Just close your eyes for a moment and think about the word “Zanzibar”. What does the term conjure up in your mind? Can you smell the scents of exotic spices? Do you envision a Sultan with his many slaves? How about hearing vendors’ loud voices in a busy market? You are definitely on the right track if those are the things you perceive and associate with Zanzibar. (You can open your eyes now.)
Zanzibar City is the capital and largest city of Zanzibar, in Tanzania. It is located on the west coast of Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago, roughly due north of Dar es Salaam across the Zanzibar Channel.
Zanzibar: exotic, beautiful and far away. During the Middle Ages this island archipelago (just off the East-African coast near modern-day Tanzania and Kenya) became a popular stop-over point for Arabian, Persian, Indonesian, Indian and Chinese merchant vessels. The interaction with all these different ethnicities eventually led to the creation of the Swahili culture and language. Unique, tolerant and colourful in its culture, traditions and religions, the people of Zanzibar survived occupation by the Portuguese, several generations of hereditary Omani Sultanate rule and existence as a British Protectorate during the centuries that followed. In April 1964, the country of Zanzibar merged with the United Republic of Tanganyika to form a new nation called The United Republic of Tanzania. Since then, Zanzibar, as a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, has had a rocky relationship with its multi-party system and still struggles to feed its people and maintain its infrastructure.
Zanzibar’s glory days arrived with the Arabian Sultans. At one point, the Sultan of Oman even moved his capital from Muscat to Stone Town in Zanzibar. Now a World Heritage Site, the capital’s aging waterfront palaces, deteriorating grand houses with their intricately carved wooden doorways, labyrinths of narrow lanes and busy markets still hint of those times when ivory, spices, tortoiseshells and slaves were traded here.
Up to 50,000 slaves passed through Zanzibar annually from the interior of Africa to the Mediterranean. Tippu Tip, the most notorious and feared slave trader of the 19th century, frequently directed large caravans into the African interior. There, he bought slaves and ivory for next to nothing, transported both back to Zanzibar and sold them for large profits at local auctions. The demand for slaves was strong and the business lucrative. Muslims were more than happy to buy slaves as long as they were non-Muslim, Hindus liked slaves as their religion permitted the trade in human flesh and European Christians had a need for slaves to work in their far-flung plantations. Africans were not shy in their extensive use of slaves, either. Eventually Tip, who came from an Omani ruling class, became a very wealthy man who owned many plantations and 10,000 slaves in Zanzibar. Yielding to British pressure, the slave trade in Zanzibar ended in 1873. Tip died of Malaria in 1905.
Today, with an average income of US $250 annually and 50% of the population living below the line of poverty, Zanzibar is looking to tourism and possible off-shore oil reserves for relief from its dire economic situation. The will of the people of Zanzibar to re-build their island paradise is strong. In 1866, the famous European explorer David Livingston called Zanzibar “the finest place in all of Africa”. Perhaps, with a stable government and new economic drivers in place, this beautiful island nation in the Indian Ocean can recover some of its past glory.