Slavery and Manumission: British Policy in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf in the First Half of the 20th Century.

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By: Jerzy Zdanowski

Publisher: Ithaca Press

Slavery and Manumission: British Policy in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf in the First Half of the 20th Century. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2013. $74.95. ISBN: 978-0863724381. eBK: $8.99. 1318 KB. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. ASIN: B00CLTRTNO.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Lynn Rigsbee, II, PhD

Central State University

Wilberforce, OH

Jerzy Zdanowski’s Slavery and Manumission: British Policy in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in the first half of the 20th Century contributes to the growing body of literature published since 2000 concerning the nature of slavery in the Middle East and Africa. This literature includes Kevin Grant’s A Civilized Slavery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926 (Rutledge, 2004), Kenneth Morgan’s Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America (Oxford, 2008) and The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights (Oxford, 2012) by Jenny S. Martinez. The above titles, though, are fairly broad in their focus, choosing to examine slavery from a macro-level. In contrast, Zdanowski’s examination of British policy toward slavery around the Arabian Peninsula is very much one of a micro-level analysis.

Zdanowski presents the reader with a work that is thoroughly researched. An analysis of his bibliography indicates his mastery of both primary and secondary material. This detailed analysis allows Zdanowski to present the individual stories of both the British civil servants involved in the policy of manumission and the various slaves that the policy was attempting to benefit. As he states in the preface: “The book is on slavery, manumission and British politics in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf in the first half of the 20th century. It presents these problems at the level of regional and international politics but also at the level of the everyday life of the slaves and the everyday work of British officials involved in the affairs of the region ” (p. xxix).

This is Zdanowski’s thesis and main strength. His work examines the role of various British agents, their relationships with various slave dealers and the efforts undertaken by specific representatives of the Crown to grant manumission. Zdanowski paints the canvas of his story with a fine brush. The struggle against slavery is examined is as government policy, along the Persian Gulf and in the Red Sea region. The reader is also provided with an overview of the status of slavery within the Arabian Peninsula at the dawn of the 20th century.

British policy was to oppose slavery in all of its manifestations. The manumission of all slaves was the long term goal of the Crown. Unfortunately, slavery had a long history within Islam. The Qur’an and reliable Hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad both permit slavery but also give honor to the owners that freed their slaves. Unlike the Uncle Tom’s Cabin image of slavery in the West, the institution was very complicated in the Muslim world. Yes, some slaves were little more than chattel, but many occupied trusted positions within the household of their owner. Thus, the British rarely interfered with domestic slavery. Instead, they focused upon the slave trade and freeing those slaves that were subject to verifiable mistreatment and deprivation.

Along the Persian Gulf, slavery was a fundamental component of the pearl diving business. Slaves caught up in the pearl business might come from Africa, Persia, or British India. In the case of the latter, manumission was easily obtained, but for others the situation proved more complicated.

Although most pearl divers were slaves in the Western since of the term, many were also what one might think of as indebted or indentured servants. Their status as a slave came, not from being born into the institution of slavery, but rather being deeply in debt. As noted, “The African population, mainly slaves, was engaged chiefly in the pearl diving industry and was indebted. An agreement had been in force since 1879, concluded by the sheikhs of the Trucial Oman, regarding the treatment of indebted divers absconding from one principality to another to evade debt” (p. 259).

Followed by “The main point was to determine whether a refugee Negro [Zdanowski’s term] was really a slave or just a fugitive from justice or debt. This had to be established properly before a certificate was granted (and not afterwards)” (p. 260).

Thus, slaves that were simply indebted were not granted a manumission certificate. In contrast, maltreatment, when proven, resulted in freedom for the slaves in the Persian Gulf.

Slavery was commonplace within the Red Sea region. Its existence was complicated due to several factors. First, many slaves were brought from the Sudan into the Arabian Peninsula through Jeddah. As the Sudan had been a British protectorate since the 1880s, individuals taken from that country could obtain a certificate of manumission from the British agent in Jeddah. This rapid action by the British contrasted with the generally slow response of the Sudanese government and the latter’s policy that “all slavery in the Sudan was to end in due course” (p. 172).

A second source of slaves in the Red Sea environ was Ethiopia (referred to as Abyssinia by Zdanowski). Raiding parties would capture people from Abyssinia, Eritrea and Somalia and bring them either to Yemen or Jeddah for sale. Once they were landed in Arabia, the captives were then mixed with those from the Sudan to be sold in the interior of Arabia, especially in the Najd. Adding to this illegal trade were individuals kidnapped during the Hajj, which was the third source of slaves. The large influx in individuals into Jeddah during the Holy Pilgrimage was simply too tempting for slave dealers to ignore. Zdanowski notes:

“The role of the pilgrimage in buying and selling slaves, especially children, was stressed many times in reports of the British Consuls at Jeddah. In 1925, a report was prepared by Consul Bullard, who explained that the stock of slaves in the Hijaz was very large… mainly from Abyssinia, but partly by the enslavement of Africans who came or where brought to the Hijaz on pilgrimage. It was not uncommon for a caravan of Nigerians or Sudanese travelling to or from Medina on foot to be raided by Bedouin…” (pp. 205-206).

Following his successful conquest of the Hejaz, Ibn Saud did sign the Treaty of Jeddah in 1927 with Great Britain. In Article 7, the king (Ibn Saud) “undertook to cooperate by all the means at his disposal with the British Government in suppression of the slave trade” (p. 217). This eventually made slavery and the slave trade unappealing in Jeddah, but the slavers simply moved their illegal activity to more remote areas of the coast. In the interior of Arabia, especially in the Najd among Ibn Saud’s most fanatical Wahhabi followers, the suppression the slave trade and manumission of slaves was little more than an illusion.

One leaves Zdanowski’s work informed, but also deeply disappointed, not in the level of research and presentation, but the fact that by 1950, even though the slave trade had all but vanished, slavery still was commonplace in the Arabian Peninsula. For, as Zdanowski notes, [the] “extinction of slavery as such was the secondary goal of British engagement in the region, although this goal was not achieved in the time under discussion” (pp. 321-322).

The conclusion that Zdanowski presents will provide the reader with an important body of information about both British policy and domestic politics in the Arabian Peninsula concerning slavery and the slave trade. This reviewer recommends the work for library adoption.

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