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The East African Slave Trade - A Background

By the 1880s all European nations had banned the trading and transportation of slaves. Only Arab nations continued as slavery in the Middle East had been culturally acceptable for many centuries.

Suppression of the slave trade was a constant battle - when the Royal Navy managed to drive it out of one area, it sprang up in another as there was still a huge market for enslaved workers. Centres for the slave trade included towns on the coast of Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania.

The main traffic of the trade moved through the island of Zanzibar, just off the East African coast. The Sultan of Muscat and Oman, ruler of a country on the Arabian Peninsula, governed the island and with its strong sea links with the Arab nations, it was fertile ground for the gathering of slaves.

Between 1888 and 1889 the Royal Navy and the German Navy blockaded the east coast, effectively strangling the slave trade for a short period of time. 11 British ships alone were involved in the blockade.

Staffordshire Pottery figurine. The book on the slave's lap reads - Bless God and Britton Me No Slave. (RNM)
Staffordshire Pottery figurine. The book on the slave's lap reads - Bless God and Britton Me No Slave. (RNM)

The navies lifted the ban only after the Sultan granted such concessions as the British and German Navies’ right to search Zanzibar’s ships within its territorial waters. Furthermore, the Sultan ruled that all persons entering Zanzibar were to be free and children born in the country after January 1 1890 were born free.

The British established Zanzibar as a protectorate in 1890 but the Sultan still kept the decree outlawing the slave trade a secret until 1896. He only fully abolished the trade in slaves from Zanzibar in 1909.

Historians argue that it was only with the gradual colonisation of the nations of East Africa by countries such as Britain and Germany that the majority of slave trading came to a halt.

Organised slave trading on a large scale lived on only in Sudan. Arab slavers would use the waters of the Nile to transport their captives in chains to Khartoum and north to the Mediterranean coast, or east to the Red Sea and to Arabia.

To discover examples of the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery activities in the 20th century, select Next


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