The History of Zanzibar From the Middle Ages to 1856 – Trade, Portuguese and British Rulers, Sultanate and More
The History of Stone Town Zanzibar
The locals of Zanzibar have lived for about 20,000 years in the land. The history of Zanzibar begins as the island becomes a base for traders traveling between the African Great Lakes, Somalia, Arabia, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent. Because Unguja provided a protected and defended port, the archipelago lacked valuable food, but Omanis and Yemenis created a settlement that became the city of Zanzibar [Stone Town] as a convenient place to trade with the town along the Swahili coast. They garrisoned the island and built the first mosque in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
The Portuguese Empire, which ruled Zanzibar for nearly 200 years during the Age of Exploration, was the first European force to enter the land and one of the crucial aspects of the history of Zanzibar. The Sultanate of Oman took possession of Zanzibar in 1698. Together with the ruling Arab elite and the general Bantu, they built a trading and a strong economy of cash crops. A spice farm was established. Hence the name “Spicy Islands” [also used in the Dutch colony of the Moluccas, which is presently called Indonesia]. Another important commodity is ivory, an elephant tusk that was slaughtered on the mainland of Tanganyika, which continues to this day. Slavery was the third pillar of the economy, and Zanzibar profited and played a significant role in the Indian Ocean slave trade, which was analogous to the more well-known triangular trade in the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar’s Omani Sultan controlled much of the African Great Lakes coastline known as Zanj and extensive inland trade paths.
The history of Zanzibar shows that the British Empire gained control of Zanzibar over time, sometimes gradually and other times in bursts. Britain took control of the island in 1890, making it a British territory. The Anglo Zanzibar War, a.k.a the shortest war in human history, was sparked by the passing away of one Sultan and the subsequent succession of a new one whom the Brits did not support.
These islands gained independence from Britain as a structural monarchy in December 1963 as per the documented history of Zanzibar. The Zanzibar People’s Republic was created a month later after a bloody Zanzibar change in which hundreds of Arabs and Indians were slain, and thousands more were exiled and their properties taken away. In April of the same year, the republic was annexed with the mainland of Tanganyika or, more precisely, included in Tanzania, with the semi-autonomous region remaining as Zanzibar. Lately, decades, Zanzibar has witnessed political battles related to contested elections, along with the 2001 genocide.
The history of Zanzibar unveils that the island may not have been permanent since the Paleolithic. Powerful stone tools were unearthed at the Kumbi Cave in southeastern Zanzibar in 2005, suggesting that the site was inhabited for more than 22,000 years ago. Archaeological finds in limestone caves have used radiocarbon processes and methods to prove the latest settlement around 2800 BC. ~ 2006 [Chami 2006]. The community footprint includes items such as glass marbles brought from across the Indian Ocean. Some authors have questioned this possibility, but speculation about early transoceanic trade networks is just speculation.
No pottery fragments have been found in the cave of Zanzibar that was severely damaged or used by the early and late Bantu agricultural and ironsmith communities who lived on the island [Mafia, Zanzibar] during 1000 AD. In the land of Zanzibar, evidence of settlements by farmers and metallurgists from the mid-1000 AD is much more convincing. They point to the onset of urbanization, where houses were built with buildings constructed of dirty timber [Juma 2004]. This predates existing evidence of a city in other parts of the Swahili coast in the 9th century. The ancestors of Hadimu and Tumbatu, who arrived from the continent of the African Great Lakes in the year 1000 AD, turned out to be the first permanent occupants of Zanzibar in history. They were members of numerous Bantu tribes on the mainland. They lived in small settlements on Zanzibar, unable to form bigger political groupings because of their small population during that period. And also, it happens in the history of Zanzibar that there was no centralized organization in the land as of that time, thus it was a place that could easily be overpowered by outsiders.
History of Zanzibar Island Early Trade Routes
The early days’ pottery shows in the history of Zanzibar that there were existing trade paths with island from Sumerian and Assyrian times. An early pendant was found beside Eshnunna around 2500-2400 BC. It was traced back to copal, which was traded from Zanzibar.
