The Cruel Trade

Written by Clifford Peacock
Review by Lucinda Byatt

This unusual novel is set in Zanzibar in the mid-19th century, where slavery, ivory and trade from the northern ports have made the Sultan and his minister Tippu Tip fabulously wealthy. Africa’s rich eastern coast and inland areas had already attracted the attention of the English, but the Sultan of Zanzibar intended to pre-empt their ambitions. The Cruel Trade tells the story of the extraordinary expedition made by Captain Khalil – who has been coerced to abandon his dhow – into the heart of East Africa to lay claim to a remote valley inhabited by descendants of none other than the Queen of Sheba. Khalil, an engaging character who finds himself caught in an international intrigue, is forced by Tippu Tip to make the journey and, above all, to bring back a rich haul of slaves and ivory. If he fails, his three surviving wives and his family will suffer.

Colonel Hamerton’s involvement in Khalil’s adventure may be fictional, but the Englishman played a key part in the subsequent abolition of the slave trade in Zanzibar. Rich in detail and description, this book draws on the author’s personal knowledge of East Africa to create a convincing and illuminating picture of a little-known episode in the continent’s long history of conquest and slavery.