The Limits of Abolitionism: British Imperial Policy in Egypt

“We cannot admit rivals in the East or even the central parts of Africa . . . to a considerable extent, if not entirely, we must be prepared to apply a sort of Munro [sic] doctrine to much of Africa.” — Lord Carnarvon1

The original Monroe Doctrine initiated in 1824 prevented European interference in the American hemisphere, and particularly in the South American revolutions.  Only much later with Theodore Roosevelt’s amendment to Monroe did the doctrine come to be reinterpreted as the exclusive right of the United States to interfere in any country in that hemisphere.  Carnarvon’s cynical interpretation, then, is prescient.  But like the original Monroe doctrine, British policy in Africa needed an ethos that would justify interference in that continent.

The Anti-Slavery Campaign initially provided the most successful pretext for the extension of British influence in Africa.  British officers participated in campaigns to “stamp out slavery” and in the process extend the influence of Egypt, by that time a client state of the British, in the 1860s and 70s.  Anti-Slavery was consolidated as a war aim in the 1877 treaty between Egypt and Britain.

The Anti-Slavery Campaign in Africa

Following the victory of the Union forces in the American Civil War, the Atlantic slave trade dried up, leaving the North-Eastern African trade the exception.  British pressure on the Viceroy of Egypt intensified.  In 1865, Lord Russell instructed Sir Henry Bulwer, the General Consul, that he should impress “upon the Viceroy the deep interest of Her Majesty’s Government in the suppression of the slave trade . . . and . . . state that they will be happy at all times to cooperate with his Highness as far as it may be in their powers to do so in any measures having for their object the putting to a stop of this inhuman traffic.”2

Inhumanity, however, was by no means Britain’s overriding concern.  But presenting British policy in the humanitarian clothes of the Anti-Slavery Campaign had several advantages for Britain.  First it won support at home for an aggressive African policy.  Second it extended British influence through the extension of Egyptian control over slave-trading Africa.  And third it allowed Britain to regulate Egypt’s status in relation to “civilisation,” thereby dominating Egypt, too.

In the first instance the Anti-Slavery Policy was a response to the difficulties faced by European traders in the Sudan where native slave-traders controlled trade and the local authority in Khartoum.  Most had sold out to their Arab agents and withdrawn under the threat of rising violence around Bahr al-Jabal and Bahr al-Gazal.3

At first the problem of the slavers was seen less in moral terms than in terms of Egypt’s ability to guarantee stable trading in what was at that time an Egyptian province.  Not surprisingly the solutions suggested were of a similarly practical nature.  The British Consul General in Cairo, Petherick, got a military post on the White Nile, manned with a detachment of British soldiers who exacted a payroll tax on all merchants equivalent to a month’s salary for each servant.

By 1864 the element of Anti-Slavery had become more emphasised in the British campaign to force the Egyptians to maintain order.  The Royal Geographical Society presented a memorandum to the Foreign Office in 1864, saying that the British Government should encourage Isma’il, Khedive, 1863-79, to extend his authority to the regions of the Upper Nile taking over territory controlled by the slave traders, and to establish a principal station at Gondokoro as well as others along the White Nile: “One of the advantages to be derived from this would be the suppression of that infamous traffic at present carried on to an enormous extent upon the Upper Nile, and which the Egyptian government has declared itself anxious to suppress.”4

Britain found a useful front-man for the anti-slavery campaign in Sir Samuel Baker who had explored the eastern tributaries of the Nile in 1862 and Lake Mwitanzige, which he renamed Lake Albert, in 1864.  Baker’s reports on the extent of the slave trade presented to Isma’il (the “Ismailia”) were recognised for their propaganda potential.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby, after reading Baker’s “Ismailia,” wrote to Baker,

Whatever may happen about the slave trade your expedition cannot fail to have extended British influence in Egypt . . . I know nothing that is going on in the world just now so remarkable as the steady and rapid progress which we are making in opening-up Africa; and it is evident that the road must lie mainly through Egyptian territory.5

When the Prince of Wales paid an official visit to Egypt in 1969, he took Baker with him and suggested that Baker could be sent out to annex the region south of Gondokoro to Egyptian Sudan.6

Baker was appointed to the command of the Upper Nile Expedition by the Khedive Isma’il in March 1869, and as Governor-General of Equatoria for four years with the following instructions:

    1. to establish the authority of the Egyptian Government in the countries of the White Nile
    2. to suppress the slave trade
    3. to introduce a system of legitimate commerce
    4. to open to navigation the great lakes of the Equator, which form the principle sources of the Nile
    5. to establish a chain of military stations and commercial depots, distant at intervals of three days march throughout Central Africa.  Gondokoro is the base of operations
    6. By the annexation of these countries (which comprise the Nile basin of central Africa), the Egyptian Empire would extend from the Nile to the Mediterranean.

