Clipping Their Whiskers

John Reader

  • The Physician and the Slave Trade: John Kirk, the Livingstone Expeditions, and the Crusade against Slavery in East Africa by Daniel Liebowitz
    Freeman, 314 pp, £17.95, May 1999, ISBN 0 7167 3098 7

I have three daughters and could have sold them several times over in the places I have visited where slavery in some form or other is still customary practice. Most recently in Timbuktu, for instance, on an evening stroll beyond the confines of the town, tramping through the dunes with my Tuareg informant, Mohamed Ali, while a camel train trudged by with a load of gravestone-sized slabs of salt from the mines at Taoudeni. We were talking about our families, and I showed Mohamed a photograph of my youngest daughter on a pony, taken when she was 15. He immediately offered 200 camels for her, with or without the pony, assuring me she would be happy and well cared for as his second wife in Araouane, an oasis 250 kilometres north of Timbuktu, where she would join his first wife as an honoured member of the extended family. Timbuktu itself would not be a good place for her to stay, he explained, because in Timbuktu all women eventually become bandy-legged – which I assumed was an oblique way of telling me that females in urban areas cannot be trusted to observe moral etiquette.

We discussed what I could do with 200 camels, since hauling salt from Taoudeni to Timbuktu was not an occupation I cared to consider, and Mohamed Ali subsequently confirmed his offer with a letter to my daughter in which he said that if I could not afford the transportation costs he would send a camel for her, thus leavening negotiations with a rather good Tuareg joke, we thought. I was invited to his house: walls of concrete blocks, roof of corrugated iron, floors of deep Sahara sand so fine and dry that it pours like water. We sat on rugs and drank sweet tea. I was introduced to his cousins, but a darker-skinned man at the edge of the circle was ignored until I discreetly asked who he was. The reply was dismissive: ‘Oh, that’s Marushad, one of our slaves.’

The Tuareg are quite open about slavery and it is not as bad as it sounds. Marushad had joined Mohamed Ali’s family voluntarily, along with a wife and children, when he had fallen on hard times. In return for doing the chores and working on the camel trains, Marushad and his family were given food and shelter and have gradually become incorporated into Tuareg society. His wife is treated in exactly the same way as Tuareg wives; his children are eligible to marry into Tuareg families and Mohamed Ali is obliged to pay the required bride-wealth if they do. In fact, the principal reason for assuming responsibility for the welfare of Marushad and his family is to attach their reproductive potential to the lineage and thus increase the size of the family unit and its workforce. And once the relationship is established to the satisfaction of all parties, Tuareg slaves rarely change owners, or petition for freedom.

Freedom, of course, is a relative term. Marushad and his family are better off with Mohamed Ali than they would be otherwise. Slavery, in his case, is one of the kinder human relationships that anthropologists describe collectively as rights-in-persons, meaning relationships which give one person the rights of control over another. Rights-in-persons are found in societies around the world, and throughout history. They form a continuum, with the tacit obligations and entitlements of kinship, marriage and parentage at one end, the rights of employers and employees somewhere in the middle and the actual right to use people as chattels – goods that may be bought, sold or exchanged – at the other. And in precolonial Africa, for instance, where rates of natural population growth achieved by marrying and begetting were consistently low, it was customary to augment households by acquiring people ‘ready-made’, as Marx put it, especially in regions where food production was locally variable and uncertain. An impoverished family could voluntarily join a richer household, as Marushad did. A child could be exchanged for a supply of grain, thus enhancing the survival prospects both of the child and of its parents.

Whether such practices should be described as charity or slavery is debatable, but there can be no doubt that they were open to abuse and degenerated into a loathsome trade when exposed to external demands and blandishments. No fewer than 18 million slaves were exported from tropical Africa between 1500 and the late 1800s: 11 million across the Atlantic; five million across the Sahara or via the Red Sea; two million from East Africa. But for the slave trade, the population of sub-Saharan Africa would probably have been close to 100 million by 1850, double the actual figure. The enduring significance of the slave trade, however, was not the loss of population so much as the profound changes it wrought in the settlement patterns, social strategies and reproductive capabilities of the communities that remained behind. Africa was transformed.

