Mission to Madagascar: The Sergeant, the King, and the Slave Trade

by David H Mould

In 1817, a decade after Britain banned the slave trade to its colonies, a 30-year-old East India Company sergeant with no diplomatic training embarked on a risky mission. James Hastie travelled for almost a month from the coast of Madagascar through the tropical rainforest to the central highlands.  His mission—to persuade Radama, the young and warlike ruler of the most powerful kingdom on the island, to stop the export of slaves.

Most studies of the slave trade focus on the transatlantic traffic to the United States, the Caribbean and South America. Yet for hundreds of years, a larger trade flourished in the Indian Ocean where Arab traders trafficked their human cargoes from East Africa to the slave markets of Arabia and India.

From Madagascar, slaves were smuggled to the plantations of Mauritius, seized by Britain from France during the Napoleonic Wars. Its governor, the subtle, silver-tongued Robert Townsend Farquhar, was in a tough position, under pressure from London to end the slave trade yet knowing that the island’s economy depended on slave labor. Without the ships to police the sea lanes, he decided that the best strategy was a diplomatic one—to form an alliance with the rising military power in Madagascar.

The relationship between Hastie and Radama would shape the course of history in the southwest Indian Ocean. Hastie lived by his wits as he won the king’s confidence. The intelligent, charming yet ruthless Radama skillfully used the British envoy to assert power over the nobility and his political rivals who profited from the slave trade.

The treaty they forged was a deal with the devil: in return for the slave trade ban, the British trained Radama’s army and supplied muskets and gunpowder, allowing the king to expand his dominions, while turning a blind eye to the internal slave trade. Hastie became the British agent in Madagascar, and a trusted advisor to Radama, accompanying him on his military campaigns and introducing social reforms, until his untimely death in 1826.

Mission to Madagascar is based on Hastie’s unpublished journals, one of them recently discovered, and other primary sources, including letters and political and military dispatches. The journals from 1817 to 1825, archived in Mauritius, London, and the U.S., weave a narrative of hazardous travel, byzantine court intrigue and colonial geopolitics, and offer the most comprehensive early 19th century account of Madagascar, its landscape, crops, industry, commerce, culture, and inhabitants.

David became fascinated by Madagascar’s history and culture after making five trips between 2014 and 2017 for a UNICEF research project. Unable to travel for more than two years because of COVID, he decided he wanted to tell someone else’s travel story.  He describes his research on Hastie as “like a large jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces never exactly fit” but ultimately “a thrilling and rewarding historical journey.”  This is the first biography of a man whom Sir Mervyn Brown, a former UK ambassador and historian of Madagascar, described as “one of the most important and attractive figures in the history of Anglo-Malagasy relations.”

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