Monday, May 6, 2024

Slavery in East Africa

 Annamaria on Monday

The second in my Africa series relaunched on May 1 in a beautiful new edition.  In celebration of that, herewith, a past post outlining the background history of that story.  It explains why the British were still dealing with the slave trade a few decades after they had, at great cost, abolished it. Stan Trollip, who figures in this little essay, is the Stanley of Michael Stanley - partner of Michael Sears in authoring the marvelous Kubu series. Yes, slavery was still an issue in British East Africa in 1912.  Vis: 

My British East African series is based on the Ten Commandments.  Each story has a plot thread based on the sin of the commandment.  And another based on a sin that has no commandment.  But that I think should.  In The Idol of Mombasa, the second in the series, the sin of the commandment is idolatry.  The other sin is slavery.

When I first started working on the book a couple of years ago, I mentioned the themes to Stanley Trollip.  He immediately said he thought the slave trade had ended well before 1912, when the book is set.  I figured that—as happens with me—I had chosen a topic so obscure that even a person as knowledgeable as Stan would think my story far-fetched.  I had some work to do to make my plot plausible.

I hit the books again.  My further research bore out what I had already learned: In East Africa, slavery did not disappear abruptly the day the British declared it so.  As one of my characters says, “…like every beast, slavery has a tail, and we are dealing with that tail here.”

Let’s take a look at why it took longer for slavery to be stamped out in East Africa.

The black lines represent slave trade routes in the Middle Ages.

In the late Nineteenth Century, the territory that is now Kenya was a protectorate of the British government—a step on the way to becoming a colony.  That is all of it but a ten-mile swath of the coast, which belonged to the Sultan of Zanzibar.

Arabs had been trading slaves from there since the 700s, long before any European put a foot on that shore.  Over the centuries, the Sultanates of the Middle East took African slaves to work for Persia as sailors, to dive for pearls in the Gulf, to fight as troops for Omani.  And mostly to work in houses as domestics and sex slaves.  Some were shipped as far away as China.

They used Mombasa as their shipping point, and the mixture of genes and cultures between the city’s African population and the Arab traders gave rise to the Swahili people and language.  Africans as well as Arabs traded slaves.

When the Brits arrived in East Africa, slavery was an entrenched way of life.  It might have been against British law everywhere else, but it was an important part of the local culture and sanctioned by Shari'a law. 

Also, when the Protectorate of British East Africa was declared, His Majesty’s administrators had a bitter rival for the goodies available to be plundered from Africa—the Germans in German East Africa (now Tanzania) to their south.  The Sultan still had hegemony over the BEA coast.  If the Brits did not make nice with him, he might favor the Gerries and cut them out.  The Brits’ allies in this matter were Arabs who were themselves slave owners and slave traders.

So the British East African Administration never fully committed to enforcing their own anti-slavery laws.

In the end, they prevailed with the Sultan, if paying him 250,000 pounds sterling for the right to govern the coast in his name can be called prevailing.  At least they won out over the Germans.

Little by little, the Brits tried to cut down on the number of people enslaved—by declaring 1474 existing runaways as free men, by declaring that children born after 1 January 1890 were free.  This gradual approach put the government on the outs with the passionate anti-slavery forces on the home front.

In response the government argued that slavery on Zanzibar and along the British East African coast was far more benign than the well-known horrors of the Caribbean.  They could offer as proof that the Qu’ran instructed good Muslims to be kind to their slaves and set them free when they died.

In 1897, the King’s administrators convinced the Sultan to make slavery illegal.  But nobody told the slaves.  If they found out and wanted to bolt, they had to prove that they had the means to support themselves as freemen by showing a contract of employment.  The police ramped up their enforcement of the vagrancy laws to keep the household slaves in their place.

So slavery continued in this area well into the Twentieth Century.

In my story, I wanted to include some low level slave trading, as well as slave possession.  I gave the British a pragmatic fictional reason for turning a blind eye to slave trafficking on the coast in 1912.  It served my story to imagine this.  Just this past Friday, while boning up on my facts to write this blog, I found a new article on the subject.  Here is quote from “The Windmill of Slavery: The British and Foreign Antislavery Society and Bonded Labor in East Africa” by Opolot Okia. 

Moreover, unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the British efforts against slave trading in these areas were more lethargic and gradual and were conditioned more by specific, local circumstances than some amorphous but inexorable anti slavery logic.” (The Middle Ground Journal: Duluth, 2011)

The institution was not finally abolished by law until the 6th of July 1909.

The Idol of Mombasa set two and half years later in January of 1912.  I hope you will read the book.  Then you can tell me if my story of slavery in East Africa is in keeping with the actual history of the place.


  1. I lived in Kenya for a number of years, Annamaria, but didn't know the details of how slavery was "phased out". It works very well in the backstory to The Idol of Mombasa.

    1. From AA: Thank you so much, Michael. I have seen it in your Kubu stories too. How that kind of real-life conflict between an ideal and an expedient puts our characters in a tough spot. Which, painful as that sometimes is for us, makes for a suspenseful story.