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Africa during the Scramble: The Asian Empire

By Gary Oswald

The Flag of the Sultanate of Oman

There were eight European Empires involved in the Scramble. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and the UK. The great losers of those 8 were the Ottoman Empire of Turkey who started the 19th century as the largest foreign power in the continent with nominal control from Morocco to Eritrea but saw its African departments grow more and more independent and eventually lost them to the other empires. By 1914, they were removed from the Continent entirely. The Ottoman Empire were not angels and they were responsible for their share of atrocities in Africa but their retreat removed an important counterweight to the Christian Europeans. A timeline where they still had complete control over their African lands would probably slow down the scramble.

There were other foreign powers to lose their land in Africa rather than increase it during the 19th century, too. The most famous of those would be the Dutch Empire who started the Napoleonic Wars with large colonies in South and West Africa but would cede both to the British in 1806 and 1872 respectively. The Boer Republics formed by the Dutch settlers of South Africa would be completely politically independent from the Netherlands though contemporary maps often still coloured them as Dutch colonies. A scramble in which the Netherlands remained a player in African politics would be very different simply from the effects of removing the Anglo-Boer struggles in Southern Africa.

And there are other countries who had taken land in Africa and could have grown from there but didn’t stick around in OTL. Mostly in these cases you’re looking at European countries attempting to get into the Atlantic Slave Trade and who acquired both a Caribbean island to grow sugar and African forts to buy slaves in. Countries to attempt this would include Denmark, Sweden, Courland and Semigallia, a Polish vassal state in modern day Latvia, and what was still then known as Brandenburg-Prussia. None of these Baltic countries saw the profits they were expecting and they all eventually lost their forts. Sweden to the Danish in 1663, Courland to the English in 1664, Prussia to the Dutch in 1720 and, finally, Denmark to the UK in 1850. Though Prussia, of course, would be back as part of a unified Germany. In the same way Italian interest in North Africa pre-empted unification with Sicily and Genoa in particular owning parts of the Barbary Coast before losing them as for that matter did the Knights of Malta.

Malta however was unlikely to become a major power. And to an extent owning a part of Africa during the scramble became the sign that you were a major power. This was after all why Italy and Germany felt the need to take their own colonies, to prove that they were one of the big boys now. In all of the major powers who didn’t have African colonies, there were demands that they acquire some while some were still available. Russian Cossacks attempted to set up a colony in Djibouti before the French complained to the Tsar and they were withdrawn. Brazil sounded out the possibility of getting some African Colonies during their divorce with Portugal before the British made it clear they wouldn’t allow it.

Austria too was often sounded out as a possible patron and protector for traders in Africa to the point that during the American Revolution, Maputo in Mozambique was displaying the flags of the Holy Roman Empire and claiming to be a part of the Free City of Trieste. In the USA the demand for African land was tied up in the Back to Africa movement. The idea was if the USA had an African colony, they could send all their black people there and so solve their racial tensions. This did happen in Liberia but was done by private companies rather than the US government due to disagreements in the senate over the feasibility of government led overseas imperialism.

It would be entirely possible for Scandinavia, Russia, the USA, Austria and Brazil to become players in an Alternate Scramble. But in OTL none would be as influential as an oft overlooked imperial power which dominated Eastern African Politics for centuries, the only Asian Imperialist power in Africa during the 19th century. The Sultanate of Oman.

When the Portuguese arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1497 they found Muslim traders moving goods up the East African Coast, across Arabia and Persia and from India and Indonesia. The Portuguese attacked them at all these points, capturing cities and forcing new deals upon their rulers. In this way they were able to acquire their own riches and cut out the Republic of Venice’s merchants who had traditionally dominated the Asian trade by buying goods from the Muslims and selling it to Western Europe. In 1505 the Kilwa Sultan of modern day Tanzania, the leader of the most powerful Empire on the Swahili Coast, was overthrown and replaced by a puppet. In 1507, Muscat in Oman was also captured by the Portuguese. Muslim forces, seeing their monopoly broken, attempted to fight back with the Mamluk rulers of Egypt and the Ottoman Turks both building Navies in the Indian Ocean but for both nations it was a sideshow, their true ambition was in the Mediterranean.

