The Public Humanist

Freedom Is Not Free: Examining the Abolition Process in Zanzibar

Zanzibar's Stone Town was host to one of the world's last open slave markets, now memorialized by this artwork that utilizes original slave chains.

Zanzibar’s Stone Town was host to one of the world’s last open slave markets, now memorialized by this artwork that utilizes original slave chains.

Abolition is often seen as the official end of slavery. In the context of the British Empire and its abolition movement, the 1807 Slave Trade Act and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act are frequently hailed as the major watersheds in the abolition movement.[1] However, this perspective skews the reality of abolition and the experiences of those who lived through it, and presumes that the conditions for enslaved persons and the contexts of slavery improved following British intervention and abolition legislation.

Take, for example, the history of slavery and abolition in the Islands of Zanzibar off the coast of present-day Tanzania. The hub of regional trade including slaves for well over a millennia, Zanzibar officially became a British Protectorate in 1890. If we more closely study the legal history of the abolition movement and its impact afterward, we can begin to understand abolition from the perspective of enslaved persons rather than the writers of its legislation. It reframes abolition as a progression over time during which a multitude of actors—slaves, slave holders, and abolitionists alike—influenced its development and experienced its implications firsthand. Enslavement and its legacies do not end with the illegalization of slavery.

Enslavement and its legacies do not end with the illegalization of slavery.

The 1897 Abolition Decree in Zanzibar, issued by Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed under strict guidance of the British Protectorate staff, was the culmination of prior abolitionist legislation and officially abolished the legal status of slavery. In drafting what would become the 1897 decree, British Consul General Arthur Hardinge stated that when the decree came into effect, any enslaved person could come to the established courts in order to “claim the rights of a free man.”[2] These rights, however, remained undefined and restricted only to a limited population capable of travel and possessing independent means of survival.

Moreover, the manner in which freedom was offered to enslaved persons forced them to bear the burden of their enslavement even after their enslavement was legally voided. If the person was enslaved illegally based on previous anti-slavery treaties and laws, the enslaved person would be emancipated without compensation to the owner. If the person was legally owned, however, the value of the enslaved person would be determined by the courts and compensation would be paid to the owner, but this fee for freedom was the exclusive responsibility of the freed person. [3]

In order to compensate the slave owner, the Zanzibar government was entitled to the unpaid labor of the recently freed person. The state was guaranteed a period of forced labor after which the freed person would become entirely free.[4] The location and type of work were to be determined by the Zanzibar government, which had the right to force the freed person to work on state projects and/or lease the labor rights of the freed persons to planters, merchants, and other individuals with preference given to the freed person’s previous master.[5] This period of time hindered the freed person’s ability to acquire significant wages to purchase or rent property independent of their master, which would impede their ability to rise out of the new ex-slave class. Obviously, what constituted as freedom to the parties involved, from enslaved persons to abolitionists to slave owners, varied widely.

The freed status of the enslaved person conferred little freedom in regards to property ownership and labor rights, which was a prerequisite to an individual’s social identity and ability to overcome the need for dependence on an owner or landlord. Even after gaining legally recognized freedom from the courts and serving the sentence to pay for the price of freedom, the freed person remained responsible for a hut tax—a combined fee for the hut and land occupied on the property of the landlord—that all but ensured their continued servitude.

Many women (as well as men) remained enslaved well after slavery in the British Empire was said to have been abolished.

The experience of abolition was even more ambiguous for enslaved women. The Abolition Decree of 1897 offered freedom to all enslaved persons, except for concubines.[6] Only those concubines who could provide signs of cruel treatment were eligible for freedom; however, this provision was rarely useful. Enslaved women could be forcefully defined as concubines to prevent them from receiving their freedom.[7] As such, many women (as well as men) remained enslaved well after slavery in the British Empire was said to have been abolished.

If we take a closer look at the legislation and legal histories surrounding abolition in any context, we are able to more accurately approximate the lived experience of enslaved persons during the abolition process. As is evident in Zanzibar’s own history of abolition in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the experiences of enslavement endure long after its abolition and the understanding of freedom and the rights it carries varies across time and space.

More so, it helps us understand how and why the legacies of enslavement continue to reverberate today, a topic worthy of study in all American classrooms.


[1] The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished slave trade in the Atlantic Ocean but did not abolish slavery. The act was primarily in response to the growing discontent with the transatlantic slave trade. It did not prevent the continuation of illicit and at times large-scale transportation of enslaved persons throughout the empire. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery within the British Empire but certain regions were exempt.

[2] George Curzon to Foreign Office, 24 Dec 1896, FO 881/6847, pg. 2, The National Archives of the UK.

[3] Curzon to Foreign Office, 24 Dec 1896.

[4] Curzon to Foreign Office, 24 Dec 1896.

[5] Curzon to Foreign Office, 24 Dec 1896.

[6] “The Abolition Decree, Zanzibar, 1897,” in Frederick Cooper, From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925 (New Haven: Yale University Press): 296.

[7] Herbert Armitage, “The Story of Msichoke: October 3rd, 1902,” The Friend (1902).

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