Eunuchs for the Sultan of Zanzibar

In the autumn of 1884 the British Consul at Zanzibar reported to the Liberal Foreign Secretary Earl Granville that the Sultan Barghash had imported ten slave-women and nine boy eunuchs to his harem. Although a violation of the Anti-Slave Trade treaty of 1873, the British authorities turned a blind-eye, as any interference would prejudice his co-operation in suppressing the East African slave trade. This was particularly acute in 1884 as the drought on the mainland led to a substantial increase in slave trafficking since famine-stricken parents pawned their children to slave dealers. The Sultanate itself was declared a British protectorate in 1890. There are no further mentions of such consignments after 1884, thus it is likely that it was the last such ‘shipment’ received by the harems of Zanzibar before abolition.

A Street Scene in Zanzibar (The Graphic, 1873)

‘Slave-Dealers and Slaves – A Street Scene in Zanzibar (The Graphic, 1873)

My Lord,

I HAVE the honour to report the arrival of the Sultan’s steam-vessel “Malacca,” regarding which your Lordship telegraphed on the 28th November.

This vessel has landed here for the Sultan’s harem ten Georgian women and nine boy eunuchs.

The agent for these purchases is one Abdullah bin Salim El Hemri, who sailed some months ago by mail-steamer. At the time he left it was understood by those familiar with such things here that a fresh consignment of women might be expected, and since the Sultan has taken to running Pilgrim ships a season never passes without this agent visiting Europe.

The women were sent in the Austrian Lloyd’s steamer to Jeddah, to join the “Malacca;” the eunuchs purchased in the Hejas.

The difficulty of dealing with the case of such women is, that being brought up from childhood to look forward to harem life, they think when taken up by a Sovereign Prince that they have drawn the highest prize in the lottery of life; and in cases of this sort, with which we have before attempted to deal, it has been found impossible to do anything, owing to the determination of the women themselves to reach their destination.

The case of eunuchs is different; once reduced to that state it is difficult to say what else, out of Europe, they are fit for; but surely the mutilation of boys for the Oriental market ought to be treated as a capital crime.

                                                                                    I have, &c.

(Signed)             JOHN KIRK.

Kirk to Granville, 20 December 1884, FO 881/5366, The National Archives.


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
This entry was posted in Imperial History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Eunuchs for the Sultan of Zanzibar

  1. Abdallah S Daar says:

    Dear Dr. Gjerso, greetings. I am a professor at the University of Toronto. I have an interest in the subject of Circassian salves in Zanzibar towards the end of the 19th C. may i write to you by email? Please email me at
    one specific question: what did Granville say to Kirk in the telegram dated November 28 (presumably 1884)? Do you know where the 10 women were taken FROM to Hejaz to join the “Malacca”? Most gratefully yours,
    Abdallah S Daar

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