The British Empire Library

Zanzibar - May Allen and the East Afriean Slave Trade

by Yoland Brown

Courtesy of OSPA

Peter Hinchcliffe (Aden 1961-67)
Britain's connections with the slave trade will be in the news again with the forthcoming (next year) bicentenary of an Act of Parliament abolishing the Atlantic Slave Trade. Yoland Brown's recent publication focuses on the other side of Africa and especially on the island of Zanzibar, once the centre of the East African traffic in the human commodity, traces of which lingered on well into the Twentieth century. The central figure in a book with a wide canvas and a remarkable cast including Dr David Livingstone and his fellow African bound missionaries and explorers is the eponymous May Allen. She, a Shropshire 'lass', an Archdeacon's daughter, at the age of 40 found herself as the first qualified medical missionary to work in Zanzibar heading a small team of two other nurses in December 1875.

Her story as told by Yoland Brown was gleaned from 67 letters she wrote home over the next six years starting with one published in a Shropshire local paper in January 1876 and the rest in the journal of the Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) established as a direct result of one of Livingstone's public lectures about his experiences in Africa. These fascinating glimpses of life in 19th century offshore Africa, the remorseless grind of establishing a Christian mission in unpromising circumstances. The uphill task of converting and looking after former slaves, the ambivalence of the local authorities as represented by the charismatic Sultan Barghash in dealing with the mission in the aftermath of the closing of the once infamous slave market as a result of the ruler's (reluctant) signature on the anti slavery treaty which bore the name of Sir Bartle Frere, the chairman of a investigative Special Mission (and a former Governor of Bombay). Frere's hand in eventually persuading the Sultan (who not unnaturally, feared the total collapse of Zanzibar's economy) to sign on the dotted line was somewhat strengthened by the presence of four British warships and one American in Zanzibar harbour. Despite having been faced down by the British, Sultan Barghash was generally supportive of the UMCA Mission except that he strongly opposed any attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Interesting as is the story of May Allen's tireless endeavours, it is the graphic (and well illustrated) account of the horrors of the Africa-wide slave trade and the efforts of missionaries and missionary/explorers to bring it to an end which gives this book its particular fascination. We revisit familiar tales of the travels of Dr Livingstone and those of many other lesser known African travellers who faced almost unbelievable hardships on every page, many succumbing to tragically early deaths, attempting to pursue a Christian civilising mission to bring the denizens of the Dark Continent to salvation and to frustrate the work of the Arab slave traders. The tale of the Mission is also seen in the context of the growth of the British presence in Zanzibar, particularly the career of Sir John Kirk, British Consul on Zanzibar for many years who had finally persuaded Sultan Barghash to sign the anti-slavery document with the words 'I have not come to discuss but to dictate.' Perhaps a suitable epitaph for many Imperial pro-consuls of that time.

I strongly recommend this well written account of penetration of Africa and of missionary endeavour at the zenith of Imperial Britain. If you read nothing else just look at Chapter 30: 'Qualities needed to be a missionary'. Substitute 'District Officer' for 'Missionary' and many of our older members, especially old African hands, may find themselves back on familiar territory and a bit misty eyed besides.

British Empire Book
Yoland Brown
Eleventowns Publishing
0 9515015 1 8


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