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Voyage to Madagascar: Thomas Locke Lewis and the Anglo-Merina Treaty of 1817

Historical context

The British interests represented by the embassy that Lewis accompanied have their roots in the 1807 abolition of slavery and the territorial acquisitions of the Napoleonic Wars. The Indian Ocean had been a site of intense competition since the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, but by 1810 Britain had made a significant breakthrough by acquiring Mauritius from Napoleonic France, as well as through the capitulation of the Seychelles and Réunion, which were also under the control of France.

As part of the peace settlement at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Réunion was returned to France, and this made the British policy to eliminate the Indian Ocean slave trade complex, as French plantation owners desired slave labour, as did those on the British islands of the Seychelles and Mauritius. Madagascar, as an exporter of slave labour, came under the gaze of British foreign policy, as concern grew that France might develop influence there in order to acquire its supply of slaves. In order to suppress the slave trade from Madagascar and therein the French presence, a bargain was struck with the regional Merina king, Radama, wherein financial and military support for his expansionist military campaigns would be afforded.  A treaty to this effect was signed in 1817.

Manuscript letterFirst page of a letter to Governor Farquhar, from Jean RenéThree years later a second treaty was signed whereby Radama would exchange the slave trade for an annual payment of 20,000 dollars in lieu. The reproduction shown here is of a letter dated 1820 which was sent from Jean René, a ruler of part of Madagascar, who features in this manuscript, to the British governor of Mauritius, Robert Townsend Farquhar (1776-1830). It is part of an account of the wars being waged by Radama to bring the island under his sole control.

By 1824 Radama’s expansionist campaign and his promises regarding the slave trade had, as Malyn Newitt claims, ‘effectively ended’ slaver activity from Madagascar to the eastern coast of African and Comoros, and in the ports in the north of the island that had eluded him until that point. Unfortunately, and in an uncalculated turn, the import of slaves to Madagascar and the use of native slaves expanded; ‘one of the great ironies of the British anti-slavery campaign in Madagascar’.

One could read the British presence in Radama’s court in 1817 imperialistically. However, Pier M Larson has argued that Radama had his own ‘political strategies’ that complicate this picture. The young king had the opportunity to show, publicly, his cultivation of relations with ‘the dominant European imperial power in the Indian Ocean’, an endeavour that gave him greater independence from his powerful courtiers and the means to action his military campaigns.

Indeed, histories of Radama’s reign written in the mid-19th century reflected on his European inclinations and how these allowed Farquhar to broker what Lyons McLeod records as ‘a treaty of friendship and commerce’ in exchange for an English education for Radama’s younger siblings.

The historian Gregory A Barton has seen British policy differently. He looks to Lord Palmerston’s abolitionist policies in Africa, which were seen ‘to open up and safeguard legitimate trade’, and make explicit dominance less necessary. It was thought that once African countries were ‘weaned off the easy profits of slavery, moral and civilizing economic activities’ would ensue.

The treaty brokered with Radama is also analysed by Barton and appears to fit a mould based on free movement of goods and related enforcement by the Royal Navy, and the affording of stipends which could ‘replace the lost income from slaving’ that were offered to African elites. These ties altered how African elites traded with outsiders and economic structures arose, alongside the development of new European farming methods and new crops like corn and wheat, as well as new livestock-grazing practices, and eating habits.

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