Fort Al-Jalali, built by the Portuguese to defend Muscat. Picture taken by Andries Oudshoorn and shared under the CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

The Ottomans did attack Muscat on three occasions but each time the Portuguese reconquered the city once they left. It was the Omanis themselves who would take Muscat back for good in 1650 and over the next 50 years they would follow that up by attacking Portuguese cities elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. Their advances into India itself were mostly unsuccessful, they were gifted the port of Gwadar by the Emir of Sindh but were repeatedly repulsed while attempting to capture the city of Diu. In Africa they had more success, capturing a series of key towns in modern Kenya and Tanzania and driving the Portuguese down to Southern Mozambique. Here they began to rebuild the Muslim trade of the pre Portuguese era, and Ivory, Gold and Slaves began to flow once more into Arabia through Oman.

At the time the most important city on the coast, due to the decline of Kilwa, was Mombasa in Kenya which the Omanis besieged for two years before capturing it. The island of Zanzibar was much less important, at this point it was largely a backwater, and it was captured mostly just to stop its Queen supplying the Portuguese defenders in Mombasa. The fact that Zanzibar itself had been more loyal to Portugal than a lot of the Swahili cities, which had called in the Omani to help them, meant that Oman could be more vigorous at dispossessing the African land owners in the island and creating a purely Arabic aristocracy.

The 18th century however was a difficult one for Oman and, as the homeland struggled with Civil War and invasion by Persia under Nader Shah, the African cities began to become more and more independent (the same thing happened to the remaining Portuguese lands in Mozambique who also largely did whatever they wanted with no control from Lisbon). Mombasa in particular was constantly acting against Muscat’s interest, even briefly joining the British Empire in a failed attempt to ward off Omani retaliation. The much more trustworthy Zanzibar, due its more Omani elite, became the more important trading post as a result.

As Oman recovered from its troubles, it was firmly established as the hegemon of East African trade by the early 19th century. This is when you start seeing the Swahili cites start distancing themselves from the inland Africans they were enslaving and creating, false, origin stories that cast themselves as Arabic or Persian settlers rather than African, something which would be used against them in the post-colonial era. It was also when you start seeing the first half-hearted British attempts to end Omani trade in slaves, something hampered both by how important the Omani Trade was to British India and the general view that what Muslims did wasn’t really a British problem.

The Fort in Zanzibar as of 2011. Photograph taken by Muhammad Mahdi Karim and shared under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License 1.2

Zanzibar became increasingly economically important to Oman due to the fact that cloves, previously constrained to Indonesia, started being grown there. As a result instead of Arabic Dhows arriving in Zanzibar to trade and then leaving, more and more Arabs began to settle in Zanzibar where they ran slave plantations growing Cloves to sell. These slave plantations became the core of the Omani economy and in 1840 the Sultan of Oman moved his Court and Capital to Zanzibar from Muscat so he could be at the heart of his realm and closer to his own plantations, which were the source of his private fortune.

But there were still only around 5,000 Omanis in Zanzibar. The rest of its residents consisted of several hundred thousand African slaves or freed slaves with around another 4,000 Indian workers (whose status as British subjects would be used by the UK to justify interference in the Sultanate) and a few hundred European traders and Diplomats. Zanzibar was the economic hub of the Empire but the military hub was still in Arabia, which was where the Omani armies were.

Thus when the British resolved a succession dispute in 1856 by rewarding one potential Sultan control of Muscat and Oman and the other Zanzibar and Africa thus splitting the Empire it weakened Zanzibar’s military position severely. Officially Zanzibar controlled most of East Africa but in practice their writ didn’t go far beyond their capital. They had a single house in Mogadishu for their governor but no real control of the Somali Clans beyond that, though they still sold their rights to Somalia to Italy for quite a bit of money. Mombasa, typically rebellious, attempted to play Muscat and Zanzibar off each other. Likewise the many slaving and trading expeditions into inland Africa that happened under the Zanzibar flag tended to have only loose loyalties to the Sultan. Tippu Tip, in joining Belgium, and Msiri, in setting up his own Kingdom, were not unusual. Once in the hinterland, the Zanzibari Warlords often fought each other and waged private wars against African chiefs.

