Zanzibar The 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. Zanzibar and Pemba 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. Another major trade good was ivory, the tusks of elephants that were killed on the Tanganyika mainland. 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.

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 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 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. Archaeological discoveries of a limestone cave used radiocarbon techniques to prove more recent occupation, from around 2800 BC to the year 0. 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. 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.


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 to solidify the ethnic identity of their respective peoples.

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


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. Zanzibar remained a possession of Portugal for almost two centuries.


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 centering 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 labor. 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.

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. 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. 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 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.


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 center 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. 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 centers were subject to it and almost all trade passed through it.


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.


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, which still stands today, and was the largest building in Zanzibar, the first to have electric lights and an electric lift. Zanzibar had the distinction of having the first steam locomotive in the African Great Lakes, when the sultan ordered a tiny 0-4-0 tank engine to haul his regal carriage from town to his summer palace at Chukwani.


The British Empire gradually took over; the relationship was formalized by the 1890 Helgoland-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, 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 favored 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 center 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.

By the 1920’s the cities bustled with economic activity, and the bazaars were lined with craftsmen who produced carved doors and brass-studded chests, gold and silver jewelry, pottery and embroidery.


Following elections in 1963, on 10the of December Zanzibar received its independence from the United Kingdom as a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan. 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.

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 – the blue triangle in the flag represents Zanzibar’s part of the Union. 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