Sir John Kirk and the End of Slavery in Zanzibar
There were few places as strange to the intrepid foreigner in the mid 19th century as Zanzibar, even in an age when the whole continent of Africa held a jewel-like fascination for Europeans. The island was just off the continental coast but was truly a place apart. It had in effect been colonised and annexed before any Western interest in the place by an Arab dynasty from the north. The ruler of Oman, Seyyid Said, made the African island his capital in 1838 and brilliantly maintained his power through diplomacy with the British East India Company and a cannily managed business acumen. The Arab management of African slaves more than matched the newer European-sponsored slave trade operating in west Africa. Throughout Seyyid Said's rule it continued unabated and Zanzibar was its unashamed fulcrum, dispatching human cargo and attendant misery across the Indian Ocean. Alastair Hazell states that the mid-19th century population of the island was possibly 100,000, or which around half were slaves. Said had personally transformed his new centre of operations 'from a mere backwater, a slave market with a fort, to the largest and most prosperous trading city of the western Indian Ocean'.
Gold, ivory and gum copal were other products which flowed out of the continent via the island, but it was the process of the oldest institution on Zanzibar, the slave market outside the Customs House, which was the most outstanding element of that market place to outsiders; here described by the English traveller Sir Richard Burton. It was a place, he said:
where millions of dollars annually change hands under the foulest of sheds, a long, low mat-roof, supported by two dozen tree-stems... It is conspicuous as the centre of circulation, the heart from and to which twin streams of blacks are ever ebbing and flowing, whilst the beach and waters opposite it are crowded with shore boats.
The slave market was in the centre of town and here every year many thousands of bagham, untrained slaves, were tethered and publicly auctioned. In the mid-1850s, Hazell tells us, able-bodied young men could be bought for $4-$12 - 'about the prince of a donkey'. Girls and women were sold for sex, passed on many times via different owner/abusers. A premium was paid for 'exotics' from India or fair haired unfortunates from as far afield as the Caucasus.
The Boy from Barry
Step up John Kirk. The latest biographer of John Kirk - Alastair Hazell - makes the mistake of stating that Kirk was born in Barry, in Fife, when it is actually in Angus.This is a shame because his book, The Last Slave Market, is a well-researched account of this important figure who did much personally to end the intolerable anomaly of Zanzibar's slaving in a time when many cynically turned a blind eye to it. John was the third of his name in succession, following his grandfather (a baker) and father, who was born in St Andrews in 1795 (which perhaps explains Hazell's error). The Rev. Kirk was appointed minister of Barry in June 1824 and transferred to nearby Arbirlot in 1837. In the religious turmoil of the times he joined the Free Church and was minister of the Free Church in Barry from 1843 until his death in 1858. The minister was 'a man of cultivated mind, of a deportment becoming his high calling, and of a conversation that savoured of the things of Christ'. His wife was Christian Guthrie, daughter of the Rev. Alexander Carnegie, minister of Inverkeilor.
John Kirk as a young doctor.
The youngest John was he second of four children, born 19 December 1832 and must have inherited much of his iron-clad morality from his parents. The only other sibling who seems to have attained any prominence was his elder brother, Alexander Carnegie Kirk, born in 1830. He became a noted naval engineer, but unlike John did not take part in any kind of public life, dying in Glasgow in 1892.
The explorer's eldest brother.
Early Career and Into Africa
Kirk qualified as a doctor and went on to serve in the Crimea War in 1855. (His interest in botany was evident in Edinburgh, where he studied in the faculty of arts at first before switching to medicine.) Learning Turkish, he travelled widely in the Middle East, mainly pursuing botanical interests. His most significant appointment was that of a naturalist accompanying the famous David Livingstone on an expedition to east Africa in 1858. This second expedition of Livingstone's, exploring the Zambesi region, did not go entirely smoothly. Livingstone was no great communicator and preferred either his own company or that of native Africans. His brother Charles was also part of the party and was a more petty character than David, arguing with colleagues and dismissing some of them. Kirk generally got on tolerably well with Livingstone - both were doctors and of course Scots - and also accepted his plans and decisions even when these looked ill-judged and even foolhardy. But Livingstone, driven by instinct and his own demons, was at times looked upon as a madman by his younger colleague. On 18 April 1874 he was one of the pall-bearers who carried Livingstone's coffin into a funeral ceremony in Westminster Abbey. (This was despite the fact that Livingstone's chief mythologiser, Henry Morton Stanley, tried his damnedest to blacken's Kirk's name on the false basis that the doctor had not done all he could to assist the great man in his last expedition.)
