Idle Musings on Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Arab Slave Trade

Here again the Demon of Slavery will reign over a solitude of his own creation. Can it be, that, by some inexplicable law, where Nature has done her best for the happiness of mankind, man, doomed to misery, must work out his own unhappiness?

The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Volume I, p. 85.

I didn’t learn about the Arab Slave Trade in school. I don’t remember the Arab Slave Trade ever being the subject of any conversation I’ve ever been involved in, until recently, when I’ve started a few such conversations. Slavery, in modern times at least, seemed to always be assumed to be something White People made happen.

The other night I finished reading Sir Richard Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration. Sir Richard Burton, the eccentric Nineteenth Century British explorer, not Richard Burton (CBE) the eccentric Twentieth Century British actor. The adventures of Burton and his rarely named “companion”, John Hanning Speke, read alternately like a dull economic travelogue, an extremely extended and excessively juvenile Monty Python sketch, a presentation and presumption of accuracy of the racist Hamitic Hypothesis, and, dissonantly, a lament for the tragic state of the people of East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. As well, for a moment, Burton’s book is a sketch of a plan to eliminate slavery in the region. Clearly Burton was a conflicted fellow in a conflicted time, in East Africa, a terribly conflicted place in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

A particular incident of Burton’s journey has haunted me, as it seems to have haunted Burton — he mentions it twice in his book:

The Kirangozi or Mnyamwezi guide, who had accompanied the Expedition from the coast, remained behind, because his newly-purchased slave-girl had become foot-sore, and unable to advance; finding the case hopeless, he cut off her head, lest of his evil good might come to another.

Volume II, pp. 161-2

This indescribably horrible and likely oft repeated moment came at a time when there were perhaps a half dozen Europeans on the mainland of East Africa, at a time when the internal and Arabian slave trade had continued for untold generations. This was a developed, agricultural society whose economy was driven almost completely by the internal marketing and exporting to Arab lands of slaves and, to a lesser extent, the export of elephant ivory across the Indian Ocean. I can’t help but think that at that moment, unlike almost any other time in White, Upper Class, British, Victorian Burton’s life, there was no such thing as Race. In that moment, there was only Good and Evil, and Burton was seeing the Horror of Evil. Yes, that is a Heart of Darkness reference.

But what could Burton do? The Arab Slave Trade in East Africa was at least 1000 years old. It had been 700 years old when the European Transatlantic Slave Trade began. Burton was almost alone. To hear Burton describe him, his companion, Speke, wasn’t much better than useless. And they were lone Europeans, both very ill, in an extremely violent slaving society which saw them as nothing but (possibly) wealthy interlopers whose lives were worth nothing more than their merchandise that might be bought or stolen.

Burton stayed silent on that bloody path on that bloody day. The foot-sore young woman died, unnamed and unremembered but for Burton’s written memorial.

But, long before Burton ever laid eyes on the poor victim, he was campaigning in his way to end the slave trade in East Africa. Although he had almost died on an earlier journey, speared through the face at the hands of Somali warriors, he wrote home from a ship off the coast with concern for the people he had met and was yet to meet and a suggestion of a military/diplomatic remedy:

By means of two such steamers we shall, I believe, be prepared for any contingencies which might arise in the Red Sea; and if to this squadron be added an allowance for interpreters and a slave approver in each harbour, in fact a few of the precautions practised by the West African Squadron, the slave-trade in the Red Sea will soon have received its deathblow, and Eastern Africa its regeneration at our hands.

From a letter from R. F. Burton, sent to the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, from HEIC Sloop-of-War Elphinstone, 15 December 1856, reprinted in Appendix 2 of The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration, Volume II, p. 428.

His letter was not well received:

From H. L. Anderson, Esquire, Secretary to Government, Bombay, to Captain R. F. Burton, 18th Regiment Bombay N. I.

Dated the 23rd July, 1857.
Sir, — With reference to your letter, dated the 15th December, 1856, to the address of the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of London, communicating your views on affairs in the Red Sea, and commenting on the political measures of the Government of India, I am directed by the Right Honourable the Governor in Council to state, your want of discretion, and due respect for the authorities to whom you are subordinate, has been regarded with displeasure by Government.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most obedient Servant,

(Signed) H. L. Anderson,
Secretary to Government
Bombay Castle, 23rd July, 1857.”

Volume II, p. 428

It seems the British government had little stomach for interfering with Indigenous and Arab affairs in East Africa, and certainly not in playing the long game Burton had proposed.

But Burton continued. His book about his travels to the Lake Region is certainly a travel narrative, but Burton devotes a remarkable proportion of his tale to description of the economic and political facts and potentials of the region. These details may at first seem to be gathered as a guide to colonial exploitation of East Africa, for example when Burton suggests a Biblical/genetic basis for the European colonial urge to build railroads:

For long centuries past and for centuries to come the Semite and the Hamite have been and will be contented with human labour. The first thought which suggests itself to the sons of Japhet is a tramroad from the coast to the Lake regions.

Volume II, p. 411.

But Burton makes clear a few pages later what his true goal is:

To conclude the subject of commerce in East Africa. It is rather to the merchant than to the missionary that we must look for the regeneration of the country by the development of her resources. The attention of the civilized world, now turned towards this hitherto neglected region, will presently cause slavery to cease; man will not risk his all in petty and passionless feuds undertaken to sell his weaker neighbour ; and commerce, which induces mansuetude of manners, will create wants and interests at present unknown. As the remote is gradually drawn nigh, and the difficult becomes accessible, the intercourse of man — strongest instrument of civilisation in the hand of Providence — will raise Africa to that place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded.

Volume II, p. 419

This is nothing other than a manifesto of economic development and globalisation as tools to give all people a hand up to greater welfare, happiness, and self-sufficiency. Some might argue that it is also a recipe for colonial exploitation, but exploitation is clearly not the dish Burton dreams of cooking up. “That place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded” is an aspirational phrase that ranks alongside any of the great Declarations of the United Nations. Perhaps Burton is expressing some paternalism, but nothing in the final sentiments of The Lake Regions of Africa smacks of colonial exploitation.

Burton returned to Britain after this journey with his health shattered. After a heroic series of dangerous adventures in Arabia, Asia, and finally Africa, he never made another journey of exploration more dangerous than a brief visit to Brigham Young’s Salt Lake City. He took a series of uneventful diplomatic postings and turned his attention to writing and translating works from some of the dozens of languages in which he had become fluent. Thirty years after the death of the footsore young lady on that path in East Africa, Burton died at the age of sixty-nine. The slave trade on the island of Zanzibar was abolished seven years later.

In 1953, almost a century after Burton witnessed the beheading of a tired young woman, slaves were part of the Qatari delegation to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Mauritania, in Northwest Africa, banned slavery in 2007.

And I was pretty much unaware of the Arab Slave Trade until I read The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Thank you, Sir Richard Francis Burton, for enlightening me.

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