At a certain period of the history of Zanzibar, the Arabia traders [notably Yemen], Iran Gulf [Shiraz predominantly], and western India; as early as the 1st century, they visited the land of Zanzibar and Somalia later in the Middle Ages Islam spread. They decided to cross the Indian Ocean using only the monsoon winds and landed in a protected harbor on the present-day site of Zanzibar during their visit. Although these islands had minor natural minerals available to merchants, they did provide an excellent place to market and trade with the towns along the Swahili coast. The part of urban progress associated with the exposure of stone into the building industry of the African Great Lakes coastline started in the 10th century AD.
In the late 11th or 12th century, merchants settled in a small part of Zanzibar and started getting married to indigenous Africans in the land. However, Hadimu had a hereditary ruler [Mwen Mkuu, also known as Jumbe), and Shehara with the same power appointed within Tumbatu. All of them held the same ruling authority, but they did support a strong nation’s national identity.
In Kizimkazi, the southernmost village of Unguja, Yemenis constructed a mosque that is now the oldest worship ground ever existed in the Southern Hemisphere. The Kufic caption of mihrab indicates the date of 500 AH, that is, 1107 AD. There were also villages that shared a common lineage.
The visit of Portugal’s reign that is Vasco da Gama, in 1499 indicated the first steps of European impact in the history of Zanzibar. In the year 1503 to 1504, Zanzibar joined a share of Portuguese territory when Captain Louis Lorenzo Rawasco Marquez arrived and requested tribute from the Sultan; in return, he gave him friendship. For about 2 centuries, Zanzibar has been owned and ruled by Portugal.
The Zanzibar Sultanate and History of Zanzibar Slave Trade
During the reign of the Ruler of Oman, the history of Zanzibar took a big turn since the island became a component of Oman’s overseas possessions. Trade-in slaves and ivory flourished, along with a growing plantation economy based on cloves, after the Portuguese were ejected from the Caribbean. With its beautiful port and freshwater, the stone city [Zanzibar’s capital]has become one of East Africa’s most prominent and wealthiest cities. When the arrival of Omani authority in Zanzibar, a forcible land redistribution took place, with all of the most fertile land being given to Omani nobility who enslaved the area’s farmers. Every year, with the monsoon winds blowing in from the northeast, hundreds of dhows would travel across the Indian Ocean from Persia, India, and Arabia, bringing cloth, sugar, dates, and iron. The traders would leave when the monsoon winds turned to the southwest in March or April, with their ships loaded with coconuts, ivory, slaves, tortoiseshell, copal, cloves, coir, and rice.
Arabs built permanent military posts in Kilwa, Zanzibar, and lastly Pemba. When Sultan Seyyid Said [to put his name in full, Sayyid Said bin Sultan al-Busaid] transferred all his investment from Muscat, Oman, to Stone Town in 1840, which increased and elevated the Arab dominance; making them reach the highest level of ruling during this year. He set up a ruling Arab elite and endorsed the improvement of clove plantations, the use of the island’s slave labor. Zanzibar’s trade fell more and more into the fingers of buyers coming from the Indian subcontinent, in which Said endorsed them the right to live on the island. When he died in the year 1856, his sons fought over the taking of the land as the next ruler. Zanzibar and Oman decided to divide into separate and became 2 different principalities on the 6th of April 1861. Sayyid Majid bin Said Al-Busaid [ruler from 1834/5–1870], his 6th son, was made the Sultan of Zanzibar, at the same time as the 3rd son, Sayyid Thuwaini bin Said al-Said, also took leader as the Sultan of Oman.