But the expeditions were successful, in the 1860s around 20,000 slaves were bought to Zanzibar every year. 80% of those would remain in Africa, and work the Clove plantations, the remainder would be sold to Arabia and Persia. It is estimated that as many Slaves were taken on the Swahili Coast in the 19th century, as had been taken in the previous 10 centuries combined. Inland villages were routinely sacked as warlords battled over slaves to sell to Portuguese and Arab merchants. The death toll of this trade during the 19th century almost certainly could be measured in the hundreds of thousands and shutting it down became a priority of European humanists. The Portuguese role in this renewed slave trade often got overlooked in Europe where it was easier for the outrage to be directed towards the Arabs. But there was no question that Zanzibar, where the markets and plantations primarily were, was the centre of this trade and only there could it be stopped.

In 1872, acting largely on the behest of anti-slavery outrage among the British Public, the UK announced that if the Sultan of Zanzibar did not shut down his slave markets and ban the export of slaves, the Royal Navy would blockade the Island. In 1873 the Sultan caved. This was stunningly unpopular among the Zanzibari. Zanzibar was a slave state, the Omani who had moved there had done so to own slaves. It existed as a country only because the Sultan of Oman had set up enough Slave Plantations there that it was itself seen as a worthy consolation prize for a son who couldn’t have Oman.

The closure of the markets did not mean that the slave plantations were shut down, or that the slaves were freed but this was the first step on that path and was resented and resisted. The British Navy had to regularly stop and check ships leaving Zanzibar for Slaves, something that bred even more resentment. Moreover the Navy had to intervene to put down several revolts against the Sultan the largest, predictably, happening in Mombasa. This just cemented the bad reputation of the Sultan and that he was nothing but a weak British Puppet only in power at their will.

Abushiri ibn Salim al-Harthi, who led Arab resistance against German rule in Tanganyika

For the next twenty years, the Sultans would remain unpopular, resented and cowed by the great European gunships that surrounded their Island. Against their will, they would sell all of their territory on Mainland Tanzania to Germany in 1888, though the Arabs in those lands would fight tooth and nail against the Germans despite their orders to surrender. Two years later, in 1890, the last remaining Zanzibari lands, the Kenyan coast and the Zanzibar archipelago, would become an unofficial part of the British Empire and in 1914 this became official. The Sultan remained in charge and crucially, unlike during the Omani conquest, the landowners kept their land but they listened to what the British told them or got bombarded. Slavery would be entirely abolished, at British request, in 1897.

In the 1960s the British territories of Eastern Africa began to win their independence. Zanzibar was originally set to remain a Sultanate with a parliament dominated by its landowning Omani elite but in 1964, within a month of Independence, the black majority rose up, overthrew the Sultan and massacred thousands of Arabs and Indians. In the aftermath of this violent enforcement of majority rule, the surviving Arabs mostly left the island and had their lands seized. The last remnant of the Omani empire in Africa had been destroyed.

So what did the Omanis do wrong? Why did it end this way? Well primarily they were slavers, and what’s more they were non-white and non-Christian slavers in an area where the UK was dominant during a time period when the UK saw destroying the slave trade as their god given mission. And being non-white and non-Christian, no one was willing to speak in their favour. It is entirely possible that if the Omani weren’t trading in Slaves that the British, who viewed them as useful partners in the Persian Gulf, would have supported them as a puppet state against German encroachment. Likewise the history of Slavery was one of the main reasons the reaction to further Arab Rule in Zanzibar was so violent. But if the Omani weren’t trading in Slaves, they wouldn’t have been in Africa in the first place. And besides, the British had always largely viewed Oman as a vassal state who they could push around, standing up for them against the Germans is possible, allowing them economic freedom is much less so, you'd still see interference.

Secondly, Oman is just quite a small country. They didn’t have the manpower to hold down the African coast. They were reliant increasingly on unreliable warlords and rogue cities who they had no means to control. Especially once Zanzibar was separated from Oman proper the lack of manpower was critical. This was something that the Omani recognised. In 1833, prior to the partition of his realm and faced with yet another war to reign in Mombasa, the Sultan of Oman reached out to the most powerful native African Kingdom on the Eastern Coast, and a regular trading partner of Zanzibar, the Merina Kingdom of Madagascar. The offer was an extraordinary one, the Sultan would marry Madagascar’s Queen, invest his riches into her country and in return the two states would unite and the Malagasy Army would fight the Sultan’s war In Kenya.

