This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


In a speech to the House of Commons in 1894, Sir Wilfrid Lawson MP offered a damning verdict on British imperial expansion. “Formerly we stole Africans from Africa, and now we stole Africa from Africans,” he declared. This parallel between the slave trade of the early 19th century and the empire of Lawson’s own time was not delivered simply for rhetorical effect. His complaints came at a time when British entrepreneurs, abolitionists and missionaries had united to lobby the government for help in ruling Uganda, loudly championing British conquest as the best hope of ending the cruelties of the east African slave trade.

It is surprising, in many ways, that the British abolition of the slave trade (in 1807) and emancipation of West Indian slaves (in 1834) came 50 years before the great era of European colonialism, and not after. The slave trade may have flourished alongside a burst of imperial expansion in the 18th century, but attempts to abolish it flourished alongside another in the age of Queen Victoria.

Although it is easy, today, to see the hypocrisy that Lawson and a few others pointed out, it is important to understand exactly why so many politicians, polemicists and members of the public could reconcile anti-slavery humanitarianism with Britons’ appropriation of land and resources.

The case of Uganda, in east Africa, is typical of the ways that British popular debates found abolitionism such a persuasive motive for imperialism. By the time Lawson condemned the annexation of this region, Britons had already established a firm foothold there thanks to the Imperial British East Africa Company. A private enterprise chartered in 1888, the Company had first traded in the mainland territories of the Sultan of Zanzibar in modern Kenya. Backed by both canny investors and anti-slavery philanthropists, this business found it hard to turn a profit and so sent an expedition north into Uganda in the hope of securing new opportunities.

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Armed conquest

Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Lord Salisbury, saw the Company as a cheaper alternative to armed conquest or state occupation in staking out territorial claims in Africa. Moreover, this kind of private endeavour shielded nervous British taxpayers from the expense of developing commercial exports or suppressing the slave trade, which the great powers of Europe all promised to do at the 1889–90 Brussels conference on the future of Africa.

The two ideas were linked: British and European abolitionists had long argued that Arab slave traders’ efforts – whether through war or raids – to capture slaves was the main reason that African societies had not had the opportunity to develop large-scale agriculture or manufactures. Modern estimates suggest that more than 1.5 million Africans were captured from central and eastern Africa during the 19th century. Victorians safe at home in Britain read about the ravages of slave traders trafficking their victims to the coast and the wars between African nations stimulated by the market for enslaved captives.

By the 1870s, the travels of David Livingstone and other missionaries and authors had revealed the ways that “the open sore of the world” – as Livingstone dubbed this trade – condemned men, women and children to a march to the east coast where they were sold alongside the ivory and other goods they had been forced to carry.

Frederick Lugard, an impetuous army officer, had been engaged by the Company to lead its mission to Uganda from 1890. Rather than defusing a civil war he found brewing between African converts of rival Protestant and Catholic missionaries, Lugard joined in. These religious tensions led one MP to voice fears that Europeans had made Uganda “the Belfast of Africa”, but there were other reasons for the conflict. When in 1892 Lugard deposed King Mwanga II, a Catholic convert who had favoured German over British influence, some critics back home suspected the fighting was a screen for the Company’s political designs.

News of this conflict unfolded alongside public discussion of government subsidies. While the Conservatives were keen to bail out the forlorn Company, they lost the 1892 general election to William Gladstone’s Liberal party. He was unconvinced that the British public should rush to the aid of a struggling private business, though his foreign secretary, Lord Rosebery, was keen to give interim funding. The new government’s hesitancy unleashed a “violent jingo fever”, as one Liberal moaned, drawing support from a wide cross-section of Victorian society who objected to the cabinet’s “blundering reticence”, as the Leeds Mercury put it.

The Church Mission Society, eager to spread the Anglican faith in Uganda, began its own campaign to ‘retain’ the country under British influence and control. The violence and disruption caused by slave raids appeared to be the principal challenge they faced in cultivating stable Christian settlements in Uganda. The clergy of British cathedrals, the congregations of local dioceses, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the huge number of Mission Society subscribers all united to lobby the government. By 1892, mission supporters had raised £26,000 – a significant amount at the time – to keep the Company afloat. But it did not prove enough to save the Company’s position.