Rumors from foreigners coming from Zanzibar frequently portray the outward splendor of the land. In 1856, the British scholar Richard Francis Burton defined Zanzibar as: “Earth, Sea, and Sky, all appeared wrapped in a tender and sensuous repose…The sea of purist sapphire, which can never be separated with its blue shinny rays to the atmosphere… beautiful admiration… below a blaze of light which touched each item with a stupid burnish of gold”. To describe more of the beautiful things in the land, there were some sparkling white minarets in the mosques and the Sultan’s palaces in Stone Town, making the metropolis seem from the gap to Westerners as an “Orientalist” beauty ushered to life. In the history of Zanzibar, Stone Town was described by those who got to experience it as a foul-smelling land that stinks of animals and people waste, rotten, and decaying bodies, like garbage, filthy, and the dead of animals, slaves were all left out in the open to decompose. The British scholar Dr. David Livingstone while dwelling in Stone Town in 1866, put in his diary: “The stench bobbing up from a distance of 2 squares miles in a rectangular surface, uncovered sea beach, that’s the overall dropping grime in the city is pretty disgusting and nasty…It is probably known as “Stinkable” instead of Zanzibar.” Moreover, for the pervasive foul scent of Stone Town, foreigners who visited defined the town as having many slaves with no food, an area in which malaria, venereal sicknesses, and cholera all flourished in the land.
Including all of the types of financial and economic involvements as reviewed in the history of Zanzibar, slavery turned to be the most successful worthwhile. All Africans dwelling on the island had been Bantu locals coming from the island. The slaves had been introduced to Zanzibar in dhows, in which many of them were packed as goods with no protection or ease for them to breathe. Many of which do not make it alive during the journey to Zanzibar. When they arrived in Zanzibar, the slaves were asked to stay naked always, clean up, put a lot of coconut oil on their bodies, and be pressured to put on gold and silver bracelets marked with the name of their masters. During that period, most of the slaves were forced to dance and marched naked in a direction going down to the streets of Stone Town, guarded by slavers’ trusted slaves wielding spears or swords, until someone could show interest within the procession. When a captain from a ship operated by the East India Company visited Zanzibar in the year 1811 and watched the slave marches around the streets, he wrote a fascinating tale of how a buyer tested the slaves:
The captain said, “The mouth and enamel are examined first, then each part of the body followed step by step, with the exception of the breasts, etc., of the ladies, many of whom I have seen tested most ridiculously in the public marketplace with the aid of the buyer who participated willingly “The slave is then made to stroll or run a bit to expose that there’s no illness around the feet; after which, if the charge is agreed to, they may be stripped in their finery and brought over to their destiny master. I actually have often counted twenty or thirty of those documents inside the marketplace at one time…Women with youngsters newly born clinging to their breasts and others so elderly they could scarcely walk are occasionally visible dragged about with no respect. They had in trendy a totally dejected look; a few of them seemed so ill-fed that their bones appeared as though they were going to penetrate the skin”.
The saddest and shocking part of the history of Zanzibar, is the fact that each year, approximately 40,000-50,000 slaves were being taken to Zanzibar for businesses. About a 3rd went to the Clove section to work while others went to Coconut Plantations of Zanzibar and Pemba. And so, the remaining slaves were carried to Arabia, Egypt, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. The terrible working conditions made approximately 30% of the male slaves die every year, hence making sure that another set of slaves is imported as soon as possible. The Omani Arabs who dominated Zanzibar had the phrases of the American diplomat Donald Petterson a “life of violence” in which brute pressure turned into the favored approach to treat slaves. The ruling al-Busaid relatives turned something else and started fighting each other’s and brothers killing brothers, which turned into an ordinary thing to the Arab aristocracy to benefit more lands, tittles, slaves, and wealth. Visitors to Zanzibar frequently noted the “bad treatment” in which the Arab masters handled their slaves, who had been so frightened and respectful, but there has been by no means a slave riot tried on Zanzibar. The wickedness, together with the brutality in which Arab masters did to their slaves, and the suffering those slaves went through at the hands of their bosses, somehow established a history of hatred that erupted during the revolution of 1964.
The Sultan of Zanzibar managed a considerable part of the African Great Lakes Coast as indicated in the history of Zanzibar. The area became known as Zanj, whereby the Sultan calmly involved himself with buying and selling routes and expanding throughout the continent, with a distance such as Kindu at the Congo River. One of the German-British border commissions developed the Zanj in November 1886 as a 10-nautical-mile [19-kilometer] far strip along most of the African Great Lakes coast, starting from Cape Delgado [known as Mozambique presently] to Kipini [located now in Kenya], together with Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, as well as many of the offshores in the island of Indian Ocean. However, from 1887 to 1892, all of those mainland possessions had been misplaced to the colonial powers of the UK, Italy, and Germany, with Britain gaining management of Mombasa in 1963, though this happened between 1887 to 1892.
