The Royal Navy’s suppression of the slave trade in East Africa was a constant struggle and stands as an example of the humanitarian work that the Royal Navy has undertaken over the last century.
Read the story of HMS Sphinx which rescued six enslaved Africans off the coast of Oman whilst serving on the East Indies Station in 1907.
Introduction - Driving out the Slavers
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.
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.
Continued Presence in the 1900s and The Royal Navy Today
At the turn of the century there were still reports of fears of increases in the slave trade. Below are some examples of activity off the East Coast of Africa after the effective end of the trade.
1904 - HMS Forte and HMS Barracouta stationed off the East Coast of Africa involved with boarding suspected Arab sailing ships called ‘dhows’ for slave trade violations.
WW1 - Still involved in anti-slave trade operations.
1922 - HMS Cornflower captured a dhow carrying 29 slaves in the Red Sea.
1925 - The government considered aerial observation against slave dhows after a proposal from the Commanding officer of HMS Clematis.
1928 - Reported activity of three HM Ships – Clematis, Waterhen and Vendetta – boarding and examining 34 dhows suspected of slave trade involvement.
The Royal Navy is still involved with anti-people trafficking operations. People trafficking is similar to slavery in that those who the traffickers are transporting are coerced into a type of enslavement.
The traffickers exploit and force many victims into the illegal sex industry or into hard labour. The main victims of such activity are women and children from poverty stricken families. Traffickers also exploit men for hard labour.
Removing the Shackles - HMS Sphinx in 1907.
In 1907 HMS Sphinx took six escaped enslaved Africans aboard whilst cruising off the coast of Oman.
Although outlawed in Europe, the trade in African slaves was still acceptable in many of the Arab states. The East Indies station covered areas surrounding the Indian Ocean such as the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, Aden, Ceylon, India and part of the East Coast of Africa.
HMS Sphinx was serving on the East Indies Station between 10 February 1907 and 26 March 1909. The Africans had escaped in a canoe from a slave-trading village on the coast on hearing that a Royal Navy ship was in the area.
In his report (15 October 1907) Commander Litchfield of HMS Sphinx wrote that ‘six fugitives’ came aboard whilst the ship was on a cruise off the Batineh Coast between 10 and 14 October.
The first three came off the canoe at 2245 on 10 October. They were men aged 17, 20 and 22. Two complained of being badly treated and the third had been fairly well looked after and had only escaped when he was threatened with being sold.
Off the coast of Khadara village, two of the men came in off a canoe at 1200 on 12 October and then a further one the next day at 0500. The master of one slave had kept him in manacles for three years. The enslaved man had escaped with his leg irons still on. Commander Litchfield had these removed.