Many British business lobbies joined the debate in favour of a government subsidy to prevent the Company withdrawing. In January 1892, for example, Bradford’s chamber of commerce hosted a lecture from the explorer Captain Arthur Jephson who suggested that “it was impossible to separate entirely philanthropy and trade; to a certain extent they must go hand-in-hand”. Coffee, tea, ivory, hides, oil from palm trees, cattle, and cotton “to make us independent of any foreign supply” might flow from Uganda, “if only the means of transport by railway were provided”. Replacing the slave caravans pulled some Britons’ purse strings as readily as their heartstrings.

Arriving back in England at the end of 1892, Lugard defended his actions in Uganda and presented the retention of British settlements there as a vital national interest. Having started by asking for charitable donations and then seeking government money to survey the prospects of a railway, the Company’s board sought £2.5m in public funds to build the track. Grassroots supporters of the Conservative party keenly joined in the clamour for a subsidy.

Liberal surrender

Some of the Liberal party’s supporters criticised their own government. Among the critics was Dadabhai Naoroji, the Indian MP for Central Finsbury, who many newspapers treated as a representative of all ‘native peoples’, including the Ugandans.

The Liberals retreated and paid the subsidy to keep the Company operations going. However, the bailout did not end there. When Gladstone stepped down in 1894, Rosebery succeeded him as prime minister and nationalised the entire Company, turning its private protectorates into part of the British empire. In 1895, he successfully proposed funding the railway, which over the following years would cost the Treasury more than £5m.

It is hardly surprising that the Anti-Slavery Society – by the late 19th century often dismissed as a gang of unworldly Quakers – seized on this opportunity to capture the public imagination. What is more striking is that an alliance of church, business, charity and politics so quickly found a common cause and a common voice.

Public favour

In assessing this fearsome political agitation in favour of imperial expansion, it is hard not to conclude that a duty to anti-slavery was insincerely invoked to win public favour. More troubling, however, is that greedy investors (perhaps including Company chairman William Mackinnon) placed all their hopes for profit on old abolitionist theories that new opportunities for making money would present themselves once the slave trade was suppressed.

The Company wished to stop slave raids in Uganda and their east African possessions because they assumed this was the block on their imagined wealth. As the missionary Reverend RP Ashe put it in 1894, “a coal-pit does not pay until it is dug” and British investment in Uganda would “pay now, as the very best point from which to attack the slave trade”, and then “pay enormously hereafter”. A cartoon in Punch magazine portrayed Uganda as an abandoned infant on the doorstep of Britain, represented by John Bull, illustrating a racist affectation that Britons were doing Ugandans a favour.

It is not clear whether British policing had any effect on the east African slave trade, since routes from central Africa could be rerouted beyond Uganda. While they railed against Arab slave raiders abducting African captives, the Company and the British government were far more relaxed about slavery and forced labour within African communities. Because these practices were upheld by tradition and guaranteed political and commercial stability, the new colonial regime chose not to free these slaves.

However, critics did succeed in preventing the anti-slavery railway from being built with such forms of forced labour. Instead, the British colonial government developed Company plans to entice workers from India to come on short-term contracts to build the track through Kenya and towards Uganda. Some of them stayed and settled. Yet the commercial promise of east Africa did not materialise as quickly as the costs of railway-building accumulated. This was, in part, due to African resistance and predatory lions, which led opponents to dub the project ‘the Lunatic Express’.

Britain’s annexation of Uganda cast a long shadow into the 20th century. Frederick Lugard’s experiences in the country shaped his future colonial career working for private and state regimes in Nigeria after 1894. There, he drew on the Ugandan campaigns to devise a theory of ‘dual mandate’ empire that laid out why the British should control the economic, military and legal systems of a ‘protected’ country and leave local institutions – such as forms of slavery – to African jurisdiction.

In Uganda itself, after almost a decade of independence, the dictator Idi Amin rose to power in 1971 and subsequently expelled the 60,000-strong Asian community. Many of these families – the descendants of those Indians who had built the railway or tilled the fields in British East Africa – headed to Britain for a new life. For Ugandans, meanwhile, British rule meant new forms of labour discipline that were not slavery but rather new adaptations of racial exploitation.

In taking stock of these events, it’s not enough to simply dismiss moral promises of freedom and development as insincere when they were deployed in ways we now deplore. Rather, Britain’s relationship with Uganda should reinforce the point that anti-slavery ideas were far from perfect, and that abolitionism – though, on the face of it, a virtuous sentiment – could encourage new forms of exploitation.


Richard Huzzey is lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (Cornell, 2012)