Map Of Zanzibar:

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Notes on the Dark Continent,

Part III: Zanzibar

BY Howard Whitehouse, (Webified by Chick Lewis)


(Put on the Robin Leach voice!)

Zanzibar, fabled Isle of Cloves, a languorous tropical island where the sweet scent of the clove and cinnamon plantations cannot mask the evil stench of decay, intrigue and medieval sanitation. once the center of the East African slave trade and capital of a powerful mercantile empire, Zanzibar is being torn apart by European land -thieves, scheming pretenders to the Sultan's throne, and the last - and most ruthless - of the Arab slave raiders. As the old Sultan, Barghash bin Said inches towards death, there are a thousand plots afoot in the maze-like coral city and the lush palm groves and mangrove swamps of the interior. Most of them are, you can be assured, of the most dastardly variety.


The coastal cities of Ease Africa have served as market places since the time of Solomon and Sheba. From the Biblical period trading vessels have come from Arabia, India, Persia- - as far as Java and the Chinese Empire- to buy the products of the African interior: airway (sic), ivory, gaily (sic) and slaves. In the Middle Ages the coast was known as Zinj, a land of bustling and prosperous seaports with a distinctive population of mixed African and Asian stock - a sophisticated mercantile race called the Swahili. In 1458 a new arrival, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope bent on conquest. With fire and sword the Portuguese established a brutal dominance over the coast, storming the cities of Kilwa and Mombassa, levying ransoms from Zanzibar and Brava.

The next two centuries witnessed a see-saw of conflict between the invaders and their unwilling subjects, primarily Arab seafarers of the Sultanate of Oman, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. In 1698 the Omenis captured Mombassa and Zanzibar, driving the Portuguese south as far as Mozambique. The price of these campaigns was the freedom and prosperity of Zinj, which now fell under the sway of the Omenis, whose interests lay in African slaves and ivory. In 1824, Sultan Seyyid Said decided to move his capital from the desert cliffs of Muscat to Zanzibar, formalizing the change of address in 1840. Seyyid built an extensive trading empire reaching deep into Central Africa; caravans under his banner left the coast for Uganda, Lake Tanganyika, even the Upper Congo. It was said that when the Sultan piped in Zanzibar, men would dance at the great lakes. Seyyid's informal empire, however, has not held up under the pressure of the European "Scramble for Africa". It has long been clear that the westerners will not allow the traditional pattern of slave trading to continue. The British are particularly concerned to end the slave trade, making the effort almost a national crusade. Under the long consul-ship of Sir John Kirk (1870-1886), the present Sultan, Barghash bin Said has come to an unwritten agreement with Britain: Barghash would end the slave trade if the British would safeguard the integrity of his possessions. For two decades this policy proved successful. In the mid eighties it fell apart. The cause of this disastrous turn of events was the arrival, in 1884, of Dr. Carl Peters of the "Society for German Colonization"; heading off info the interior, Peters returned brandishing a series of treaties purporting to transfer the ownership of tribal lands from the Sultan to himself and his society. This was scandalous conduct, and the new treaties were clearly worthless -worthless until Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire, decided to throw the weight of his government behind Herr Doctor Peters. The Sultan looked to Kirk for protection; Kirk looked to London for support in face of this obvious act of theft. London, however, was looking for German friendship rather than backing up any half promises made to an Arab chief. This was 1885, when the Russians were threatening the Afghan border, the French were demanding a British withdrawal from Egypt, the Sudan had fallen to the Mahdi's fanatics, and Fenian bombers were running amok in English cities. So, when a German naval squadron appeared in Zanzibar harbor on August 7th, Barghash had no choice but to accede to the loss of his inland holdings. It was a bitter moment.

The last four years have been humiliating for Zanzibar. In treaties of 1885 and 1886 the British and German governments agreed to divide the Sultan's mainland possessions into "spheres of influence" along a line from the coast to Lake Victoria. Peter's organization, now renamed the German East Africa Company lays claimed the area south of the line, while the Imperial British East Africa Co. (IBEA) holds the northern zone. All that has been left to Zanzibar are the islands and a narrow coastal strip. Even that has been compromised by the forcible leasing of the seaports of the coast to the Europeans. The Portuguese have taken the opportunity to extend the border of Mozambique northwards, while the Italians have tried - but failed - to take Kismayu as compensation for a supposed snub by the Sultan. The relay of British consuls that followed Kirk - Frederick Holmwood, Charles Euan--Smith, and now Gerald Portal - have done their best to defend Zanzibari sovereignty, but without real support from London, their efforts have been only partially successful. British prestige is low. The Sultan is dying. German sailors behave like thugs in the streets of Zanzibar, provoking the citizens to violence, and Arab merchants supply arms to their rebel cousins on the mainland. Others plan an uprising on the island to expel the interfering Christians for good. The port is full of warships - British, German, even a French cruiser, but the slaving dhows ply their trade by stealth and cunning.

