Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery

Ruled by a regime that had its origins in southern Arabia, Zanzibar built its prosperity on control of the East African ivory and slave trades during the nineteenth century, only to come under increasing Western pressure to abolish the slave trade and then the institution of slavery itself. It responded to that pressure first by outlawing the slave trade and, nearly one-quarter of a century later, abolishing domestic slavery.

Summary of Event

The East African offshore island of Zanzibar had a long history of involvement in the slave trade. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries Zanzibar was a powerful city-state with trade links to the Middle East, India, and other parts of Asia. During the mid-seventeenth century, the rules of southern Arabia’s Omani sultanate began involving themselves in the east coast of Africa, especially by providing coastal towns with naval support against the Portuguese. In 1840, Sultan Sa՚īd ibn Sulṭān moved his capital from Oman Oman;and Zanzibar[Zanzibar] to Zanzibar in order to exercise closer control over Oman’s growing East African trade. East Africa;slave trade
Slave trade;and Zanzibar[Zanzibar]
Slave trade;East African
[kw]Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery (1873-1897)
[kw]Outlaws Slavery, Zanzibar (1873-1897)
[kw]Slavery, Zanzibar Outlaws (1873-1897)
East Africa;slave trade
Slave trade;and Zanzibar[Zanzibar]
Slave trade;East African
[g]Tanzania;1873-1897: Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery[4650]
[g]Africa;1873-1897: Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery[4650]
[c]Social issues and reform;1873-1897: Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery[4650]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;1873-1897: Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery[4650]
Sa՚īd ibn Sulṭān
Hardinge, Arthur Henry
Pease, Joseph
Khalid ibn Barghash

The main commodities brought by caravans from the interior of East Africa to the coast were ivory Ivory and slaves. Around the mid-nineteenth century, more than 10,000 slaves—many from as far inland as Lake Tanganyika Tanganyika, Lake —were taken through the coastal town of Bagamoyo Bagamoyo and sold in the Zanzibar markets every year. Overall, some 600,000 slaves were sold in Zanzibar between 1830 and 1873, the year in which Zanzibar prohibited the trade.

Meanwhile, Oman’s increasing trade attracted Western interest. In 1798, Great Britain and Oman established trade agreements. In 1833, the United States signed an amity and commerce treaty with Oman that gave the latter most-favored-nation privileges and established an American consulate in Zanzibar town. Britain followed with a similar treaty in 1839 and France in 1844. Along with Western trade came opposition to the institution of slavery.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Britain concentrated its efforts to intercept slave ships along Africa’s western coast. The British then moved to help eradicate the slave trade on the other side of the continent. One of the first British consuls in Zanzibar, Colonel Atkins Hamerton Hamerton, Atkins , used his diplomatic influence to pressure the sultan. In 1845, Sultan Sa՚īd signed a treaty with Britain agreeing to limit the slave trade within his possessions. However, this agreement left him free to channel slaves through ports in the Persian Gulf.

After Sultan Sa՚īd ibn Sulṭān Sa՚īd died in 1856, he was succeeded by his first son, Majid, who had no interest in limiting the slave trade. In fact, he founded the city of Dar es Salaam on the coast of the mainland and expanded its harbor with the purpose of increasing trade. However, he died in 1870 before achieving his goals. One of his brothers, Barghash, succeeded him as sultan and found his power decreasing. In 1872, a hurricane Hurricanes destroyed his naval fleet. Afterward, the sultanate was formally partitioned, making Zanzibar completely separate from Oman Oman;and Zanzibar[Zanzibar] . British opposition to slavery was also increasing as David Livingstone’s reports of his 1856 expedition to East Africa raised awareness of the cruelties of the slave trade and as European missionaries Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] such as Johann Ludwig Krapf Krapf, Johann Ludwig and Johann Rebmann Rebmann, Johann began working on the mainland. In 1873, Barghash finally issued a decree ending the export of slaves from Zanzibar.

Anglican agents of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa Universities’ Mission to Central Africa[Universities Mission to Central Africa]
Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] took over the large slave market in Zanzibar town throughout which hundreds of thousands of slaves had passed. In 1876, they built an Anglican cathedral on that site that has ever since stood as a memorial to the victims of the slave trade. Meanwhile, the institution of slavery would continue on Zanzibar for another quarter of a century.

Zanzibar’s economy had already undergone a major transformation. During the 1830’s, cloves Cloves had been introduced to Zanzibar. No longer was the focus on Zanzibar town alone, as plantations sprang up throughout Zanzibar and the neighboring island of Pemba. Zanzibar soon became the world’s leading exporter of cloves, with markets not only in Asia but also in Europe and the Americas. Slaves brought from the mainland were now purchased to serve the growing plantations on Zanzibar. In addition to clove production, coconut Coconuts plantations expanded the economic base. At the same time, more Arabs relocated from Oman Oman;and Zanzibar[Zanzibar] during the late 1870’s to run the plantations.

