Kwasi Konadu

European Expansionism in Africa and the Indian Ocean

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the Asian markets for enslaved and scorned African laborers were connected more closely with and even propelled city-states such as Zanzibar and Pemba into the slaving world of East Africa and Asia. Certainly, the Swahili city-states were well integrated in the trade network and politics of the Indian Ocean world and their markets.  These markets drew slavers from Brazil, French merchants from Mauritius, Arab merchants from Oman and Hadramawt, Indian merchants from the Kathiawar peninsula and the Konkan coastal region, and Swahili merchants into a consortium that exploited gold, ivory, and human captives. 

Though Muslims monopolized large parts of the trade, Christians and Hindus had no compulsion against this human trafficking and many, like the Jesuits in Mozambique and Goa (India), amassed substantial wealth.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States, England, and France all held stakes in the region, the French had already established plantations on Mauritius and the Omani did the same in Zanzibar. The irony is that these nefarious activities under the guise of commerce reached their height in a period of abolitionist, anti-slaving action. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Britain and the United States both outlawed the “slave trade” rather than the ownership and domestic use of enslaved individuals. Thus, as shown in the selection, the nineteenth century was an age where so-called abolition paved the way for a new imperialism based on territorial acquisition, political control over those territories, and economic control of their trade, capital and markets. In the selection is drawn from a letter by G. H. Portal, British Agent and Consul General, stationed in Zanzibar, to Secretary of the Government of India, Foreign Department, in Calcutta, written on September 8, 1891. It explores the topics of empire and expansionism through protectorates, trade, capital, plantations, and enslaved labor.




You are aware that Her Majesty's Government have recently assumed the Protectorate[1] over the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba [off the coast of East Africa]. The various reports of my predecessors have also shown that nearly the whole trade and capital of these islands is in the hands of subjects of Her Majesty, English or Indian, although the plantations have hitherto been worked almost entirely by Arabs with slave labour. The declaration of the English Protectorate may be looked upon as a death-blow struck at the whole institution of slavery in East Africa, while it is causing most of the land of this country to pass into the hands of British subjects. It vastly increases the difficulty of procuring labour sufficient to carry on the work of the town, the port, and the plantations. I venture therefore to ask you to submit to His Excellency the Governor General in Council my request that the Indian Emigration Act (No. XXI of 1883) may be extended as to include Zanzibar in the list of countries to which emigration from India is lawful.

The existing list of countries given in Schedule I annexed to Section eight of that act, includes, I would contend, several colonies in which the European responsible supervision is less than it has recently become at Zanzibar, and I would submit that any objections which may previously have stood in the way of the proposed extension of the Emigration Act, have now been removed, by the establishment at Zanzibar of what is practically a direct and responsible British Administration. His Majesty’s Agent and Consul General is now responsible for the good administration and Government of this country, and would be able to ensure the due observance of all the provisions of the Emigration Act above-quoted. The existence and nature of the new Protectorate would also be a guarantee that Indian emigrants would be well lodged and looked after; moreover, as British subjects, they would not in any way come under the jurisdiction of authority of the Sultan[2] [of Zanzibar] or any of his representatives. Every coolie immigrant into this country week beginning registered at this office on his arrival, and week beginning periodically inspected by English officers.

It should, further, be a condition for allowing the emigration of coolies to Zanzibar that no immigrant be allowed to take service with anyone but a British subject. It would become one of the duties of His Majesty’s Agent to see that this condition is carried out. Finally, I would remark that if the Governor General in Council consents to view this request favourably, the number of coolies[3] required for Zanzibar week beginning but small, not more, probably than about five hundred a year; and they would be required almost exclusively for work in the town itself. You are already aware that this place is in regular communication by steam-ships with Bombay, from which Presidency the coolies would probably be drawn. The journey from Bombay lasts only about ten days.


Source: Maharashtra State Archives (formerly Bombay Archives), vol. 170, Political Department, compilation number 1144, Zanzibar, 1892, “Proposal made by His Majesty's Agent and Consul General to include in the list of countries to which emigration is allowed under Schedule I, annexed to section 8 of the Indian emigration Act of 1883.”

[1] Protectorate: a state that is controlled and protected by another, a dependent territory that is partly controlled by another, usually more powerful state able to exert its power.

[2] Sultan: ruler of a Muslim country or territory.

[3] Coolie: a locally sourced unskilled, manual laborer in or from India, China, and other Asian countries. The term is considered offensive