With a succession dispute almost guaranteed the moment that Barghash expires, it is a very dangerous time in Zanzibar.


Zanzibar is a coral island some fifty miles long by twenty wide. It is low lying, divided into halves by a central ridge that run along the spine of the island. The eastern coast is buffeted by the full force of the Indian Ocean, while the western shore is sheltered, offering many safe anchorages. The west of the island is fertile. It is here that the plantations of cloves and coconut palms flourish.

East of the ridge is a region known as Wandaa, an area of rocks, jungle scrubs, and mangrove swamps. Zanzibar is warm, humid and stultifying. Year round temperatures range between 75°F and 95°F, the nights being almost as torrid as the days. The North-east monsoon (Dec.-- March) brings the hottest weather, while the South-westerly (June - Sept.) cools the island. Rainfall is fairly heavy - 60" or more each year, concentrated in two rainy seasons, the Masika, or "Greater Rains" (Mid march to end of May), and the Mvuli, or "Lesser Rains" (Oct. to Dec.). Zanzibar is a steamy tropical island, a climate often fatal to Europeans, especially to cloistered womenfolk; Richard Burton recommends that husbands anxious to do away with their wives take them on a prolonged visit to Zanzibar rather than risk the uncertainties of a blow to the head or arsenic in the cucumber sandwiches.


The Island of Zanzibar, ... presented from the sea a beautiful aspect, with its waving fronds of palm and the dark green foliage of mango and jack-fruit trees,...
Mrs. Stuart Wall

Tropical vegetation, in great luxuriance adorns the shore, and many a pretty awake and lovely Arrive is presently disclosed. The cocoa-nut palm raises its feathery plumes in abundance along the greater portion of the shore, and adds considerable grace and beauty to the scene. The shore at the northern end of the island rises in bluff rocks from the water's edge, but as you proceed towards the city this gives place to a beach of white silvery sand, backed by rising mounds of lawn-like land, losing itself in the shadows and among the innumerable stems of the ever-present palm. Land-breezes come laden with the fragrance of cloves, and you become aware that the soft hills in the background are richly clothed with this valuable spice... Anonymous


1: The wharf

The commercial life of Zanzibar revolves around the harbor , and the first sight of the city for visitors is the waterfront and the activities of the boatmen around the hundreds of vessels in the bay - traditional craft in the shallows close to the shore, and European ships farther out to sea. The new arrival is carried from ship to the beach by relays of boats rowed by white-shirted black men; from the boat the adventurer can see the loading and unloading of sacks of local produce - cloves, cinnamon, copra, and hides- while Arab merchants stroll between the water-battery and Changing Point as they watch their fortunes grow. The modern visitor is not privileged to see one of the older Zanzibari customs, for Sultan Barghash has wisely decreed that throwing dead bodies into the harbor be forbidden; in the past, it was considered unwise for newcomers to the tropics to land at low tide, as the sight of corpses on the wet sand was upsetting to many.

2: The Custom Houses

There are two Customs Houses; the first was noted by Burton in 1856:

This is an Arab bourse, where millions of dollars annually change hands under the foulest of sheds, a long, low mat roof, supported by two dozen rough tree-stems.

The beach and the waters opposite it are crowded with shore-boats, big and small. Inland, it is backed by sacks and bales, baskets and packages, hillocks of hides, old ship's tanks, piles of valuable woods, heaps of ivories, and a heterogeneous mass of waifs and strays; there is also a rude lock-up, for warehousing the more valuable goods.

This building, increasingly dilapidated, remains in use, together with the handsome new building - some forty years old - across the street.

3:The Sultan's Palace

Building palaces has been a favoured pastime of the Omani Sultans since Seyyid's time, and there are several rambling constructions around the city, all filled with numerous princelings, uncles, cousins, and advisors - mostly `wicked' in British eyes - servants, parasites and beggars. Barghash's palace is a large, square building, three stories high and whitewashed to a glaring finish. The entrance is imposing, reached by a small flight of circular stone steps, and guarded by alert sentries of General Mathews' army. Above the street - some 30 feet above the street - a covered gangway joins the palace to the building opposite, the Old Harem. Outside the palace are three wooden cages, housing a lion, lioness, and a pair of lynxes. The palace has few windows, and those are set high, cut into the coral rock with balconies of carved and polished wood. Burton, uncharitable to the last, states that though the finest building in the city, the palace is in "the workhouse style". The Sultan keeps an impressive stable of Arabian and Australian horses, all well tended though the stable buildings have no stalls, but resemble barns with posts to tie up the animals.

