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History of Zanzibar

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History of Zanzibar

People have lived in Zanzibar for 20,000 years. History proper starts when the islands became a base for traders voyaging between the African Great Lakes, the Arabian peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent. Unguja offered a protected and defensible harbor, so although the archipelago had few products of value, Omanis and Yemenis settled in what became Zanzibar City (Stone Town) as a convenient point from which to trade with towns on the Swahili Coast. They established garrisons on the islands and built the first mosques in the African Great Lakes.

During the Age of Exploration, the Portuguese Empire was the first European power to gain control of Zanzibar, and kept it for nearly 200 years. In 1698, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman, which developed an economy of trade and cash crops, with a ruling Arab elite and a Bantu general population. Plantations were developed to grow spices; hence, the moniker of the Spice Islands (a name also used of Dutch colony the Moluccas, now part of Indonesia). Another major trade good was ivory, the tusks of elephants that were killed on the Tanganyika mainland - a practice that is still in place to this day. The third pillar of the economy was slaves, which gave Zanzibar an important place in the Arab slave trade, the Indian Ocean equivalent of the better-known Triangular Trade. The Omani Sultan of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the African Great Lakes coast, known as Zanj, as well as extensive inland trading routes.

Sometimes gradually, sometimes by fits and starts, control of Zanzibar came into the hands of the British Empire. Part of the political impetus for this was the movement for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1890, Zanzibar became a British protectorate. The death of one sultan and the succession of another of whom the British did not approve later led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War, also known as the shortest war in history.

The islands gained independence from Britain in December 1963 as a constitutional monarchy. A month later, the bloody Zanzibar Revolution, in which several thousand Arabs and Indians were killed and thousands more expelled and expropriated, led to the Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. That April, the republic merged with the mainland Tanganyika, or more accurately, was subsumed into Tanzania, of which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region. Zanzibar was most recently in the international news with a January 2001 massacre, following contested elections.


  • Prehistory 1
  • Early Iranian & Arab rule 2
  • Portuguese rule 3
  • Later Arab rule 4
  • British influence and rule 5
  • Independence and revolution 6
  • Union with Tanganyika 7
  • Lists of rulers 8
    • Sultans of Zanzibar 8.1
    • Viziers 8.2
    • British residents 8.3
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


Zanzibar has been inhabited, perhaps not continuously, since the Paleolithic. A 2005 excavation at Kuumbi Cave in southeastern Zanzibar found heavy duty stone tools that showed occupation of the site at least 22,000 years ago.[1] Archaeological discoveries of a limestone cave used radiocarbon techniques to prove more recent occupation, from around 2800 BC to the year 0 (Chami 2006). Traces of the communities include objects such as glass beads from around the Indian Ocean. It is a suggestion of early trans-oceanic trade networks, although some writers have expressed pessimism about this possibility.

No cave sites on Zanzibar have revealed pottery fragments used by early and later Bantu farming and iron-working communities who lived on the islands (Zanzibar, Mafia) during the first millennium AD. On Zanzibar, the evidence for the later farming and iron-working communities dating from the mid-first millennium AD is much stronger and indicates the beginning of urbanism there when settlements were built with mud-timber structures (Juma 2004). This is somewhat earlier than the existing evidence for towns in other parts of the Swahili Coast, given as the 9th century AD. The first permanent residents of Zanzibar seem to have been the ancestors of the Hadimu and Tumbatu, who began arriving from the African Great Lakes mainland around 1000 AD. They had belonged to various Bantu ethnic groups from the mainland, and on Zanzibar they lived in small villages and failed to coalesce to form larger political units. Because they lacked central organization, they were easily subjugated by outsiders.

Early Iranian & Arab rule

Ancient pottery demonstrates existing trade routes with Zanzibar as far back as the ancient Sumer and Assyria.[2] An ancient pendant discovered near Eshnunna dated ca. 2500-2400 BC. has been traced to copal imported from the Zanzibar region.[3]

Traders from Arabia (mostly Yemen), the Persian Gulf region of Iran (especially Shiraz), and west India probably visited Zanzibar as early as the 1st century AD. They used the monsoon winds to sail across the Indian Ocean and landed at the sheltered harbor located on the site of present-day Zanzibar Town. Although the islands had few resources of interest to the traders, they offered a good location from which to make contact and trade with the towns of the Swahili Coast. A phase of urban development associated with the introduction of stone material to the construction industry of the African Great Lakes littoral began from the 10th century AD.

Traders began to settle in small numbers on Zanzibar in the late 11th or 12th century, intermarrying with the indigenous Africans. Eventually a hereditary ruler (known as the Mwenyi Mkuu or Jumbe), emerged among the Hadimu, and a similar ruler, called the Sheha, was set up among the Tumbatu. Neither had much power, but they helped solidify the ethnic identity of their respective peoples.

