Zanzibar has lured traders, adventurers, plunderers and explorers to its shores for centuries…
The Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch and English have all been here at one time or another. Some, particularly the Shirazi Persians and Omani Arabs, stayed to settle and rule. With this influence, Zanzibar has become predominantly Islamic (97%) – the remaining 3% is made up of Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. The earliest visitors to Zanzibar were Arab traders who are said to have arrived in the 8th century. The earliest building that remains on Zanzibar is the mosque at Kizimkazi which dates from 1107, and is a present-day tourist attraction.
For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon winds from Oman to trade primarily in ivory, slaves and spices. The two main islands, Unguja (normally known as Zanzibar Island) and Pemba, provided an ideal base for the Omani Arabs, being relatively small, and therefore fairly easy to defend. From here it was possible for them to control 1,000 miles of the mainland coast from present day Mozambique to Somalia. Indeed, in 1832, Sultan Seyyid Said, of the Busaid Dynasty that had emerged in Oman, moved his Sultanate from Muscat, which was perhaps more difficult to protect, to Zanzibar where he and his descendants ruled for over 130 years. Most of the wealth lay in the hands of the Arab community, who were the main landowners, kept themselves to themselves, and generally did not intermarry with the Africans.
This was not true of the Shirazi Persians who came from the Middle East to settle on the East African coast. The story goes that in AD 975, Abi Ben Sultan Hasan of Shiraz in Persia (now Iran) had a terrible nightmare in which a rat devoured the foundations of his house. He took this as an omen that his community was to be devastated. Others in the Shiraz Court ridiculed the notion, but Sultan Hasan, his family and some followers obviously took it very seriously because they decided to migrate. They set out in seven dhows into the Indian Ocean but were caught in a huge storm and separated. Thus, landfalls were made at seven different places along the East African coast, one of which was Zanzibar, and settlements began.
Widespread intermarriage between Shirazis and Africans gave rise to a coastal community with distinctive features, and a language derived in part from Arabic, which became known as Swahili. The name Swahili comes from the Arab word sawahil which means ‘coast’. The Zanzibar descendants of this group were not greatly involved in the lucrative slave, spice and ivory trades. Instead, they immersed themselves mainly in agriculture and fishing. Those Shirazis that did not intermarry retained their identity as a separate group.
Two smaller communities were also established. Indian traders arrived in connection with the spice and ivory trade, and quickly settled as shopkeepers, traders, skilled artisans, and professionals. The British became involved in missionary and trading activities in East Africa, and attempting to suppress the slave trade centred in Zanzibar.
In 1822, the Omani Arabs signed the Moresby treaty which amongst other things, made it illegal for them to sell slaves to Christian powers.
So that this agreement could be monitored, the United States and Great Britain established diplomatic relations with Zanzibar, and sent Consuls to the islands. However, the slaving restrictions were largely ignored, and the trade continued to kill and imprison countless Africans. Caravans started out from Bagamoyo on the mainland coast, travelling as much as 1,000 miles on foot as far as Lake Tanganyika, buying slaves from local rulers on the way, or, more cheaply, simply capturing them. The slaves were chained together and used to carried ivory back to Bagamoyo. The name Bagamoyo means ‘lay down your heart;’ because it was here that slaves would abandon hope of freedom. Slaves who survived the long trek from the interior were crammed into dhows bound for Zanzibar, and paraded for sale like cattle in the Slave Market.
All of the main racial groups were involved in the slave trade in some way or other. Europeans used slaves in their plantations in the Indian Ocean islands, Arabs were the main traders, and African rulers sold prisoners taken in battle. Being sold into slavery was not a prisoner’s worst fate – if a prolonged conflict led to a glut, the Doe tribe north of Bagamoyo had the rather gruesome habit of eating ‘excess supplies’.
Sultan Barghash was forced in 1873, under the threat of a British naval bombardment, to sign an edict which made the sea-borne slave trade illegal, and the slave market in Zanzibar was closed, with the Cathedral Church of Christ erected on the site. But the trade continued, particularly on the mainland. Slaving was illegal, but it existed openly until Britain took over the mainland following their defeat of the Germans in the First World War. Many former slaves found that their conditions had hardly changed – they were now simply employed as labourers at very low wage rates in the spice plantations
Cloves were introduced here in 1818, and flourished in the tropical climate and fertile soil of the western areas of both Zanzibar and Pemba. By the middle of the century, the Zanzibar archipelago was the world’s largest producer of cloves, and the largest slave trading centre on the East African coast. Slaves were used for the cultivation and harvesting of cloves, and the Sultan occupied so many plots that by his death in 1856, he had 45 plantations. Plots were also acquired by his children, and many concubines and eunuchs from the royal harem. Over time, several other spices such as cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper and cardamom were introduced. Their rich fragrance became synonymous with Zanzibar, which became known as the ‘Spice Islands’.
