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Remember the Days of Slavery? They Aren’t Over

June 28, 2013

Remember the Days of Slavery? They Aren’t Over

By L. Muthoni Wanyeki

Those of us who schooled in Kenya will remember the drawings of Tippu Tip found in our history textbooks. Termed “Arab” although he was obviously mixed race, he was the most famous of the Zanzibari ivory and slave traders, moving his “goods” from the hinterland to the coast out across the ocean to the Arabian peninsula.

He, like all racketeers, laundered his earnings through investments in more reputable Zanzibari clove plantations.

He also led many of the “explorers” we were taught “discovered” us into the interior — including Henry Morton Stanley. For his sins, Stanley proposed to King Leopold II of Belgium that Tippu Tip become Governor of the Congo Free State — a position he held for 13 or so years until his retirement back in Zanzibar in 1890.

The world had changed around him. The East African slave trade declined when Zanzibar, having become a British protectorate, abolished slavery in 1897.

Another centre of supply, Ethiopia, abolished slavery five years later in 1902. Notably, a key centre of demand, Oman, did not abolish slavery until 1970.

The transatlantic slave trade had been going through its own decline. As early as 1787, Sierra Leone began its life as a British colony intended for freed slaves. In 1822, Liberia followed suit to enable the “return” of freed slaves from North America. And in 1848, Gabon became a French colony for the same purpose.

Spain abolished slavery in all its colonies save three in 1811. A critical point for both ending the trade in human beings — and the freedom of those already enslaved — was the entry into force of the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1834.

The Act abolished slavery across the British Empire, on which the sun was said never to set. It eventually obliged a unique British naval squadron to intercept those still plying the trade and all colonies to emancipate those enslaved.

Portugal followed suit in 1836, thwarting demand in its South American colonies — notably Brazil.

What this rough overview from the perspective of formal, official power obscures, of course, is three things.

First, our participation — from east to west — in that trade. We can deny it. We can justify it, saying we had no idea what we were collecting and selling people into. But that we knew it was wrong is evident.

About a decade ago, the inquiries of a Somali filmmaker exploring slavery in Zanzibar were met with hostile silence — until he, frustrated, confessed to his own family having been a slave trading family.

A Senegalese historian, working with the recovery of oral history from members of the griot caste, has teased out a confession that all griots serving the main royal families were ordered to expunge from their poetic and sung records any reference to slavery several generations ago.

Second and more importantly, the resistance of those enslaved. There were always slaves everywhere who did what they could to end their involuntary servitude.

From smaller acts of sabotage to endless efforts to escape — some of them heartrending, like suicide and the murder of their own children. To organised armed resistance such as the wars waged by the Maroons in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean against the plantation owners and the colony.

Third — tragically — the ways in which avarice fought back. The decline of the transatlantic slave trade meant that other sources of cheap labour had to be found.

Thus, in the early 1860s, South Pacific islanders fell prey to “blackbirding” —kidnapping under false pretence and involuntary transport to Peru to work the guano mines in Chincha — but also to Australia and Fiji.

Blackbirding only persisted for a couple of years thanks to an almost immediate prohibition by the Peruvian government and the resistance of South Pacific islanders under the King of Tonga. But it is still unknown how many Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian people were involuntarily removed from their homelands during this period.

Avarice always fights back. Human trafficking persists today — from East Africa and the Horn in an almost ironic re-enactment of the old Arab slave trade to the same destinations. And new routes have opened up.

From West Africa not across the Atlantic but the Mediterranean. From Asia and the South Pacific to both sides of the Pacific. From the former Soviet republics to the rest of Europe and North America.

Our capacity to see in human aspiration and desperation the potential for ill-earned profit is, apparently, endless.

As are the long, long, long arms of history — ever reaching out to enfold us. Think of the fates of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gabon. Think about the contention and dissent along the Kenyan Coast — the polite silences we have decided to maintain about our own histories. Think about the title of one of Mahmood Mamdani’s books: When Victims Become Killers.

We are moving into a new year. To start off, we have decided that what amounts to internment and forced removal of urban Somalis to the refugee camps is the way we will handle our inability to contain domestic attacks associated with Al Shabaab.

Internment is not enslavement — but it certainly always precedes it. History’s long arms do not enfold us all. Despite the drawings of Tippu Tip. Who prospered, after all.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is doing her graduate studies at L’Institut d’etudes politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, France


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