The Yemenis built the earliest mosque in the southern hemisphere in Kizimkazi, the southernmost village in Unguja. A kufic inscription on its mihrab bears the date AH 500, i.e. 1107 AD.

Villages were also present in which lineage groups were common.

Portuguese rule

Vasco da Gama's visit in 1499 marked the beginning of European influence. In 1503 or 1504, Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire when Captain Ruy Lourenço Ravasco Marques landed and demanded and received tribute from the sultan in exchange for peace.[4] Zanzibar remained a possession of Portugal for almost two centuries.

Later Arab rule

A carved door in Stone Town.
The Old Fort of Zanzibar built in the late 17th century by the Omanis to defend the island from the Portuguese.

In 1698, Zanzibar became part of the overseas holdings of Oman, falling under the control of the Sultan of Oman. The Portuguese were expelled and a lucrative trade in slaves and ivory thrived, along with an expanding plantation economy centring on cloves. The Arabs established garrisons at Zanzibar, Pemba, and Kilwa. The height of Arab rule came during the reign of Seyyid Said (more fully, Sayyid Said bin Sultan al-Busaid), who in 1840 moved his capital from Muscat in Oman to Stone Town. He established a ruling Arab elite and encouraged the development of clove plantations, using the island's slave labour. Zanzibar's commerce fell increasingly into the hands of traders from the Indian subcontinent, whom Said encouraged to settle on the island. After his death in 1856, his sons struggled over the succession. On April 6, 1861, Zanzibar and Oman were divided into two separate principalities. Sayyid Majid bin Said Al-Busaid (1834/5–1870), his sixth son, became the Sultan of Zanzibar, while the third son, Sayyid Thuwaini bin Said al-Said, became the Sultan of Oman.

The Sultan of Zanzibar controlled a large portion of the African Great Lakes Coast, known as Zanj, as well as trading routes extending much further across the continent, as far as Kindu on the Congo River. In November 1886, a German-British border commission established the Zanj as a ten-nautical mile (19 km) wide strip along most of the coast of the African Great Lakes, stretching from Cape Delgado (now in Mozambique) to Kipini (now in Kenya), including Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, and several offshore Indian Ocean islands. However, from 1887 to 1892, all of these mainland possessions were lost to the colonial powers of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, with Britain gaining control of Mombasa in 1963.

In the late 1800s, the Omani Sultan of Zanzibar also briefly acquired nominal control over parts of Mogadishu in the Horn region to the north. However, power on the ground remained in the hands of the Somali Geledi Sultanate (which, also holding sway over the Shebelle region in Somalia's interior, was at its zenith).[5] In 1892, Ali bin Said leased the city to Italy. The Italians eventually purchased the executive rights in 1905, and made Mogadishu the capital of the newly established Italian Somaliland.[6]

Zanzibar was famous worldwide for its spices and its slaves. It was the Africa Great Lakes' main slave-trading port, and in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the slave markets of Zanzibar each year.[7] (David Livingstone estimated that 80,000 Africans died each year before ever reaching the island.) Tippu Tip was the most notorious slaver, under several sultans, and also a trader, plantation owner and governor. Zanzibar's spices attracted ships from as far away as the United States, which established a consulate in 1837. The United Kingdom's early interest in Zanzibar was motivated by both commerce and the determination to end the slave trade.[8] In 1822, the British signed the first of a series of treaties with Sultan Said to curb this trade, but not until 1876 was the sale of slaves finally prohibited.

Zanzibar had the distinction of having the first steam locomotive in the African Great Lakes, when Sultan Bargash bin Said ordered a tiny 0-4-0 tank engine to haul his regal carriage from town to his summer palace at Chukwani.

British influence and rule

A Zanzibar marketplace, around 1910. A British colonist can be seen in the middle, wearing a linen suit and a Pith helmet.

The British Empire gradually took over; the relationship was formalized by the 1890 Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany pledged, among other things, not to interfere with British interests in Zanzibar. This treaty made Zanzibar and Pemba a British protectorate (not colony), and the Caprivi Strip (in what is now Namibia) part of German South-West Africa. British rule through a sultan (vizier) remained largely unchanged.

