The beginning of the end of slavery


"The Physician and the Slave Trade," by Daniel Leibowitz. W.H. Freeman and Co. 303 pages. $27.95.

Kirk: A Man of His Time." That's author Daniel Leibowitz's title of the final chapter of this tale of the life of Sir John Kirk, physician, botanist, explorer and the diplomat who negotiated the 1873 treaty that, on paper at least, ended the East African slave trade.

You read chapter titles like that and cringe. What, exactly, does Leibowitz mean? Usually saying someone is "of their time" is a preface to justify some flagrantly racist or sexist opinion the person holds or conduct the person has committed. Besides, everybody is of the time they live in. So what?

The chapter title may leave the reader with the suspicion that Leibowitz is not a writer first, and indeed he isn't. He is a retired professor of clinical medicine at Stanford University. Fortunately, he has other credentials that stand him well in the writing of this book. Leibowitz is a member of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorer's Club who has "traveled extensively" in Africa, according to the press release for the book.

Despite Leibowitz's credentials, readers will have to struggle through paragraphs like this one:

"Finally, in the political scene after the Second World War, American and European hopes of establishing democracies, a-la-United States of America, among the newly independent African states was slow to materialize, for one-man rule prevailed historically with tribal chiefdoms, colonial powers, and continued to do so with many new African heads of state."

Ugh. What Leibowitz lacks in writing style he makes up for in his passion for Kirk. "One of the greatest men produced by Great Britain in the nineteenth century," Leibowitz calls him at one point. The author says Kirk, not the more acclaimed Dr. David Livingstone, "played a crucial role in stopping the slave trade. With his loyal defense of British interests, Kirk paved the way for the relatively enlightened British colonial rule that followed his tenure in East Africa."

Sounds almost hagiographic, doesn't it? Part of Leibowitz's zeal may come from the author's pique that Kirk isn't as well known as Livingstone or the Welsh-American journalist/explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The author obviously set out in "Physician" to set the record straight. The writing may not be first rate, but readers won't be able to argue with the facts.

Kirk first saw the horrors of the East African slave trade as the physician and botanist on Livingstone's second Zambezi expedition from 1858 to 1863. In 1866, he was appointed surgeon to the consul's office in Zanzibar. Seven years later he was acting consul, using his diplomatic skills to cajole a reluctant Sultan Seyyid Bargash to sign the treaty that banned the slave trade on the island and the mainland African territories under his jurisdiction.

Leibowitz's book is a welcome addition to a frequently ignored topic: the devastating effects of the East African slave trade, carried out mostly by the Portuguese and the Arabs, some of whom defended enslavement by claiming that captives were converted to Islam and then educated.

Leibowitz reminds readers captives first had to survive a tortuous and often deadly trek through the African interior, assuming they weren't massacred in the raids that netted the captives in the first place. There was no kinder, gentler face to the internal African slave trade, vestiges of which still linger to this day.

Gregory Kane, a columnist for The Sun, was half of a reporting team that in June 1996 bought two slaves in Africa, freed them and then wrote a series of articles demonstrating that slavery is still practiced.

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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