David Livingstone is prominent among the figures credited with ending the slave trade. In fact, pressure for its abolition was already widespread and achieving results before he was born (in 1813) and it had been banned by the governments of the United States and all of Europe before he was ten. Throughout the rest of his life, a squadron of ships (at one time constituting one-sixth of the entire Royal Navy) patrolled West African waters, freeing over 160,000 slaves in all and deterring the capture of an estimated 825,000 more. But while attention was concentrated on West Africa, the Southern and East African trade continued virtually unabated. Indeed, it probably intensified as alternative outlets were sought for slaves who could no longer be shipped with confidence from West Africa. There was much left to be done.

Daniel Liebowitz describes East Africa as ‘Slavery’s Other Shore’, and this is the stage on which his two protagonists, David Livingstone and John Kirk, play out their very different and not always complementary roles in the abolition of slavery. Liebowitz, a professor emeritus of medicine, writes with the enthusiasm of an accomplished academic who has found a new field of research after a career spent dealing with something completely different. His interest in John Kirk was awakened ‘quite by accident’, he says, while visiting a museum in Zanzibar in 1993; other chance meetings and a little reading aroused his curiosity further. Accordingly, he set out with his wife to retrace Kirk’s life from his birthplace in Scotland, to the Zambezi, to Zanzibar, and finally to Kent, where Kirk died. He interviewed Kirk’s granddaughter in 1997, and completed this book the following year. An energetic programme of travel, research and writing by any standard – but Liebowitz was 72 years old when he started on it, and 77 when the book was published. The book bubbles with enthusiasm and is driven by an urge to get on with the story, which explains the repeated mistakes in the text that an editor of the calibre Liebowitz deserves should have spotted. Thus one gets used to reading of Mombassa and Nyassa (should be a single ‘s’ in each case), and the Royal Geographic Society (should be Geographical); and you just have to smile when Liebowitz writes of plans for a railway to link ‘Mombassa and Kismayu’. He means Kisumu on Lake Victoria; Kismayu is on the coast of Somalia. The railway was dubbed the ‘Lunatic Express’ but it was not that crazy.

Like his biographer, John Kirk was a physician. He graduated from the medical school of Edinburgh University in 1854 – a brilliant student, by Liebowitz’s account, whose extra-curricular interest in botany was advanced enough to earn him a Fellowship of the Royal Botanical Society along with his MD. A spell with the British Medical Corps in the Crimea (where he also found time to make a collection of plants for the Kew herbarium, including specimens hitherto unknown) gave him a taste for foreign fields, and in 1857 he applied to join David Livingstone’s expedition to the upper reaches of the Zambezi.

Livingstone had sailed to South Africa as a missionary in 1841 and returned to England 15 years later to find that he had become a hero. From a mission station in what is now Botswana, his evangelical wanderings had taken him north to the upper Zambezi plain, then west to the Atlantic coast, then back east again across the breadth of the continent to the shores of the Indian Ocean. This was a tremendous journey, in the course of which he had been the first white man to see the mosi oa tunya – ‘the smoke that thunders’ on the Zambezi River, which he named the Victoria Falls. In Britain, his Missionary Travels and Researches was a bestseller. His lectures were packed, and audiences were impressed with his sincerity and spirit of self-sacrifice. He had decided to dedicate his life to converting Africans to Christianity, he said and to abolishing the slave trade. He described central Africa in glowing terms. There were minerals awaiting exploitation, he said, land suitable for growing cotton on a scale so vast that it could make Britain independent of America, and a population so large that it would be a rich market for Britain’s manufactured goods. He believed the Zambezi was navigable from the coast to the Victoria Falls and thus could become the gateway through which his three Cs – Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce – would reach to the heart of the continent.

