The British Empire Library

The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk And The End Of Slavery In East Africa

by Alastair Hazell

Courtesy of OSPA

Terry Barringer (Editor and Bibliographer, Cambridge)
This book begins with a vignette of an Assistant District Commissioner in the last days of Colonial Africa. He is taken for a walk by a Yao chief on the shore of Lake Nyasa. The chief shows him an ancient stockade. "Slaves were good...many died, of course, but there were still enough to make money...We sent them to the coast, to Zanzibar." That ADC told the story to his son, the author of this book, kindling his interest in the East African slave trade and its centre at Zanzibar. Later, Alastair Hazell found his hero in Sir John Kirk (1832- 1922), doctor, botanist, explorer and consul.

The stories of Livingstone's Zambesi Expedition and Stanley's search for Livingstone, including Kirk's role, have often been told. The Arab/East African trade, buying slaves in the interior, driving them to market in Zanzibar, shipping them to the Gulf for onward sale in Arabia and Persia, is less well known, certainly in the popular imagination, than the Atlantic trade but its horrors rivalled those of the Middle Passage. Livingstone called it 'this open sore of the world'. This book is often grim reading, as when Hazell describes the cholera epidemic of 1869 when slaves died like flies before they could be sold and a fifth of the population of Zanzibar perished, but Hazell's narrative is as readable as a novel. This is his first book but he grew up in East Africa and has a sense of local colour. Moreover, as befits a student of the late Christopher Fyfe, his scholarship is sound and he has digested primary sources and academic studies. Unfortunately the book was written too soon for him to make use of Lawrence Dritsas' new work on the Zambesi Expedition, Sarah Longair's on Kirk, collecting and museums, and the spread of publications and exhibitions which have marked the bicentenary of Livingstone's birth.

Kirk arrived in Zanzibar as Medical Officer in 1866. Eleven months later his fiancee, Nelly, followed. This hitherto sheltered English lady was determined to make a success of her marriage. Hazell gives us glimpses of her making marmalade, going to church and visiting the sultan's womenfolk. She succeeded in raising her children in this notoriously unhealthy spot and sometimes acted as her husband's clerical assistant. Nellie deserves a book of her own.

Kirk, although he was often the most senior Briton on the spot, was not appointed Consul/ Political Agent. It was such an unenviable job, reporting to both the Foreign Office in London which, however, refused to pay for it, and the Indian government in Bombay which had rather different interests, that one of Bombay's favoured candidates shot himself rather than take it. Neither London nor Bombay wanted to upset the Sultan of Zanzibar, an independent ruler and a British ally, or spend a lot of money or risk destabilising a region where, it could be argued, slavery had been a way of life for millennia.

Flowever there was a rising movement of moral outrage in Britain, partly orchestrated by Sir Bartle Frere, an energetic and opinionated old India hand. Frere was despatched to Africa in November 1872 with the title of Special Envoy, commissioned to work for the abolition of the Slave Trade and also to investigate Stanley's allegations that Kirk had neglected and betrayed Livingstone. Frere was baulked by Sultan Barghash who would not sign his treaty but the Special Envoy liked and exonerated Kirk and, at long last, made him full Consul.

After Frere's departure it was Kirk, with long experience, reputation for fairness and linguistic fluency, who finally brought Barghash to sign. In June 1873 the Sultan's order closing the slave markets and forbidding all shipping of slaves from harbours under his jurisdiction was posted.

Kirk was at Livingstone's funeral, acted as Barghash's minder on a visit to London, worked to eliminate other manifestations of the slave trade. As Europeans scrambled for Africa, his world changed. The Germans moved in on the Sultan's territories; London acquiesced. In 1886, Kirk was recalled to a retirement, where he was respected but somewhat sidelined. Fie lived on until 1922.

British Empire Book
Alastair Hazell
Constable and Robinson Ltd
978 1 84529 672 8


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