A gripping study
By Dr R. Balashankar
The Last Slave – Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End he African Slave Trade, Alastair Hazell, Constable and Robinson Ltd, Pp 352 (HB), £ 16.99
The Africans were the sellers and the Arabs were the buyers. The trade went on for centuries till it was declared illegal and it continued on the sly, right up to the middle of the 20th century, before it completely died. The trade we are talking about is of humans. Men, women and children, manacled, confined in small spaces, tortured, starved and sexually abused changing hands for a few dollars, and at times even a few shillings.
Zanzibar, an archipelago on the Indian Ocean in East Africa, was the centre of the slave trade. It was the dispatch point. When the British entered the scene to colonise Africa, slave trade was at its peak. The British played along. But in the early part of nineteenth century, slave trade was declared illegal. And the British India was charged with ending it.
One man, the British Consul, who was a doctor and botanist fought a long and hard battle. He was John Kirk. Sent to the region with an ambiguous mandate and little power, he made Zanzibar his home, taking his young wife there and raising a family of four children.
The Last Slave Market by Alastair Hazell is a story of Kirk as much as the politico-economic history of the human trade. A typical transaction was like this: “The journey north usually took two days, and the slaves, packed in tight rows, were given water but little else, and often arrived in desperate condition. The long march to the coast had taken months and had left its mark. Afterwards, cooped in barracoons in the marshy, malarial country at Kilwa, many became sick, and when they were delivered at the Zanzibar waterfront, they were emaciated, and often traumatized by the long ordeal. Wrenched from their homes, physically abused, and sold and bought many times, they had little sense of where they were or what was expected of them… The women, deprived of their children, were constantly raped on the trail.”
The trauma did not end there. Once at their destination, they were segregated, the women, the able bodied young men fetched the highest price followed by children. The old and the weak were left in the streets and markets to beg or die. The selected ones went through ‘internship’ when the older slaves abused them and ‘prepared’ them for what was expected of them.
Europe had used slaves for over three centuries and Africa, especially the east, had been the source of supply. Kirk wrote to the British authorities to strengthen his position and send some help to tackle the illegal slave trade. But the empire had her own reasons to tread cautiously. Political apple cart that cannot be upset, meaning the traders and the buyers could not be antogonisied. It was illegal but then it was perfectly legal in Arab, it was said.
In 1869 Kirk wrote that the cholera had killed seven thousand people in thirty days. The prices dipped because people did not want to “invest” in a risky proposition. It plummeted to the level that a dozen were being offered for fifty shillings, failing to find a buyer. Kirk documented everything. In this depressing atmosphere he took to his first love botany and put in lot of work into it. He recorded his experiments, his conversations with natives and visitors and the scenes he witnessed.
David Livingstone, legendary medical missionary and anti-slavery activist, who lived long in and travelled over Africa described a scene in his diary dated 28 July 1867 “Slavery is a great evil wherever I have seen it. A poor old woman and child are among the captives; the boy, seems to be a mother’s pet: his feet are sore from walking in the sun. He was offered for two fathoms, and his mother for one fathom: he understood it all, and cried bitterly, clinging to his mother. She had,of course, no power to help him; they were separated at Karunga afterwards.”
The slave market story narrated by Hazell is poignant, disturbing and shameful. That it happened till less than a century ago, when scientific temper was gripping the world adds disgrace to the human race. Donkeys and camels fetched more value than men and women who were sold and bought with absolute lack of dignity. Kirk was among those few men who chose to be on the spot and do his bit to finish the practice. His success or failure should not be measured in terms of the goals he achieved but in terms of his intention and commitment. This is a book that will cause unease in the mind, but needs to be read.
(Constable and Robinson Ltd3 The Lanchesters, 162 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 9ER)