In Livingstone’s grand vision, British ships would soon be sailing up the river filled with missionaries who would settle along its banks. Superior farming methods would be introduced, and once Africans were earning money from cash crops such as cotton they would be more likely to stop selling people to the Arab and Portuguese slave traders who were still very active in the region. That was the Livingstone plan. Entrepreneurs as well as missionaries, the Government as well as the general public all responded enthusiastically. Parliament voted five thousand pounds towards the cost of the proposed expedition, and another three thousand was raised at his former medical school in Glasgow and by public subscription. These were substantial sums of money. Livingstone was riding high, on a wave of official and popular acclaim that unfortunately carried his declared aspirations some distance beyond the limits of reasonable expectation.

Livingstone was 44 years old when the expedition set sail early in 1858. Kirk was just 26, and might reasonably have looked on the older man as his mentor. The expedition was scheduled to last just two years, but Kirk was away for more than five and did not have an easy time of it. He soon discovered that ‘Livingstone had a darker side to his personality.’ The mentor became the tormentor, during the expedition and for decades thereafter. Indeed, Livingstone’s influence has reached beyond the grave. Even now, Kirk’s indispensable contribution to the ending of the East African slave trade is often seen as a mere footnote to the great man’s crusade. Kirk deserves better.

Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition was a failure in everything except his own account of it (Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi, 1865). Several members died, including Livingstone’s wife, Mary. The Zambezi was not navigable to the Victoria Falls and, although by diverting his efforts to a tributary, the Shire, Livingstone opened up a route to Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi), not one of his forecasts turned out to be correct. No minerals of any worth were found; the promised cotton fields were scattered parches of land already being cultivated by the indigenous population, and in the long run he made no permanent converts to Christianity – on the contrary, he alienated many of the Africans he encountered. Reports of illness and death and of continual disagreements among the expedition members (largely due to Livingstone’s irrational behaviour) inevitably reached Britain, with no good news to offset the bad. In 1865 he received a formal note of recall, dated 2 February: ‘Her Majesty’s Government fully appreciate the zeal and perseverance with which you have applied yourself to the discharge of duties entrusted to you ... Her Majesty’s Government cannot, however, conceal from themselves that the results to which they had looked from the expedition under your superintendence have not been realised.’

While Livingstone stayed on to continue his independent wanderings (and subsequently to be ‘found’ by Stanley at Ujiji, ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume,’ and to meet a lonely death on the banks of the Chambeshi River in May 1873), Kirk returned to Britain. But his experience as a physician and botanist with the Livingstone expedition, and his personal knowledge of the slave trade soon lured him back to the continent. In January 1866 he was appointed acting surgeon to Britain’s political agency in Zanzibar. Two years later he was promoted to assistant political agent and vice-consul; in 1873 he became acting vice-consul and joined Sir Bartle Frere, the British governor of Bombay, in drafting a comprehensive treaty that would oblige the Zanzibari sultanate to cease its slave-trading activities finally and unequivocally. Kirk’s task was to persuade Sultan Bargash to accept the terms and sign the treaty.

By 1873 the slave trade had been banned by all major trading nations for more than half a century, but the monitoring of the ban still focused on the shipping of slaves across the Atlantic from West Africa, leaving the East Africa trade to continue virtually unimpeded. Figures quoted by Liebowitz show that of the 39,645 slaves who left Zanzibar for the Persian Gulf between 1867 and 1869, for instance, only 2645 were found on dhows intercepted by British anti-slavery ships patrolling the Indian Ocean. But the export of slaves from Zanzibar was only a part of the problem confronting Kirk – and a minor part at that. Far greater was the slave culture of the island itself. The economy and indeed the social fabric of Zanzibar were absolutely dependent on the availability of slave labour. ‘Know, O friend, that we do not doubt the benevolence of the English Government and its helpfulness towards us and our subjects,’ Sultan Bargash wrote to Kirk. ‘But it may be that the exalted English Government is not aware of Zanzibar’s need for slaves. The people of Zanzibar can do nothing, not even clip their whiskers, without the servants and slaves they own.’