The Omani Sultan of Zanzibar claimed sovereignty of Mogadishu in the Horn of Africa and southern Somalia for a brief period in the late 1800s. Additionally, power was handed and stayed in the hands of the great kingdom of Somalia known as Geledi Sultanate [which, further maintaining sway over the Jubba River and Shebelle place in Somalia’s interior, turned into at its zenith]. Osman Ahmed, the monarch of Geledi, handed the city to Italy in 1892. Also, history of Zanzibar indicates that the Italians later bought the government rights in 1905 and put the next capital called Mogadishu to legalize the current system of Italian Somaliland.
Spices and slaves overall in the history of Zanzibar played a huge role in making the island a prominent place in the world, during the nineteenth century, in the phrases of Petterson as: “Legend of spices, a vile middle of slavery, an area of beginnings of expeditions into the extensive, mysterious continent, the islet turned into all this stuff throughout its heyday in the remaining 1/2 of the nineteenth century”. It turned into the Africa Great Lakes’ fundamental slave-buying and selling port, and in the nineteenth century, more than 50,000 slaves had been passing thru the slave markets of Zanzibar every year. [David Livingstone, with his research, realized that about 80,000 human beings died every year and was never set foot on the island]. Tippu Tip became the most terrible slave master under the command of the Sultan, governors, traders, and owners of the plantation. The spices of Zanzibar charmed a lot of ships from many countries in the world, including the United States; thus, a consulate was built in the year 1837. The United Kingdom’s early rush to Zanzibar turned out to encourage and eliminate the slave trade by using both business and determination to establish peace in the land. The British negotiated and signed the first of many agreements with Sultan Said to stop the slave trade in 1822, but it wasn’t until 1876 that slave sales were outlawed. The slave trade was officially ended in 1876 as a result of significant British pressure. Still, slavery continued to exist in Zanzibar despite many warnings against it until 1897, when it finally ended.
When Sultan Bargash bin Said purchased a modest 0-4-0 tank engine to transport his regal vehicle from the township to his summer palace at Chukwani, the move became another exciting event in the history of Zanzibar, as it made the island enjoy the distinction of possessing the first steam engine in the African Great Lakes. The most popular well-known court was constructed with the help of the Sultans was the House of Wonders, which is presently among the best sites for foreign visitors.
British Influence and Rule
As the British Empire progressively assumed control, the relationship was codified by the 1890 Heligoland Zanzibar Treaty which played a vital role in shaping the history of Zanzibar. Germany promised, including other issues, not to intervene with any British involvement in Zanzibar. After signing this treaty, Zanzibar and Pemba immediately became British oversea-territories [rather than colonies], and the Caprivi Strip [presently called Namibia] as part of the German southwest Africa. The sultan [vizier] system of British authority was practically never altered.
After the death of Hamad bin Thuwaini on the 25th of August, 1896, the eldest son of Khalid bin Bargash called Bargash bin Said, took over the palace and made himself the new Sultan. This was totally against the wishes of the British administration, who openly preferred Hamoud bin Mohammed to be in charge. This result of this action in the history of Zanzibar was a clash on the morning of the 27th of August, later known as the Anglo-Zanzibar Warfare, when Royal Navy ships demolished the Beit al Hukum Palace after giving Khalid a one-hour deadline to withdraw. When he decided to go contrary to his warning, the vessel started firing immediately at precisely 9 a.m. [EAT]. Khalid’s forces retaliated with fire but never succeeded, forcing him to flee to the German embassy. The bombardment was dubbed “The Shortest War in History” because a cease-fire was declared 45 minutes after it began. Finally, Hamoud was made the new Sultan, while peace and love were once again restored. In the year 1897, he agreed to British demands. He ended Zanzibar’s role as a center for the centuries-old eastern slave trade by outlawing slavery and releasing the slaves while refunding the slave owners all they spent buying the slaves. Hamoud’s son, who is considered as the next of kin, received his education in the United Kingdom with full scholarships.
