The History of Zanzibar

Zanzibar’s history has undoubtedly been shaped by its geographical location. It is situated on the eastern edge of Africa within the range of monsoon winds and ocean currents. For many years Zanzibar was a popular respite for ships travelling to Arabia, India and the Far East. Often sailors were obliged to spend many months resting and relaxing whilst they waited for the monsoon winds to change direction and gather strength for their journey home.

It is thought that the first people to settle on Zanzibar were African fishermen who travelled across from Tanzania mainland around five to six thousand years ago. Since then Zanzibar’s history has been forged by many external factors, evidence exists in the architecture and even the language, Kiswahili; which is a mixture of Arabic, Portuguese, English and Hindi words.

The first non-Africans to visit Zanzibar, around 2000-3000 BC, were Sumerian traders from Mesopotamia. They were followed, around 3000 years ago, by Assyrians and Phoenicians, who used Zanzibar as a stop over on route to Sofala in Mozambique, thought to be the site of the original King Solomon’s Mines. These traders were transporting large volumes of gold, silver, and ivory to be used for the development of many Mediterranean empires. Coins dating back over 2000 years, from Parthia (northeast Iran) have been found, as well as Greek, Roman and Egyptian artifacts. During the second century, an anonymous account from a Greek mariner refers to the Islands as being under Arabian sovereignty – presumably Sabaeans from the Kingdom of Sheba (modern Yemen), who bartered ivory, turtle shells and ebony, and other rarities, in exchange for weapons, wheat, wine, cloth and Chinese porcelain.

As time passed Zanzibar grew in importance as a key trading port. The Persians established a network of towns along the coast of Zang-I-Bar (“the sea of blacks”), from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south, including Kizimkazi on Zanzibar, the site of the oldest standing mosque in east Africa, completed in 1007AD. Persian traders became well acquainted with Zanzibar, so well, in fact, it is thought that the tales of Sindbad the Sailor were based on Zanzibar and that many ended up settling on the Island. Intermarrying with locals gave rise to what became the Swahili people. This coincided with huge growth in demand for African exports including, gold, ivory, leopard skins, rhino horns, timber, and slaves. The Swahili civilizations peaked around the fourteenth to fifteenth century until the arrival of the Portuguese.

The Portuguese first arrived in Zanzibar in 1498 whilst charting the route to India. Initially their interests were as a resting area, however, the riches of the Swahili traders soon attracted more attention. In 1503 Zanzibar was attacked by the Portuguese captain Ruy Lourenco Ravasco who claimed most of the gold from Mwinyi Mkuu, the Swahili ruler. Within 10 years the Portuguese had conquered most of the Swahili coast and severely disrupted the trading alliances. So much so in fact that many began to leave the coast and the whole area began to fall into decline. By this point, even the overstretched Portuguese could only manage to maintain a few key ‘stepping stones’ on shipping routes to India. This made way for a new power – Oman.

In 1606 the Omani’s ejected the Portuguese from Pemba Island with an attack launched from Kenya. The Omani’s reopened the old trade routes and gained in strength. In 1622 the Portuguese suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Hormuz, which signalled the beginning of the end for the Portuguese and by 1698 their last stronghold on Zanzibar Island was taken. Once the Portuguese were defeated the Omani quickly became the dominant power in the region and were swift to assert their control. Zanzibari trade flourished. During this period the most pivotal figure was Seyyid Said (ruler 1804 – 1856) who at the age of 15 assassinated his own cousin to become exclusive ruler over the Omani empire. Soon after in 1811 he built Stone Town’s notorious slave market. Business was strong and, during the next 60 years over a million lives were traded here, largely gathered from the Tanzania mainland. During the 19th century, the rulers of Zanzibar controlled the whole of the East Africa slave trade, this was very profitable enabling the construction of many elaborate palaces, (many still standing) to be built in and around Stone Town.