Since 1870 Barghash has added to the palace complex, with fine new buildings known as "The New Palace" and "The House of Wonders".

4: The Beit 'Al Ajaib (Secretariat)

In theory, government activity centers on the Beit Al Ajaib. However, in view of the political developments of recent years, it is questionable whether any real decisions are made in the large, box-like building that houses a population of Hindu clerks of the kind that Englishmen scathingly refer to as "Babas" - Europeanized Indians in suits and ties - together with more traditional Asiatics, Swahilis, and black servants. In Zanzibar it is usual to conduct much "official business" as unofficially as possible over drinks for the westerners, and over mint tea for the Arabs - but if one has to get a permit, find a file, or examine an archive, it will be al the Beit AI Ajaib if it exists at all. The labyrinth of corridors are usually filled with Zanzibar's voiceless masses, making as much noise as possible, as they wait for days to see an official about taxes, inheritances, or lawsuits.

5: The Consulate District

The consular buildings of the western nations are clustered together close to Shangani Point, where the sea breeze diverts much of the city's foul odors inland. The Consulates are as follows:

A: Great Britain
B: The United States
C: France
D: Germany
E: Portugal
F: Belgium
G: Electric telegraph office

Other countries that have business contacts in the city have agreements by which an existing Consul attends to their interests; for instance, a Russian would report to the French Consul in case of difficulties, while an Italian merchant would use the German official procedures. All kinds of stateless ne'er-do-wells try to use the offices of the American Consul for their ends - much to his, and Washington's displeasure.

All the consulates are housed in substantial coral buildings of the local style, though most have handsome modern additions such as large windows, private gardens, and functioning honor plumbing. The British Consulate is the largest, reflecting the primacy of the English `Balozi' since Kirk's time; the Belgian and Portuguese buildings are, to be frank, rather seedy compared with their wealthier neighbors.

6: The Port

The Portuguese built the great coral-and-lime fort in the style of a medieval castle. The armament consists of two dozen "neglected and worm eaten" iron carronades, together with a mixture of old brass cannon of different calibre's. The defensive capacity of the fort appears slender at best:

The embrasures of this outwork are so close that the first broadside would blow open the thin wall; and the score of guns is so placed that every bullet striking the fort must send a billet or two into the men that serve them.

Travelers have observed that a launch could easily dismantle this stronghold. It was once, the legend runs, attacked and taken by a single 'Jack,'

The chief function of the fort at the present time is to serve as the Sultan's prison, from which few ever emerge unless hefty bribes are forthcoming; as a humanitarian, Barghash does not believe in capital punishment, but places the worst offenders in the deepest dungeons, "where they soon disappear from this earth" (Jephson). Conditions are less than luxurious in the Sultan's institute of correction:

The interior of the fort is jammed with soldiers' huts, and divided into courts by rickety walls. Here, too, is the only jail in Zanzibar. The stocks (Makantarah), the fetters, the iron collars, and the heavy waist-chains, do not prevent black man from conversationizing, singing comic songs, and gambling with pebbles.

But the most mutinous white salt that ever floored skipper would 'squirm' at the idea of a second night in the black- hole of Zanzibar. Such is the Oriental beau-ideal of a prison - a place whose very name should develope the goose- - skin, and which the Chinese signifi-cantly call 'hell.'

Entrance to the fort is via an ornate fortified gateway; inside there is a shaded courtyard where a number of Baluchi guards, Swahili artisans and black slaves lounge on stone benches, gambling and chewing betel nut - a traditional Oriental narcotic that serves to ensure that their interest in superintending the chained prisoners is limited in the extreme.

7-10: The Bazaars of Zanzibar

Since the closing of the Slave Market, there have been four major `bazaars', or market places, in the city. These are:

7) The Salt Market, between the Fort and the Customs House, where the buyer can find "heaps of dirty saline sand" (Burton) as well as other commodities.

8) The Manioc Market, selling cassava (manioc) and other staple provisions

...the negro's daily bread, cloth and cotton, grain and paddy, vegetables, and other provisions. The shops are the usual holes in the wall, raised a foot above the street, and the owners sit or squat, writing upon a knee by way of desk.

9) The Fish Market, where the fresh catch arrives, with much excitement, in the late afternoon. To the west, on the waterfront, is the "German Club" built last year.