The death of Hamad bin Thuwaini on 25 August 1896 saw the Khalid bin Bargash, eldest son of the second sultan, Barghash ibn Sa'id, take over the palace and declare himself the new ruler. This was contrary to the wishes of the British government, which favoured Hamoud bin Mohammed. This led to a showdown, later called the Anglo-Zanzibar War, on the morning of 27 August, when ships of the Royal Navy destroyed the Beit al Hukum Palace, having given Khalid a one-hour ultimatum to leave. He refused, and at 9 am the ships opened fire. Khalid's troops returned fire and he fled to the German consulate. A cease fire was declared 45 minutes after the action had begun, giving the bombardment the title of The Shortest War in History. Hamoud was declared the new ruler and peace was restored once more. Acquiescing to British demands, he brought an end in 1897 to Zanzibar's role as a centre for the centuries-old eastern slave trade by banning slavery and freeing the slaves, compensating their owners. Hamoud's son and heir apparent, Ali, was educated in Britain.

From 1913 until independence in 1963, the British appointed their own residents (essentially governors).

Independence and revolution

The Sultan's Palace.
Ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the Zanzibar Revolution in 2004.

On 10 December 1963, Zanzibar received its independence from the United Kingdom as a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan. This state of affairs was short-lived, as the Sultan and the democratically elected government were overthrown on 12 January 1964 in the Zanzibar Revolution led by John Okello, a Ugandan citizen who invaded Zanzibar with British trained Ugandan soldiers from the mainland. Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume was named president of the newly created People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. Several thousand ethnic Arab (5,000-12,000 Zanzibaris of Arabic descent) and Indian civilians were murdered and thousands more detained or expelled, either their property confiscated or destroyed. The film Africa Addio documents the violence and massacre of unarmed ethnic Arab civilians.

The revolutionary government nationalized the local operations of the two foreign banks in Zanzibar, Standard Bank and National and Grindlays Bank. These nationalized operations may have provided the foundation for the newly created Peoples Bank of Zanzibar. Jetha Lila, the one locally owned bank in Zanzibar, closed. It was owned by Indians and although the revolutionary government of Zanzibar urged it to continue functioning, the loss of its customer base as Indians left the island made it impossible to continue.

Union with Tanganyika

On 26 April 1964, the mainland colony of Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar; this lengthy name was compressed into a portmanteau, the United Republic of Tanzania, on 29 October 1964. After unification, local affairs were controlled by President Abeid Amani Karume, while foreign affairs were handled by the United Republic in [Dar es Salaam]. Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.

Lists of rulers

Sultans of Zanzibar

  1. Majid bin Said (1856–1870)
  2. Barghash bin Said (1870–1888)
  3. Khalifah bin Said (1888–1890)
  4. Ali bin Said (1890–1893)
  5. Hamad bin Thuwaini (1893–1896)
  6. Khalid bin Barghash (1896)
  7. Hamud bin Muhammed (1896–1902)
  8. Ali bin Hamud (1902–1911) (abdicated)
  9. Khalifa bin Harub (1911–1960)
  10. Abdullah bin Khalifa (1960–1963)
  11. Jamshid bin Abdullah (1963–1964)


  1. Sir Lloyd William Matthews, (1890 to 1901)
  2. A.S. Rogers, (1901 to 1906)
  3. Arthur Raikes, (1906 to 1908)
  4. Francis Barton, (1906 to 1913)

British residents

  1. Francis Pearce, (1913 to 1922)
  2. John Sinclair, (1922 to 1923)
  3. Alfred Hollis, (1923 to 1929)
  4. Richard Rankine, (1929 to 1937)
  5. John Hall, (1937 to 1940)
  6. Henry Pilling, (1940 to 1946)
  7. Vincent Glenday, 1946 to 1951)
  8. John Rankine, (1952 to 1954)
  9. Henry Steven Potter, (1955 to 1959)
  10. Arthur George Mooring, (1959 to 1963)

See also


  1. ^ , Paul Sinclair (Uppsala University), Abdurahman Juma, Felix Chami, 2006The African Archaeology Network: Research in Progress"Excavations at Kuumbi Cave on Zanzibar 2005",
  2. ^ Ingrams, William Harold (1967). Zanzibar, its history and its people. Routledge. pp. 43–46.  
  3. ^ Meyer,, Carol; Joan Markley Todd; Curt W. Beck. "From Zanzibar to Zagros: A Copal Pendant from Eshnunna". Journal of Near Eastern Studies 50 (4): 289–298.  
  4. ^ , W. H. Ingrams, Frank Cass and Company Ltd., Abingdon, United Kingdom, 1931, page 99Zanzibar: Its History and Its People
  5. ^ Lewis, I. M. (1988). A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. Westview Press. p. 38.  
  6. ^ Hamilton, Janice (1 January 2007). Somalia in Pictures. Twenty-First Century Books. p. 28.  
  7. ^ National Geographic article
  8. ^ Remembering East African slave raids

External links

  • by Thomas BurgessRace, Revolution and the Struggle for Human Rights in ZanzibarExcerpt from:
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