Britain’s Ineffectual Efforts to Suppress the Slave Trade

Dr Mark Hobbs

Author

Gulf History Specialist, British Library
Great Britain abolished the slave trade in its Empire in 1807, yet not only did it persist in the Gulf into the latter half of the nineteenth century, it flourished amid ineffectual British efforts towards its suppression.

A flourishing slave trade between the East African coast and the Gulf was one of a number of challenges that Captain Felix Jones, who held the post of Resident in the Gulf through the Anglo-Persian War and Indian Rebellion, had to face. But why did the slave trade – which was one of Britain’s principal preoccupations in the Gulf – cause so much consternation for Jones? And why were British officials grossly unprepared for the challenges the region’s slave trade presented?

Britain justified its naval presence in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula as necessary to maintain the maritime peace. In practice, this meant preventing any acts of maritime hostility, and intercepting and seizing any boats found carrying illicit goods, and in particular slaves. However, Britain’s naval actions against the slave trade were frequently ineffective. Correspondence regarding the slave trade, sent and received by Jones – who could be a forthright and sometimes tactless Resident – reveal the extent of the issues British Government and naval officials faced.

Inadequate Treaties

It was clear to naval officers in the Indian Navy’s Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. Squadron, and British officials at Bushire and Teheran, that the existing slave trade suppression treaties between the British Government, the Persian Government and the various Arab sheikhdoms were limited in scope and open to abuse. Moreover, Britain’s treaties restricted their intervention to seagoing vessels only, meaning that they could not interfere with slaves or their abductors once they had landed at a port.

The ambiguity of the slave trade treaties led to incidents like that of November 1858, in which British naval officials hesitated to stop and search a vessel moored off Bushire, that was suspected of carrying slaves, for fear that they would be contravening international law.

Extract of a letter sent by Captain Felix Jones, Resident in the Persian Gulf, to H. L. Anderson, Secretary to the Government in Bombay, November 1858. IOR/R/15/1/177, ff. 18–19
Extract of a letter sent by Captain Felix Jones, Resident in the Persian Gulf, to H. L. Anderson, Secretary to the Government in Bombay, November 1858. IOR/R/15/1/177, ff. 18–19

Lack of Appropriate Resources

The second significant problem facing British officials in the Gulf was the simple fact that the Indian Navy did not deploy sufficient numbers of vessels to address the slave trade. More often than not, no more than one or two vessels could be spared for patrolling the coastal waters, in spite of the fact that British officials knew precisely when trading boats returned from Africa to the Gulf, aided by the monsoon winds, each year.

On 25 April 1857 Jones wrote that his desire to ‘detach a vessel of war occasionally to intercept boats from Zanzibar had been utterly defeated’. The following year Jones complained again: ‘it has not hitherto been in the power of the Government to spare vessels, either efficient in number or of the class that is needed to uproot the human traffic’.

Extract of a letter sent by Captain Felix Jones, Resident in the Persian Gulf, 25 April 1857. IOR/R/15/1/168, f. 34
Extract of a letter sent by Captain Felix Jones, Resident in the Persian Gulf, 25 April 1857. IOR/R/15/1/168, f. 34

The problem was further compounded by the fact that most of the vessels in the Indian naval fleet were completely unsuited to the treacherously shallow waters of the Gulf coast. In a letter dated 17 November 1858, Jones wrote that it was with the ‘greatest reluctance considering the inefficiency of the Squadron for general duty in this Gulf’, that he had to despatch the brigantine Tigris – the only vessel in the Gulf capable of navigating shallow coast waters – for service to Bombay (IOR/R/15/1/177, f. 51).

A Lack of Commitment?

A lack of sufficient resources for addressing the slave trade was evident at the slave ‘depot’ at Bassidore (Basaidu) on Kishm (Qeshm) island, where liberated slaves were held until they could be returned to their homes or repatriated elsewhere. Jones had sanctioned expenses for the construction of buildings at Bassidore to house liberated slaves in July 1856. A little over a year later, in November 1857, he complained of the depot being in a ‘ruinous and inefficient condition’. Eighteen months later, in July 1859, Jones wrote to the Commander-in-Chief of the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. Squadron, stating that he had decided to abolish the appointment of a European slave agent at Bassidore, in light of there being too few slaves kept at the depot.

Extract of a letter sent by Captain Felix Jones, Resident in the Persian Gulf, to H. L. Anderson, Secretary to the Government in Bombay, 18 November 1857. IOR/R/15/1/171, ff. 196–99
Extract of a letter sent by Captain Felix Jones, Resident in the Persian Gulf, to H. L. Anderson, Secretary to the Government in Bombay, 18 November 1857. IOR/R/15/1/171, ff. 196–99
Bassidore Station, c.1870
Bassidore Station, c.1870

Jones’s frustrations were understandable. During the seven years that he spent at Bushire, there was little significant improvement made to the resources he had at hand to fight the slave trade; resources that he called ‘feeble’ and in a ‘neglected state’, but which were still capable of producing ‘fruitless’ results in 1859. Jones’s frustrations indicate the extent to which Britain’s efforts to close down the human traffic in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf during this period were mixed at best, and hopelessly ineffectual at their worst.

Letter number 168 from Commander Felix Jones, Acting Resident in the Persian Gulf, to Henry Anderson, Secretary to the Government of Bombay, 26 May 1856. IOR/R/15/1/157, ff. 193–200
Letter number 168 from Commander Felix Jones, Acting Resident in the Persian Gulf, to Henry Anderson, Secretary to the Government of Bombay, 26 May 1856. IOR/R/15/1/157, ff. 193–200