John Kirk returned to Britain in 1863, but three years later he was back in a different part of Africa, appointed as a medical officer in Zanzibar. He soon became Assistant Consul and then Resident. He had been appointed Consul in 1873, succeeding Henry Adrian Churchill, who had been actively working towards the abolition of the slave market on the island. Churchill's health broke down to such an extent that Kirk advised him to return to the U.K. in 1870.
The final defeat of the slave trade in the island was accomplished by Kirk's astonishing guile and nerve. While the years in which he served primarily as a doctor in the consulate were quiet and he took no active part in public life or against slavery, there was one incident which marked him out as a risk taker. This was in 1866 when he joined in the successful attempt to smuggle the sultan's sister out of the territory. Seyidda Salme had become pregnant by a German and was at risk of death if she had remained in Zanzibar. For much of the time, Kirk pursued his own interests in Africa, collecting information about botany, trade, slavery, in an even handed and non-judgemental fashion. More of a pragmatist than the strange visionary Livinstone, he was caught between the rock and hard place of the British government and the East India Company, which often had differing ideas about slavery and much else. In 1873 he was put in an invidious position of receiving two contradictory instructions from London. The first ordered him in no uncertain terms to give the Sultan the ultimatum that he should close the slave market and cease all trade in slaves, or else the British government would blockade the island. The second order warned Kirk that no blockade was to be enforced, for fear that it would drive the territory to crave the protection of the French. Kirk only showed the first communication to the Sultan, with the result that Barghash caved in within two weeks and the slave market was closed forever.
Despite the best efforts of Kirk and his successors, slavery actually surreptitiously survived the closure of Zanzibar's public slave market. Special Commissioner Donald Mackenzie visited the island and its neighbour Pemba in the last decade of the 19th century and found that slavery was still flourishing in the agricultural estates:
In Zanzibar a good many people had been telling me how happy and
contented the Slaves were in the hands of the Arabs; in fact, they would
not desire their freedom. At Chaki Chaki I walked into a tumble-down
old prison. Here I found a number of prisoners, male and female,
heavily chained and fettered. I thought surely these men and women
must be dreadful criminals, or murderers, or they must have committed
similar crimes and are now awaiting their doom. I inquired of them all
why they were there. The only real criminal was one who had stolen a
little rice from his master. All the others I found were wearing those
ponderous chains and fetters because they had attempted to run away
from their cruel masters and gain their freedom— a very eloquent commentary on the happiness of the Slaves!
The British Consulate, Zanzibar.
Kirk's Later Years and Legacy
Kirk returned to Britain finally in 1886, settling in Kent. His awards included the K.C.M.G., G.C.M.G., K.C.B., plus the Patron's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. The welfare of Africa still concerned him and in 1889-90 he attended the Brussels Africa Conference as British Plenipotentiary. In later years John Kirk grew progressively blind but he maintained his interest in the natural world. He died at the age of 89 and was buried in St Nicholas's Churchyard in Sevenoaks. Among the tributes paid to him was one by Frederick Lugard, Governor General of Nigeria: 'For Kirk I had a deep affection which I know was reciprocated. He was to me the ideal of a wise and sympathetic administrator on whom I endeavoured to model my own actions and to whose inexhaustible fund of knowledge I constantly appealed.'
Substantial records survive concerning Kirk, including the journals he kept on the expedition with Livingstone, Apart from that there are his contributions and discoveries in zoology, biology, a substantial corpus of photographs(over 250). He maintained close connection with Kew Gardens until his death. The Kirk Papers have been secured for the future in the National Library of Scotland. As far as I know, there is no memorial to Sir John Kirk at Barry, but if not, there definitely should be.
Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Sir Barghash bin Sa'id (ruled 1870-1888).