, Britain had some successes in her policy to suppress the slave trade but it was a qualified or relative success, if you like. It was the result of patient piecemeal pressure, of Clarendon’s course of unceasing remonstrance in pursuit of humanitarian objectives. The ethical impulse was always liable to be curbed by considerations of geopolitics however, and the more competitive the international environment became by 1880s and the 1890s imperial defence interests remained dominant and prevailed over ethical considerations. To that extent the more restrained pursuit of an ethical foreign policy in the second half of the nineteenth century also reflected the relative diminution of British power. And as a final point, it is perhaps also a reminder that to be successful and ethical in foreign policy you need to be backed up by the credible display of force. It requires a very strong set of teeth to be taken seriously. And on that note I’ll stop here. Thank you.



Yes, well, thank you very much, Thomas, for a wonderful tour d’horizon of a long historical period and a vast range of territories and cultures and so on, which certainly raised a lot of questions in my mind, which I may have time to ask but I’m going to give priority to others, and we have a couple of questions online.

The first is: Did any Ottoman sultan ever officially condemn the slave trade, even if only pro forma?


Right, no.

No, and of course it was important to keep the Sultan out of this, so there were ways in which you dealt with the Ottoman governments. Usually, you dealt with what is usually referred to as the Sublime Porte, which is the kind of central government, the foreign ministry, the finance people in the Ottoman government. They then issued edicts or signed conventions, but the Sultans themselves were kept out of this.

I think I think I remember at school we were constantly being told that Western powers put pressure on the Ottoman Empire to reform. Is this what most of that pressure was about? Was it mainly about the slave trade?

No it was not just about the slave trade, it was also about modernising the essentially pre-modern structures of the Ottoman Empire. Apart from the problem of the slave trade of course you had ethnic problems, you had uprisings, especially in the Balkans, the Bulgarian uprising, the Bosnian uprising … , and it was widely felt that if there were mechanisms by which local grievances could be met and admitted, then this would minimise the risk of future uprisings that might undermine the stability of the Ottoman empire.

So this was about modernising Turkey in order to ensure the survival of the Turkish Empire. And this is a concern that was particularly strongly felt in London and in Vienna, because for both of these powers, of course, Turkey formed a sort of bulwark against Russian incursions into southeastern Europe which would have implications for the future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for British interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.

So this is about a much wider set of issues that go well beyond the issue of the slave trade. The mechanisms are the same, you have to put pressure on the Turks because otherwise they won’t reform. That was always the assumption, but it was also really from Palmerston to Grey assumed that Turkey could be modernised. It was not a hopeless case, as it were, it could be brought up to modern European standards, just as Japan had modernised and China was in the process of modernisation by the late nineteenth century. So it was assumed that that was a sort of a normal pattern of progress and that Turkey just had to be pushed along this path towards progress.

I’m not going to monopolise the questioning but I’d like to ask one more, which perhaps you could give a fairly brief answer to although I think probably very long answers would be conceivable. We know that the African slave trade, as you said it was enforced by African slave traders with private armies carrying out raids. What about what you refer to as white slavery, the white slave trade? How was that actually carried out? And was it a source of great resentment among the people subject to it? Or was it just thought of as being part of part of life?

Well, partly part of life. The people involved were often army officers of the Turkish army in the Caucasus, and Turkish traders, Turkish officials. But this was not a one-way traffic, so there was an element of cooperation involved in this, because this wasn’t straightforward like sex trafficking in in the modern sense. Especially concubines in the Imperial household knew that this is a way of making a career, and their offspring not infrequently actually ended up Sultans, so you could acquire positions of great wealth and influence along the way as it were. So I think that’s something that one needs to bear in mind. This is never just a one-way traffic, just as in the Atlantic safe trade there was connivance by local African rulers in the slave trade so that was cooperation of some form in in these slave trades as well.

Well Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, is supposedly a product of this particular traffic.

I won’t comment.

Now another question is: could you give us sort of rundown roughly on the timetable of slavery, or perhaps the slave trade being banned in various parts of the Middle East? You mentioned Egypt in 1885

Yes, that’s right. Well, it’s usually about that time. Zanzibar was 1897 and with the Turks there’s a whole range of arrangements and conventions that follow on from the 1883 one, I think there’s another one in 1887 and so gradually the trade ceased. Of course at a very low level it persisted but it then also ceased to be a major concern for the British after 1900.

You mentioned something which I admit I was completely ignorant about, which was the payment of compensation. Lord Salisbury’s reference to the eighth commandment. We all know now that a large amount of compensation was paid to the owners of slaves in the Americas, presumably this was nothing like the same scale. But how substantial was it? What sort of people was it paid to? Do we know much about that?

I have to admit I don’t know I didn’t really look into that. Compensation was paid under the terms agreed with the Sultan in 1897, and this is part of the deal of proclaiming the end of the slave trend in Zanzibar. But of course, the British slave owners were also compensated in 1833. So it’s not just the Americans.

Did owners of slaves in the Americas, in the West Indies and so on…


An interesting subject for somebody’s PhD perhaps.


Now another question, how was British policy as you’ve described it regarded by other European major powers? You refer to the French as being somewhat relaxed, and again something I hadn’t realised that the weakness of France, after its defeat by Germany was something that facilitated British policy I presume mainly in Egypt, or more generally in the Ottoman Empire.

