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Slavery – the scourge of Africa

Slavery – the scourge of Africa

A slave gang in Zanzibar
A slave gang in Zanzibar
Mary Evans

To understand why Livingstone was so disturbed to discover commercial slavery in East Africa in 1860 you need an appreciation of the time line of  the slave trade on the continent. The British had passed the Wilberforce Act in 1807 which outlawed the international trade in slaves and sent the Royal Navy to blockade the west coast of Africa to enforce this edict.

What Livingstone had stumbled upon is that for reasons of political expedience, the British had never enforced this ban on Africa's east coast since the trade there was run by the Sultan of Oman, who was a key ally in the Middle East. In fairness to the British, in 1807 the market in Zanzibar was small, supplying domestic slaves to the Middle East, but by the 1860s sugar cane plantations had sprung up all over the Indian Ocean islands and these plantations were sourcing their labour out of East Africa at a rate of 45,000 souls a year.

Livingstone was horrified at this discovery but was even more incensed by the fact that it was taking place under the nose of the British Government, which had simply turned a blind eye to what was going on. He believed that once the public learned what was happening, they would force the government to tackle this issue - but he had underestimated the damage done to his reputation by the failure of the Zambezi Expedition.

No one in Britain was the slightest bit interested in what Livingstone had to say on this topic or any other! He spent two fruitless years travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles trying to raise awareness, before finally resolving on a desperate course of action. At the age of 55 he approached the Royal Geographic Society to volunteer his services to lead an expedition to East Africa, believing that from Africa he would be able to focus more attention on the slave trade. By 1868 he was back in Africa.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)

Read more on David Livingstone from the Zambezi Traveller:
The Life of David Livingstone - Part VI: David Livingstone – the final journey (ZT14, Sept 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part V: Dr Livingstone, I presume? (ZT13, July 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part IV: The dream to open up Africa (ZT12, March 2013)
Slavery – the scourge of Africa (ZT12, March 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part III: David Livingstone’s early missionary years and first expedition (ZT11, Dec 2012)
The ‘discovery’ of Victoria Falls (ZT11, Dec 2012)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part II: David Livingstone – the training (ZT10, Sept 2012)
The life and times of David Livingstone – the Sunday schoolboy (ZT10, Sept 2012)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part I: The ‘Scramble for Africa’ (ZT09, July 2012)
The story of quinine (ZT09, July 2012)