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Witness for the prosecution

This is a humdinger of a tale.

9 July 2011

12:00 AM

9 July 2011

12:00 AM

The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the African Slave Trade Alastair Hazell

Constable, pp.364, 16.99

This is a humdinger of a tale. You might have thought that journeys into the heart of the Dark Continent with David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and the likes of Richard Burton had already inspired so vast and breathless a literature that there were few surprises left to report. But that’s the miracle of this story. Alastair Hazell’s genius has been to plough through the huge and well-documented archive, follow his nose, and tell a tale from an entirely new perspective: the life of Dr John Kirk, an early companion to Dr Livingstone, and afterwards a humble Scottish medical officer and Acting British Consul in Zanzibar. In doing so he turns several accounts on their heads, rectifies a seriously skewed picture, rescues a reputation — and on every page enthralls his readers.

Three men stand indicted by this account: Livingstone himself, the journalist Stanley, and the felicitously named Sir Bartle Frere: the grandstanding opportunist who took credit for the ending of a colossal trade in slaves from Africa that continued — unbelievably — into my grandmother’s lifetime. The charges against these three are not new and nor, I shall submit, finally destructive. But, by golly, woven in a single narrative, they take your breath away.

As a young doctor-botanist on Livingstone’s idiotic Zambesi expeditions, Kirk, the most faithful and tenacious of all the missionary’s companions, began what became a lifetime’s study of the Arab-run and (often) Indian-financed slave trade which, centred upon the British-allied sultanate of Zanzibar, had flourished uninterrupted by the British-led abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1871, for instance, Kirk calculated that some 23,400 slaves had been ‘processed’ through Zanzibar (an offshore island controlling key hinterland on the East African coast) en route eastwards, some ten per cent dying on the way. The semi-autonomous India Office wanted nothing to do with interference in this; the Foreign Office had agonised for years; the British public, stirred to indignation by reports from men like Livingstone, were fitfully outraged; and the politicians dithered.

Meanwhile, quietly, diligently, almost obessively, Dr Kirk (who had been more or less beached in Zanzibar as stand-in Agent and Acting Consul, forever playing locum to his invalided absentee superiors) spent the better part of a decade lying low, collecting plants, gathering a wealth of statistics about the slave trade, and ingratiating himself with successive sultans and the local merchant community.

Anti-slavery campaigners from Britain came, fell sick, and went. Kirk never campaigned — in fact he hardly took sides. He just listened, noted and learned. He fast became an expert on one of the world’s most astonishing evils. If I mention that it was common practice for slavers, before mooring off Zanzibar, to throw into the sea slaves too sick to defray the customs duty levied per head, you will have a flavour of the horrors Hazell describes.

From afar, Livingstone occasionally fronted forays, but Kirk knew his old boss too well to expect more. The portrait of Livingstone painted here, as we follow Kirk on the missionary’s early, doomed expeditions up the Zambesi, is extraordinary — as are the parallels with Gordon Brown. Obsessive, clumsy, blundering, cruel, surly, uncommunicative, obstinate, paranoid — but to his very core a driven man — Livingstone lost the respect of every European who ever associated with him, except the loyal Kirk. That the ghastly American sensationalist, Stanley, should later turn on Kirk in pursuit of his own self-glorification and accuse him of neglecting Livingstone was an injustice from which Kirk’s standing never wholly recovered.

But Kirk cared little for glory. He was sweating it out on the African coast, visiting slave markets, tracking slave caravans and dhows, an apparently impartial witness to scenes of open, long-standing and systematic human brutality on so massive a scale that you will struggle to believe this was tolerated almost into our own time — and awaiting his moment.

His moment came (and this inspires me) courtesy of democracy: British voters were stirred to action — as their leaders had not been — by the accounts they read. Sir Bartle Frere, a fine orator and (in at least the political sense) man of action, capitalised on public indignation and persuaded the Foreign Secretary to let him lead a mission to bring Zanzibar to heel.

Sir Bartle failed — or, rather, was on the brink of failure when Kirk rescued the whole show. At this point The Last Slave Market turns into a thriller: a page-turner as the denoument approaches. By then (almost 1880), all sides in Zanzibar trusted Kirk, and Kirk knew all their secrets. Once Frere had sailed away, Kirk brokered the Sultan’s voluntary submission to the abolition of the trade; then, in a magnificant culmination of his slow-burning mission, marched up and down the African coast enforcing it.

In my armchair, reading late into the small hours, I found it hard not to cheer this retiring fellow who did his homework, kept his nerve, bit his lip and bided his time. But two cheers, too, for Dr Livingstone, for Sir Bartle Frere, and for the Victorian electorate. We need crazies, obsessives, power-seekers and show-offs. We need a sometimes inflammable public opinion. All are part of a necessary jigsaw. In this magnificent study of his hero, John Kirk, Alastair Hazell has identified the final, missing piece.

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