Slaves, spices and ivory provided the basis of considerable prosperity, and Zanzibar became the most important entrepôt in the Western Indian Ocean. All other East African coastal centres were subject to it and almost all trade passed through it.
Zanzibar was the starting point for the great European adventurers who tried to map the interior. Most followed the long-established caravan routes before reaching territory unknown even to the traders. The dangers were significant for these first Europeans in East Africa’s interior – for them, a strange and unexplored land.
In 1844, John Krapf, a German missionary arrived in Zanzibar. He was later joined by John Rebbman who became the first European to see Mount Kilimanjaro. Burton and Speke set off from Britain in 1857 to solve the mystery of the source of the Nile, and they also made Zanzibar their base. Other explorers followed – Dr David Livingstone was provided with a house in 1866 from where he planned and kitted out his final expedition. Stanley also used it in 1871 before setting out on one of history’s famous searches, culminating in Stanley’s legendary phrase “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” The great Doctor died two years later, and his body was carried back to Zanzibar, before sailing on to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. Livingstone’s House in Zanzibar is a well known present-day feature of Stone Town, and his medicine chest and correspondence can be seen in the National Museum.
Zanzibar continued to prosper with the expansion of the trade in cloves and other spices. The fine buildings which make Zanzibar Stone Town such an amazing place were constructed to a high standard by rich Arabs, British administrators and prosperous Indian businessmen.The wealth and excess of successive Sultans was considerable. Islamic law allowed them to have up to four wives, and their wealth meant they were able to exercise this privilege, raising many children. Sultan Barghash was particularly extravagant, and adopted a more elaborate style of living than previous Sultans, with the construction of several new palaces. In 1883, he built Beit el-Ajaib, the House of Wonders, (pictured opposite, with Zanzibar harbour in the foreground) which still stands today, and was the largest building in Zanzibar, the first to have electric lights and an electric lift. Until 1911, the Sultan of the day maintained a harem of around 100 concubines, all with attendant eunuchs. He slept with 5 concubines a night, in strict rotation and many concubines had children, who were supported by the Sultan’s riches.Such practices changed with the succession of Khalifa Bin Harab (pictured opposite with tennis racquet), as Sultan in 1911. The harem and concubines were discontinued and political reforms were introduced with increasingly democratic representation until the Sultan was a constitutional monarch without major legislative or executive powers. By the 1920’s, Zanzibar had been established as a British protectorate for some time – the cities bustled with economic activity, and the bazaars were lined with craftsmen who produced carved doors and brass-studded chests, gold and silver jewellery, pottery and embroidery.
Following elections and Independence in 1963, the broad-based and predominantly African ‘Afro-Shirazi Party’ (ASP) had the majority of the popular vote, but despite this, power was held by a coalition of two parties supported by the British. At this time, there was a growing movement for independence from colonialism and its ties throughout East Africa, with independence for Tanganyika in 1961, Uganda in 1962 and Kenya in 1963. Following the Zanzibar revolution of 1964, the ASP’s Abeid Karume became Prime Minister. Later that year, Karume and Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere signed an Act of Union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania (see flag opposite – the blue triangle represents Zanzibar’s part of the Union – Zanzibar’s own flag can be found here). In 1977, the mainland party and ASP merged to form Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) which remains in power today. Zanzibar is semi-autonomous, with its own President and House of Representatives.
See Zanzibar’s incredible history today!
Zanzibar’s rich heritage is still evident today. In Stone Town there is a fortress, two sultans’ palaces, two cathedrals, colonial mansions, and a Persian style public bath-house. Many buildings have ornately carved doors with brass studs on them – the more impressive the door, the richer the original occupant. Outside town, there are more ruined palaces, other Shirazi remains, the famous Persian baths, and caves where slaves were once imprisoned. When in Zanzibar, a Historic City Tour is a must.