By the mid-1800’s many European explorers and missionaries were interested in exploring the ‘dark continent’. Zanzibar was the logical base to launch expeditions due to the inland trade and slave routes developed by the Omani’s. The first Missionaries to explore Tanzania were Germans; Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, who tried, unsuccessfully, to convert many tribes to Christianity and sent reports back of snow-capped mountains, which were ridiculed back home due to their proximity to the equator. Many others followed, largely in attempts to discover the source of the Nile, which has geopolitical significance. In 1858 a British explorer, John Hanning Speke, solved the ‘riddle of the Nile’ by discovering Lake Victoria, on an expedition launched from Zanzibar, and sailing down the great river. Two of the most famous explorers to have travelled the region were Henry Morton Stanley and Dr David Livingstone. Their famous “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” encounter took place in 1871 on the shore of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania.

In Europe competition was rising. The discovery of new markets and acquisition of natural recourses was becoming a top priority and Africa was seen as a land waiting to be conquered. Pushed under the guise of abolishing slavery the Europeans took Africa by force and started dividing it up. By 1886 European plans were in full flow and all of Zanzibar’s mainland possessions, except for a six-kilometre coastal strip, were taken by Germany.

Unfortunately, a string of bad luck had left the Omani underpowered and unable to defend themselves properly. In 1870 a cholera epidemic swept Zanzibar and killed over 10,000. Two years later a violent cyclone swept the land destroying all bar one ship in Stone Town’s harbour and decimated 85% of the clove plantations. At the time Zanzibar was supplying four-fifths of the world’s cloves, a huge source of revenue, and to make matters worse, in 1873 the British forced the Sultan of Zanzibar to abolish the slave trade, their second source of income.

When the British Protectorate over Zanzibar was enforced in 1890, due to the death of Khalifa bin Said (ruler of Zanzibar), the island was in tatters. The new sultan was ‘allowed’ to continue in a ceremonial capacity but the British really called all the shots. By the end of World War I, the British were handed control of Tanganyika (to become Tanzania) but kept the two areas separate as Zanzibar still had a sultan.

World War II was a major turning point for not just Zanzibar and Tanganyika but the whole of Africa. Many thousands from Tanganyika were conscripted as soldiers and porters into the British army to fight. Once the war was over there was unrest and opposition to colonial rule as it was felt that nothing was offered in return. Across the continent, many Independence movements started. In Tanganyika the ‘Tanganyika African National Union’ – TANU was formed in 1929. In 1954 a new mild mannered leader took control of the TANU. Julius Kambarage Nyerere was a former school teacher and professed a peaceful path to change. The TANU gained in popularity forcing the British to hold an election. Initially the elections were rigged to keep the TANU at bay, however rising tensions forced more elections until 1960 in a non-rigged election the TANU won all bar one seat. Tanganyikan Independence was officially claimed on December 9, 1961.

In Zanzibar things were more complicated due to effectively two colonial overlords; the British who had political power and the Omani, who’s Sultan still reigned and technically owned the land. The British eventually allowed the formation of political parties and scheduled elections for 1957. Africans were represented by the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP), while the Arab minority supported the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP). A series of rigged elections took place between 1957 and 1961 which consistently denied the ASP power. African resentment of Arabs, who accounted for less than 20% of the population but controlled most of the wealth, grew. However, the British moved forward with plans for Independence which was declared, December 10th, 1963.

The single most influential event in recent history, however, remains the revolt in 1964 which saw huge numbers massacred. In one night 1200 Indians and Arabs were killed by the rampaging army of the revolution. This led to all bar one percent of the non-African population leaving, including the Arab Sultan. The revolutionaries, however, lacked the political support to take power so the leader of the ASP declared himself prime minister of Zanzibar and Pemba.

Meanwhile on the mainland Tanganyika became a ‘one-party state’ under TANU. The Chaos of the Zanzibari revolution had caused some concern to the TANU and the ASP on Zanzibar were broke. In 1964 Zanzibar linked up with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania. The new government adopted a socialist ideology and converted many of the vacated merchants lavish palaces into low-cost state housing. Many of these have now fallen into disrepair as the new government and tenants lacked the money and the inclination to continue with their upkeep. However Zanzibar still feels like a separate country, it has had a multi-party democratic system since 1995 with its own parliament and president.


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