The British nominated their own residents (essential governors) from 1913 until 1963, when the country gained independence. The building of a proper sewage, waste disposal system, and burial system by the British government, was regarded as the best among many ideas focusing on the interest of the people. This was meant that the Zanzibar beaches no longer reeked of bodies, excrement, and garbage, ultimately eradicating the horrible smell of Stone Town, which had sent away so many foreigners.
Independence and the Recount of the History of Zanzibar Revolution
Fortunately, Zanzibar gained independence from the United Kingdom on the 10th of December, 1963, and became an organized monarchy under the Sultan. Sadly, the Sultan and the government’s elected officials were surprisingly removed from power on the 12th of January 1964 in the Zanzibar Revolution, which was organized and led by John Okello, a Ugandan official who organized and led the revolution alongside his followers on the island. The newly formed People’s Republic of Zanzibar Party named Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume as its president. Thousands of ethnic Arabs [5,000-12,000 Zanzibaris of Arabic heritage] and Indian citizens were captured and killed, while tens of thousands more were jailed or expelled, their properties were taken, and some of them were destroyed. The movie Africa Addio is a documentary narrating this part of the history of Zanzibar by narrating on how innocent and good Arab citizens were subjected to violence and massacre in the early days.
The two international banks in Zanzibar called Standard Bank National and Grindlays Bank had their local operations nationalized by the new ruling power. The newly formed Peoples Bank of Zanzibar may have been built on the backs of these nationalized activities. The only locally-owned bank in Zanzibar, Jetha Lila, has closed its doors. Since An Indian citizen-owned it, and despite the fact that the new government of Zanzibar supported keeping its doors open for business operations to continue, the lack of Indians in the land made it difficult to function perfectly.
One of the significant effects of the revolution in the history of Zanzibar was breaking of the control of the Arab/Asian governing elite, who had been in power for over 200 years. Although, the union with Tanganyika, Zanzibar has kept its Revolutionary Council and House of Representatives, which were run on a one-party system until 1992 and have control over family affairs. The home and family affair department was led by Zanzibar’s President, Karume, who was the first-ever government official to hold this position. This government leveraged the victory of the revolution to implement reforms throughout the island. The loss of power from Arabs was a common theme in several of them. For example, the Zanzibar government service became nearly totally African-run, and the land was taken from Arabs and shared with Africans. The new administration implemented social reforms that included free healthcare and the opening of the educational system to African students [who almost did not have a position in the secondary school before the change of power].
However, the new administration requested financial aid together with military guidance from the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the GDR [German Democratic Republic]. Following the failure of many GDR-led programs, including the New Zanzibar Project, a 1968 urban redevelopment scheme aimed at providing new apartments for all Zanzibaris, Zanzibar shifted its focus to Chinese help. The new Tanzanian government was powerless to intervene when the post-revolutionary Zanzibar government was accused of imposing extreme restrictions on personal liberties and travel, as well as favoritism in political and industry appointments. Karume was eventually killed on the 7th of April 1972, which led to many days of battle between pro-and anti-government power while it brought discontent with the administration to ahead. In 1992, a multi-party system was formed. Still, claims of corruption and vote fraud continue to plague Zanzibar, despite the fact that the 2010 general election was widely regarded as a significant development.
Still today, the complex revolution process is still a topic of discussion whenever the subject of history of Zanzibar comes up among Zanzibar people and intellectuals. The historians have interpreted the revolution as having a social and racial beginning. Some claim that the African changes represent the proletariat fighting against the power and business people, who Arabs and South Asians represent. Others rejected this view, portraying it as a racial revolution aggravated by many nationality disparities in economic opportunity. On the 10th anniversary of the revolution, 545 convicts were released, and on the 40th anniversary, a military parade was held. The Tanzanian government has declared Zanzibar Revolution Day a public holiday, which is honored and praised on the 12th of January each year.
Union with Tanganyika
The United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar came together to form one country on the 26th of April, 1964, but when the mainland colony of Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to become the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar; on the 29th of October, 1964, this lengthy name was reduced into a portmanteau, the United Republic of Tanzania. President Abeid Amani Karume was in charge of local matters after unification, while the United Republic in Dar es Salaam was in charge of foreign affairs. As of the present, the Zanzibar area is still semi-autonomous in Tanzania.