In addition, Baker obtained “the most absolute and supreme power, even that of death over all those who may compose the expedition,” as well as “over all those countries belonging to the Nile basin south of Gondokoro.”7

In the name of releasing people from slavery then, Baker was granted the power of life and death over the people of the Nile Basin.  To free slaves, Baker, on behalf of the Khedive, and ultimately on the behalf of the Khedive’s sponsor, Britain, set out to enslave a nation.  His salary was £10 000 pa.8  Historian Reda Mowafi notes that while Baker’s avowed motivation was to challenge the slave trade, and in all likelihood he was sincere in this aspiration, the Khedive, in his correspondence, refers only to a mission of annexation.9

Pleased with the success of the anti-slavery campaign in extending British influence through the extension of Egyptian territory, the British moved towards a more systematic programme.  This would culminate in the 1877 Anti-Slavery Convention.

Anti-Slavery Takes Form

While the effect of the anti-slavery policy seemed to rely upon a temporary coincidence of interests between Britain and the Khedive, in fact the British, by imposing conditions upon Egyptian rule, regulated their status as a civilised nation.  Baker, understood the implication for Egyptian sovereignty in his appointment:

The employment of a European to overthrow the slave-trade, in deference to the opinion of the civilized world, was a direct challenge and an attack on the assumed rights and necessities of his own subjects.10

In February 1874 General Gordon took over from Baker.  Gordon successfully pursued the policy of routing the slavers in Equatoria and first put flesh on the whole strategy.

First the extension of Egyptian power was premised upon the extension of European authority within the Egyptian forces.  Accordingly, the Khedive appointed a Swiss, Munzinger, as Governor of Massawa and the Red Sea in 1871; the Italian Gessi was appointed governor in Bahr al-Ghazal, to be succeeded by Lupton, a British merchant navy officer who had served under Gordon in Equatoria, in 1881; and in Dar Fur, an Austrian Rudolf Karl von Slatin became governor in 1881, after having been governor in Dara since 1879.  Gordon himself was Governor General of Sudan from 1877 to 1880.11

The campaign expanded Egyptian sovereignty exponentially.  Under the promise of ending slavery, Egypt annexed the Somali coast in 1877.  Earlier, in 1875 the Egyptian forces under McKillop were only prevented from seizing Zanzibar after the British pointed out that they already had an Anti-Slavery Treaty with the Zanzibaris.

The campaign was ratified with the August convention between the Egyptian administration and the British Government that agreed that trading would be stopped and all slaves freed by 1889.  Gordon wrote that Isma’il had only agreed to the convention as a “sop” to the “cries of his creditors,” that is the British Government, by this time majority shareholders in the Suez Canal Company.12  Freed with one hand, Africans were colonised with the other.


1  PRO 30/6/34, Carnarvon Papers — to Sir Bartle Frere, 12 December 1876, cited in Norman Etherington, “Frederick Elton and the South African Factor in the Making of Britain’s East African Empire,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 9.2 (1981) 255-74, at p. 267; and G. N. Sanderson, “European Partition of Africa: Origins and Dynamics,” Cambridge History of Africa Vol. 6, 1870-1905, eds. J. D. Fage and Roland Oliver, p 99.

2  Reda Mowafi, Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts in Egypt and the Sudan, 1820-1882, Lund Studies in International History, Scandinavian University Books, 1981.

3  Mowafi, p. 56.

4  Mowafi, p 61.

5  Mowafi, p. 67.

6 Magali Morsy, North Africa, 1800-1900: A Survey From the Nile Valley to the Atlantic, London: Longman, 1984, p. 226; and Pierre Crabitès, Gordon, the Sudan and Slavery, London: Routledge, 1933, p. 12.

7  Mowafi, p. 68.

8  Morsy, p. 226.

9  p. 68.

10  Qtd. in Thomas Archer, The War in Egypt and the Sudan, London: Blackie and Sons, 1886, Vol. 1, p. 123.

11  Morsy, p. 227.

12  FO (Cabinet Papers), 4619, Gordon to Northbrook 15/11/1881.

James Heartfield is the author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million Homes in the Next 10 Years (2006), The “Death of the Subject” Explained (2002), Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy (2000), and Need and Desire in the Postmaterial Economy (1998) among numerous other publications.

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