That’s right. Well, there was really no French navy after 1871, and, as you know better than anyone else, the French Government had other problems to deal with, to do with stabilising the new regime, and there was of course at any rate perceived ongoing threat to Germany in Europe. So this took some pressure of the British, but of course, by the end of the 1870s, the situation is rather different. France has recovered to some extent, and was considered to be a potential threat to Britain interests in Egypt and in Turkey, and of course we have the dual control regime of Egyptian finances after 1876, that’s an attempt to manage the competition with France. So the fear of driving the Egyptians into the arms of the French certainly resurfaces by the late 1870s, and was then present during the 1880s. And that explains why in the final analysis, British policy was to pull back.  It never really put maximum pressure on the Egyptians in the matter of the slave trade.

We can have another question about Egypt in a moment but I wonder if I could follow up the question about the other European powers. You mentioned the Congress of Berlin, and if I remember rightly there was some sort of anti-slavery declaration in the treaty or whatever convention it was that emerged from that. Is that true? And was that just put in to please the British? And didn’t anyone else pay much attention to it?

It was largely driven by the British. I think the Germans were fairly supportive, but, as always with Bismarck, there were deals to be made and his support for that was bought with concessions in other matters. So this is very transactional, a rather typical instance of nineteenth century great power politics.

An interesting question about the corvee in Egypt, and which our questioner suggests the French used to construct the Suez Canal. Was there any concern in Britain about that?

About the construction of the Suez Canal?

Well, no about the use of compulsory labour. Presumably not slave labour but enforced labour by Egyptian peasants I imagine.

I’m not aware of it, and the use of indentured labour. This crops up throughout the period, and of course, indentured labour was used in South Africa. So it was not something that the British were familiar with. But I must admit, that would be a new one on me. I haven’t come across any instances of people raising this as a particular concern. If anything, it was the strategic implications of the French building the canal. What does this mean for French influence in the area. Now, fortunately immediately after 1870, the year after the opening of the Canal, France ceased to be an immediate threat. But of course it comes back by the second half of the 1870s. So I think it’s all the strategic considerations that matter here rather than humanitarian ones.

One might expect in principle that the French Republic would have been more attuned to the campaign against the slave trade. But as far as I recall, I can’t remember any cases in which it particularly was. I think it was as you suggested, it’s concerns, was so much about France’s recovery of its position as a great power through imperial expansion that anything that would interfere with that I imagine was regarded as very much secondary, if not rather an undesirable distraction.


I’d like to ask you a question, this is a general question about how you describe the whole strategy. It seems that most of the British effort was aimed at reducing the demand, i.e. by working with the authorities in Egypt or Zanzibar, or the Ottoman Empire, rather than with trying to stop the supply? Is that because the activities within the African continent of armed and powerful Arab slave traders, was, apart from General Gordon’s rather quixotic attempt was something that Britain knew it just couldn’t stop.

I think that’s correct but only insofar as the second half of the period we discussed today is concerned. I think earlier on there are clear attempts to disrupt the supply routes and to stop the trade that way. And this was classic Victorian economic liberalism. It’s all about supply and demand and it became very soon apparent that this wouldn’t work because there were certain limits, either within local society or because wider issues of political stability in the region were at stake. That then suggests that other strategies had to be pursued. So that then gave rise to the idea of working with local government, with local officials to stop the demand for slavery.

We’ve taken a lot of your time, Thomas, and I wonder if I could just ask a final question which really is another reflection of my ignorance on this subject. I very little sense of what proportion of the trade that you’ve been describing was overland and what proportion roughly was by sea, or do we not know enough about it to say. You know I sort of think of slave caravans being marched across the desert, as it were, but were they usually just marched to the nearest seaport and put onto boats to be taken up to the Red Sea?

In both directions. You have the established caravan roots from say the West Sudan region northwards to either Tripoli or to Egypt. You’re calling on the oasis in the western Egyptian desert and then on to Cairo or other slave markets. But you also have the roots to the east coast of Africa. Dar Es Salaam and other places from where the enslaved Africans would then be shipped to Zanzibar or the Red Sea ports and so on. So there are different groups and both are important. The overland roots and then the maritime groups. They require different strategies. With the overland routes there was no way of intercepting them so you had to deal with them at the place where the slaves were to be sold. And you had to work with the local officials or the regional governments. Once they were at sea, you have other means and you could use the Royal Navy to intercept slavers and then liberate the enslaved captured people on board afterwards. Now as for the question of relative volume. I have to say I’m not aware of any compilations of statistics. Victorians being Victorians of course they compiled statistics, but you’d have to go through the annual reports for a lot of years and then workout roughly the volume of slaves transported. My guess is that the overland route from the interior of Africa to Egypt was probably the most important one, but that may also reflect that consuls knew more about that than about the trade in the Red Sea area. Simply because there were fewer ships in the Red Sea area, and in fact, it was very unpopular amongst Royal Naval officers to operate in the Red Sea simply because the climatic conditions were such that is was very unpleasant and Palmerston knew that for instance, and so they tried not to go in there too often as it were. And of course again, Jeddah, we know what happened at Jeddah so maybe it was better not to stir up a hornet’s nest and ask too many impertinent questions about what exactly is going on in Jeddah and other Red Sea ports. So overall, I suspect that the incidence of slavery under reported rather than over reported. What we know based on Western sources probably only allows us a partial glimpse of the whole picture.

Yes. Well, on that slightly downbeat note, always more to know, and often things that cannot be known with any certainty, I’d just like to thank you very much for a fascinating talk and a very full of rich discussion following it, and I’m sure that we’re all very grateful to you for giving your time and your knowledge on a subject which is, I think, still very little known about in public discourse, and I hope this will do something to spread the word about what was happening on the other side of Africa.

Thank you very much.

About the author


Professor Thomas Otte

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).