According to some scholars, Zanzibar’s independent status is analogous to that of Hong Kong, and it is known as the “Hong Kong African.”
In 1980, the first House of Representatives of Zanzibar was formed. But looking at the history of Zanzibar particularly the revolution in 1964, the newly formed Council was in charge of both the executive and legislative branches for 16 years.
Zanzibar has a large number of political parties, although the CCM [Chama Cha Mapinduzi] and the CUF [Civic United Front] are the two most popular. These two political groups have been involved in several disputes throughout the history of Zanzibar, dating back to the early 1990s. The following are the results of previous elections that were held under the multi-party democracy:
|Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM)
|Civic United Front (CUF)
According to Human Rights Watch, a massacre occurred on the 27th of January, 2001, when the army and police opened fire on crowds of protestors, killing at least 35 people and injuring over 600 more. These forces indiscriminately arrested, beaten, and sexually abused residents, which ruling party leaders and militias accompanied. Around 2,000 people fled to Kenya for the time being.
After another controversial election on the 31st of October, 2005, an attack erupted once more, with the CUF saying that its rightful triumph had been snatched from it. A total of nine persons were murdered.
Negotiations among the two parties were focused on a long-term resolution of fears, and a power-sharing agreement began after 2005, but they were repeatedly derailed. Exactly in April 2008, when the CUF abandoned and left intentionally from the negotiation table during a heated moment in response to a CCM request for a vote on the power-sharing agreement, which had always been presented as a perfect result. This whole ordeal seems like a repeat of some of the horrible events in the history of Zanzibar that happened.
In November 2009, Amani Abeid Karume, the then-president of Zanzibar, met with CUF secretary-general Seif Sharif Hamad at the government House to commemorate how to safeguard Zanzibar from future political turbulence and to put an end to the enmity and hatred between both parties and hopefully avoid awakening some of the spiteful things from the history of Zanzibar. Many countries, including the United States, applauded this decision. The CUF finally accepted to recognize Karume as the genuine president of Zanzibar for the first time since the multi-party system was implemented in Zanzibar.
On the 31st of July, 2010, 66.2 % of Zanzibar voters approved a decision to change the constitution of Tanzania to recognize opposing parties to establish national unity governments.
The ACT Wazalendo [Alliance for Change and Transparency-Wazalendos] is now the most prominent rival political party in Zanzibar’s semi-autonomous region. According to Zanzibar’s constitution, the second-placed party must work hand in glove with the first-placed party. After contested elections in Zanzibar, ACT-Wazalendo formed a meeting with the government of the islands’ ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, in December 2020.
|Lists of rulers
|Sultans of Zanzibar
|Years Of Leadership
|Majid bin Said
|Barghash bin Said
|Khalifah bin Said
|Ali bin Said
|Hamad bin Thuwaini
|Ali bin Hamud
|Hamud bin Muhammed
|Khalid bin Barghash
|Jamshid bin Abdullah
|Abdullah bin Khalifa
|Khalifa bin Harub
|Years Of Leadership
|Sir Lloyd William Matthews
|1890 – 1901
|1901 – 1906
|1906 – 1908
|1906 – 1913
|Years Of Leadership
|1922 – 1923
|1923 – 1929
|1929 – 1937
|1937 – 1940
|1940 – 1946
|1946 – 1951
|1952 – 1954
|Henry Steven Potter
|1955 – 1959
|Arthur George Mooring
Other Important Historical Pieces Related to Zanzibar
- History of cloves in Zanzibar – Download PDF
- History of Prison Island Zanzibar – https://www.prisonislandzanzibar.com/tour-information/history-of-prison-island-zanzibar
- History of Zanzibar doors – https://www.focuseastafricatours.com/blog/zanzibar-doors/
- History of old fort Zanzibar – Ngome Kongwe Zanzibar
- Political history of Zanzibar pdf – Download PDF
You can also download the history of Zanzibar pdf to have your own copy and more details if interested.
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