Of course this offer was considerably more appealing to Oman than to Madagascar and it was politely refused. Which is another one of Oman’s problems. It was politically isolated in Africa without any reliable allies and so easily pushed around. If perhaps the Somali Clans were united, if the Ottomans weren’t forced to retreat from Africa, if Persia was stronger, if the British hadn’t been radicalised by tales of the Omani slave trade it could have found a reliable ally to protect it but, in OTL, it couldn’t and so was forced to give up its independence at gunpoint.

But well given that, until independence, the Omani Sultans and elites still dominated British Zanzibar what exactly would be different in a surviving Omani Empire? To that we can point at the African worker on the Clove plantations. Under Omani rule, the worker was a slave, he received no pay but was worked for five days growing cash crops for his master and was given the remaining two days to grow his own food. Straight after emancipation, the workers were normally still working on those plantations earning their dwellings and food by working four days growing Cloves with three days to themselves. In 1900, the British made the plantation owners play a flat rate for work and charge rent rather than demand work for lodging, this should have increased the living standards of the workers but the British attempted to claim ruinous income taxes on that money and only after several years of strikes did they abolish it. In 1905 a worker attempting to pay his taxes would have to work more hours than they had as a slave to cover food and rent.

By the 1910s, those taxes were abolished, and so the average worker in Zanzibar itself was able to demand better pay and were also newly unionised. At this point they were probably better off under British rule than they would have been under Omani rule, where less reform could be allowed. This is just Zanzibar itself mind, tribesman in Kenya and Tanganyika, where European rule was more brutal and Omani control less complete, had different experiences. The Arab landlords however were doing worse. During the inter war period they increasingly ended up in debt to British and Indian moneylenders due to newly increased labour costs and the global depression resulting in a falling demand for Cloves. During the 1920s the plantations were often sold to the Indians to clear debts. The 1930s saw the British attempted to reverse this process and reduce wages by passing legislation aimed at breaking the Indian merchant class and restoring power to the landlords both for economic reasons, to obtain cheaper goods, and for political reasons, to weaken the politically active Indian diaspora. The Indian moneylenders called for a boycott in India on Zanzibari Cloves in response and the result of this economic battle between the landlords and financiers was that both sides were weakened. As this happened, and Arab and Indian run businesses both went bust, free holdings owned directly by the peasantry increased in number.

In this way, the continuing political power of the Arabs hid a much more equal economic system wherein the elite were struggling and the workers were gaining. To an extent British Colonial Rule more than anything else paved the way for the Zanzibar Revolution by dividing the elite and creating an underclass of African workers with no political power but who economically were coming into their own and were involved in a series of strikes for higher wages in the late 1940s. In a surviving Omani Empire, even one still with strong British economic influence, the Revolutionaries are going to have less power and ability to organise.

Also if Oman kept its land elsewhere in Africa and especially if the union with Madagascar had gone ahead, rule by a purely Omani elite becomes much trickier, especially if you still see a partition. Swahili and Malagasy leaders have to become a larger part of that elite or the Empire can't be controlled. Given the OTL rise of Tippu Tip it seems likely there would be paths for specific Africans into the elite even as African slaves remained the primary source of labour. Whether or not you think this would help avert the revolution depends how much you think it was about race versus how much it was about class. Was it specifically Africans against Arabs or was it simply workers against landlords? I think the latter motive can't be underestimated but the former and the racism of the Arab elite played its part, too.

On the other hand, given how quickly the revolution happened after independence when British and Kenyan troops left the Island, you could argue that the British control merely froze existing political conflicts on the Island and without those troops in place that conflict would have happened earlier. An ethnically segregated feudal system is always going to be unstable and the British had been actively putting down revolts against the sultan since the 1870s. It's possible that without British rule there is an earlier revolution, a slave uprising. Which would put a British Empire still allied with the Omani and yet also still very anti-slavery in an interesting position.

There was one other thing that very nearly saved Zanzibar from the British Empire. When the UK moved in 1890 to establish full control over the Sultanate's foreign policy, France objected and would not allow it to happen unless the UK dropped their long standing support of the Kingdom of Madagascar remaining independent. The UK caved and both countries lost their independence. Precisely why the UK agreed this and how you can have them back down instead, is covered in the next article about Madagascar.



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