Muslim slave traders marching their captives to the East African coast during the early 1870’s.

(Arkent Archive)

The end of slave exports in the 1873 decree was in some ways a natural development, but slavery on Zanzibar continued to flourish. Barghash’s decree had outlawed the import of slaves from the mainland, leaving only the slaves who had lived in Zanzibar and their offspring as legal under the law. However, it was difficult to enforce the ban on importing slaves, and the numbers of slaves on Zanzibar continued to increase. In 1895, a British official estimated that of the 200,000 inhabitants of the island, three-quarters were slaves.

In 1890, Great Britain established a protectorate over Zanzibar, Zanzibar;and British Empire[British Empire]
British Empire;and East Africa[East Africa] reducing the sultan to a figurehead. The British then began a major debate on the status of slavery on the island. In London, abolitionists led by Joseph Pease Pease, Joseph lobbied Parliament to take action. However, in Zanzibar Consul General Arthur Henry Hardinge Hardinge, Arthur Henry opposed forcing any major changes, taking the side of the plantation owners. Reports sent back to Britain generally painted a glowing picture of conditions in Zanzibar. Even a number of missionaries Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] from the Church Mission Society expressed reluctance to go against the status quo. However, when the Society of Friends established a mission in Zanzibar in 1895, eyewitness reports about the facts on the ground were shared with the British public.

The impetus for a complete ban on slavery came in September, 1896, when France announced the abolition of slavery in Madagascar. During the previous month, Zanzibar’s Sultan Hamid ibn Thuwain had died. Khalid Khalid ibn Barghash ibn Barghash, a strong proponent of slavery, proclaimed his own succession and took over the palace. However, British naval vessels bombarded the palace, killing about five hundred defenders and removing the new sultan. The British then installed their own candidate for sultan, Hamoud ibn Muhammad. Hardinge Hardinge, Arthur Henry was recalled to London for instructions. When he returned to Zanzibar in early 1897 the transformation was enacted. On April 6, 1897 the new sultan issued a decree abolishing slavery in Zanzibar. Slave owners were to be paid compensation for the loss of legally held slaves.


The abolition of slavery in Zanzibar in 1897 was the final step in the century-long British effort to end Africa’s slave trade. However, even then, the issue of slavery was not fully resolved. Zanzibar’s emancipation decree required slaves to apply for their freedom and prove that they had both places to live and means of support. Moreover, a series of vagrancy laws were written into the decree to restrict the lives of newly freed slaves. Within the first year, only 10 percent of Zanzibar’s slaves had bothered to complete the paperwork. Other slaves negotiated for better working conditions and remained on their plantations.

The decree did, however, have a lasting effect on life in Zanzibar. Following years of prosperity, the early part of the twentieth century showed signs of struggle. The plantations at first suffered from labor shortages. Many switched from clove Cloves to coconut Coconuts production because the latter was less labor-intensive. Many large plantations broke up and were replaced by small farmers who were more concerned with subsistence or small business operations. Meanwhile, the city of Zanzibar expanded as former slaves left the countryside to find work in the city.

The end of slavery on Zanzibar was a victory for several generations of abolitionists who had lobbied tirelessly against the institution. However, the 1897 decree did not apply to the coastal areas of the mainland under British control, where the effort to abolish slavery continued for another decade. In many areas the concern for slavery shifted to working conditions for free laborers.

Further Reading

  • Bennett, Norman Robert. The Arab State of Zanzibar: A Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Comprehensive bibliography of Zanzibar, with many references to works on nineteenth century events.
  • Cooper, Frederick. From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. Examination of Zanzibar’s transformation from a slave economy to a wage-based economy.
  • Depelchin, James. “The Transition from Slavery, 1873-1914.” In Zanzibar Under Colonial Rule, edited by Abdul Sheriff and Ed Ferguson. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991. Essay on Zanzibar’s transition to a free economy that argues that the motivation for abolishing slavery in Zanzibar was economic, not humanitarian.
  • Fair, Laura. Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community, and Identity in Post-Abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890-1945. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. Study of changes in Zanzibar after the legal abolition of slavery.
  • Grant, Kevin. A Civilized Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 2004. Scholarly study, based on archival sources, of attempts by the British government and evangelical churches to end slavery and forced-labor practices in Africa during the first decades of its colonial involvement in the continent.
  • Sheriff, Abdul. Slaves, Spices, and Ivory in Zanzibar. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1987. Broad economic history of trade in Zanzibar.

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