Slavery had made the island prosperous. Not so much from the slave trade itself, as from the output of slave labour. In a typical year, Liebowitz reports, Zanzibar showed a 15 per cent surplus of exports over imports in its sales of cloves, coconuts and other produce. For much of the 19th century there were more than 100,000 slaves working on its plantations at any one time. But they died at a rate of between 15 and 20 per cent per year – which meant that the island’s continuing prosperity depended on an annual inflow of at least 15,000 slaves. In fact, 23,392 slaves were imported into Zanzibar during the 12 months before Kirk joined Sir Bartle Frere in drafting the treaty that would end the island’s slave-trading activities.

Fluent in Arabic, and with an intuitive understanding of a foreign culture for which his own Government had little sympathy. Kirk had developed a close and trusting relationship with the sultans of Zanzibar, but he can hardly have been surprised when Bargash rejected the terms of the treaty that was presented to him. It would destroy the prosperity of the island and could lead to rebellion, Bargash protested, a position in which his resolve was strengthened to no small degree by the exhortations of his own family, by the island’s plantation owners and, not least, by the powerful anti-European sect of Omani Arabs who comprised his closest advisers. Privately, Bargash feared assassination if he signed the treaty.

Kirk was empowered to offer assurances of British protection, but Bargash remained stubborn – and Kirk’s negotiating options were limited. He could threaten to blockade the island, but knew that if this failed to break Bargash’s resolve, cloves and other produce would be left rotting on the docks, and slaves that were freed would need to be fed and housed – at considerable expense to the British Government. On the other hand, if Bargash relented, the influential Arab population might revolt – a most unattractive prospect. Britain certainly did not want to throw the strategically important island into financial or political chaos. Particularly not when other foreign powers active in the region were showing less than full support for the British position. The US consul in Zanzibar had described Kirk as an ‘empire builder’; and France, with territorial ambitions of her own in Africa, was backing the Sultan.

Ultimately, however, the blockade was threatened. ‘I thought you were my friend,’ the Sultan protested. ‘How can you do this to me?’ Kirk replied by quoting Bismarck: ‘I have come not to discuss, but to dictate.’ But Kirk was authorised to offer a carrot along with the stick that was forcing Bargash to sign, and agreed to the insertion of the phrase ‘to the utmost of his powers’ in the treaty. This modifying clause acknowledged the Sultan’s limited ability to enforce the treaty and thus served to deflect the wrath of his fellow Arabs.

The treaty was signed on 5 June 1873, little more than a month after Livingstone had died at Chambeshi. As fate would have it, Kirk was on leave in England when Livingstone’s body arrived home for a hero’s funeral (his servants had salted and dried the body, and carried it to the coast: 1200 kilometres in nine months). Kirk and some of Livingstone’s old friends were called on to identify the shrunken and mummified remains. They were able to do so by the evidence of a deformed upper left arm, the result of Livingstone’s encounter with a lion many years before.

Liebowitz makes a cracking good story out of the Zambezi expedition, and in subsequent chapters follows the inveiglements, promises and threats that enabled Kirk to keep the Sultan at the negotiating table. He also presents an exemplary account of Kirk’s role in the international machinations which heralded the Scramble for Africa on the eastern shores of the continent. Nonetheless, he confronts an obstacle of not inconsiderable proportions when tackling the biography of a man like Kirk: diplomacy, by definition, is a circumspect affair. The best diplomats are the least seen. So it is that the history books have frequently put John Kirk in the shadow of the far more colourful David Livingstone. Leibowitz’s book goes a good way towards setting the record straight, and is a fitting commentary on the unfairness of fame. It was unfair to Livingstone, imposing on him more psychological pressure than he was equipped to bear; and especially unfair to John Kirk, giving him less credit for ending the slave trade in East Africa than he deserves.