In the area between Lake Tanganyika and the coast, Arab or Afro-Arab traders had established small communities, with their two centres at Tabora and, on the east coast of the lake, at Ujiji. From there, in the 1880s, A. J. Swann – a Protestant missionary – wrote: “The Arab system extended to great distances, and octopus-like, grasped every small unprotected village community, making the whole country a vast battlefield wherein no one was safe outside the stockades”. A Catholic missionary, visiting the slave market at Ujiji in 1888, found a large square, bordered by mud huts, that was crowded with slaves, joined by cords or chains in long lines, and with others, revealing signs of starvation, in the streets. Nearby was a cemetery where the dying as well as the dead were left for the hyenas. Among the most notorious of the Afro-Arab slavers was Tippu Tip, who had by the late 1860s established himself west of Lake Tanganyika. Added to the multitude of slaves who died during the raiding were those who perished in the journey to the coast. On his way to Lake Tanganyika, Mr. Swann encountered Tippu Tip’s caravan, with slaves who had already journeyed 1,000 miles from the Upper Congo and had an additional 250 miles to go. They were chained by the neck in long files, some of them in six-foot forks, and with many of the women bearing babies on their backs. They were in a filthy condition, and many of them were scarred by the cuts of the whip. In the two-hundred-mile crossing of Lake Tanganyika, slaves were so closely packed in canoes that some of them died. Frequently, slaves who could not keep up with the pace of the caravan were left to die of starvation or were summarily shot. The skeletons that were visible alongside the tracks in the interior easily identified routes favoured by slave traders.
The rewards of the slave trade overwhelmed any religious inhibitions that some of the traders and other beneficiaries might have had. For the slavers themselves, after all material costs had been subtracted, profits were estimated at over 60 percent, and substantially higher for those who traded also in ivory. Indeed, the ivory and slave trades were closely connected. Slaves carried the ivory to the coast, though few in Europe would have given much thought to the likelihood that the ivory of their piano keys, billiard balls, and knife handles had come to them in this way.
The mainly Muslim Indian merchants and bankers, who provided credit in goods or cash for the caravans in expectation of a suitable return, certainly found the business profitable enough to continue risking their investment in it. The Sultan of Zanzibar himself derived a quarter of his annual income from the proceeds of the slave trade. The profit chain reached farther, to the markets of the importing countries, and the shipments there often involved additional horrors and suffering. From Zanzibar, by way of Lamu, it was two thousand miles to the Red Sea, and to the Persian Gulf, twelve hundred miles. Many dhows carried inadequate supplies of food and water so as to cram more slaves into the available space. Brutality in capturing and transport of slaves seemed to increase in proportion to the pressure exerted, chiefly by Britain, against the trade. This, in turn, only heightened such pressure, which conveniently provided British imperial expansion with a moral pretext.
In Uganda, Arab or Afro-Arab traders reached the kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro in the second half of the nineteenth century. There, they found large supplies of slaves and were soon transporting up to an estimated four thousand of them a year to the coast. A British treaty with the Baganda in 1892 prohibited raiding as well as trading slaves. With the declaration of the Uganda protectorate in 1894, the status of slavery itself was abolished. The Bunyoro Kingdom kept an extensive trade in slaves in exchange for arms and ammunitions. Not even a British military expedition against the capital of the kingdom put an end to it.
In the more remote areas of Kenya, near Lake Turkana, slaving parties from the coast were active in the 1890s, engaging in expeditions that lasted a year at a time. Traders would form a temporary partnership, each of them supplying porters, themselves often slaves, and together they would acquire trade goods on credit from Indian merchants. At the head of the caravan, a guide would carry a white flag emblazoned with phrases from the Koran, which was believed to possess extraordinary power. At the end of the expedition, the profits were distributed among the partners according to the investment each had contributed. With the advent of the British East African Protectorate, in 1895, most of the slave trade in the region ended, though that from the northeast to the Somali coast continued until well into the twentieth century.
By the early 1880s, Arab and Afro-Arab raiders were operating from the western shore of Lake Malawi and extensively in the region of the Upper Zambezi. They captured young girls, fomented inter-tribal conflicts, and traded for slaves with local chiefs. The raiders kept a consistent fleet on the northern half of the lake. The southern half of the lake fell under the control of an Asian slaver who could count on boats and a five hundred men strong army that ranged the country for slaves. Operating from fortified strongholds, this force was safe against all but a considerable military expedition. From the southern shore of Lake Malawi caravans of slaves reached the northern stretch of the Mozambican coast, where the authorities normally ignored them.
In 1891, Harry Johnston was appointed Commissioner of the territories under British influence north of the Zambezi River. He was specifically charged to end the slave trade by all legitimate means. It took him several years to clear the slavers and their stockades from the lake region, and it was only in December 1895 that his forces assaulted the stronghold of Mlozi and captured him. Mlozi was an Afro-Arab who operated to the north-west of Lake Malawi from 1880 to 1895. During this time, he busied himself with attacking villages and capturing slaves, especially among the Nkode. Their villages were all burned, and the survivors fled to caves or remote parts of the mountains. After the military defeat, in the presence of Nkonde chiefs and almost six hundred liberated slaves, Johnston had Mlozi hanged. The legal status of slavery in Zanzibar and Pemba ended in 1897, when the Sultan signed a decree to that purpose. The decision was extended to the mainland ten years later. Slavers from Muscat and Arabia took to kidnapping children on the beaches of the islands and smuggling them in canoes onto dhows farther out to sea. As late as the 1960s, East African port authorities were still enforcing regulations limiting the numbers considered reasonable for crews on varied sizes of dhows. Indeed, slavery has never ended.
Mepukori ole Karam