10) The Suk Melindi, the Butcher's market at Melendini. Meat is often scarce in the city, and customers expect to be there at sunrise for a choice of cuts.

The atmosphere of a Suk is well depicted by the Methodist missionary Charles New, whose distaste for the exotic squalor of the medieval market squares is more than evident.

Each stall contains a collection of the most incongruous articles, such as soap, cotton, lamp-oil, spices, pocket handkerchiefs, candles, flour, medicinal drugs, plantains, fish, etc.; and all are found strenuously heaped together as if intended to repel rather than to invite customers. The marketplace is an open space in the middle of the town, and on business days contains a promiscuous assemblage of almost all that the island and the city can supply. Every imaginable thing is brought for sale, and heaps on heaps of heterogeneous stuff is piled upon the ground. Representatives of all the different races crowd together into one dense and almost immovable mass, each screaming out, in his own tongue, whatever he may have to say, as though determined to make all the world hear, making confusion worse confounded, and creating perfect babbledom.

11-12) The Mosques of Zanzibar

About 30 of these useful, but by no means ornamental, 'meeting-houses' are scattered about the city for the use of the 'established church.' They are oblong rooms, with stuccoed walls, and matted floors; the flat roofs are supported by dwarf rows of square piers and polygonal columns; whilst Saracenic arches, broad, pointed, and lanceated, and windows low-placed for convenience of expectoration.

Zanzibari mosques generally lack the impressive minarets and domes of classic Arabian architecture. The leading mosques of the Sunni Moslem are that of Mohammed Abd el Kadr (11) and the Afghan (12). Minority Islamic groups exist; the Shiites have meeting rooms in the Kipondah quarter, while the Khojahs have a ruined mosque outside the city.

13) The French Hotel

The French Hotel is an "old tumble-down building - the only house in Zanzibar for entertaining travelers" (Watt). It is run by an elderly French couple. `Madame', is plump and imposing, famous for swallowing a basin of raw oysters, each moving at eleven, `to help stave off the heat'. The hotel is not large, but there are seldom so many transient Europeans in the city that the place is full. Service is rasher slow and creaky, and the rooms hardly luxurious, but the atmosphere is comfortingly western, and the food is excellent.

14) French Charlie's Emporium

This establishment is a back street shop, run by an Indian trader from the old French colony of Pondicherry, famous for its enormous inventory, legendary bad smell, and astonishing lack of basic hygiene;

...The first things that attract the eye are great piles of mildewed bags and rusty preserved meat tins stored against the wall up to the cobweb-covered ceiling... The ground of this shop - it has no flooring - might be taken for the model of a battlefield, or for a plan of Africa with its hills and valleys... but with a far larger population represented by millions of ants, while the wild beasts are replaced by innumerable spiders and cockroaches.

It is, however, by far the largest place for an expedition to stock up on the myriad needs of an African expedition - stores, trade goods, camp equipment, and archaic firearms for the armed guards.

15) Tarya Topan's House

For trade goods in the form of bolts of cotton and woolen cloth, beads and brass wire, the home of the Muslim Indian Tarya Tarpan is as good as French Charlie's, and rather more sanitary. It is a large, white - washed house with barred windows and iron-bound doors; the ground floor serves as a storeroom, while the owner's quarters are upstairs. He is a long established merchant, honest in his dealings, and willing to accept bills on London and New York banks in return for goods - a service not widely found in East Africa.

16) Tippoo Tib's House

Though frequently absent from the island for long periods, the spirit of "He Who Blinks" can be felt throughout Zanzibar. His house exceeds many of the royal palaces for luxury, yet, from the outside, almost nothing can be seen of Tippoo Tib's splen-did residence. The buildings are set back from those around them, surrounded by a high wall and a series of iron barred gates manned by Arab and Baluchi guards. The house itself can be seen only from the rooftops of its neighbors; it has no exterior windows, but faces inward onto a courtyard garden of clove trees and tall palms.

17) The Anglican Cathedral

Built by Bishop Steere on the site of the old slave market, the cathedral is an ugly, inappropriate red brick church in a fairly absurd Anglo-Arab style. It attracts a small congregation of Protestant westerners and, of course, whole contingents of staff and converts from the Universities Mission.

18) Mnazi Moya (The One Coconut Palm)

This single, ancient tree that serves as a common meeting place for lovers, sportsmen, and ruffians alike, stands on the crest of an ancient sandbar overlooking the city. To the north lies the head of the fetid Malagash Inlet that almost cuts the Old City off from the rest of Zanzibar Island. The tree stands in an old cemetery, noted by Stanley on his 1874 visit:

The walk to Mnazi-Moya will compel the traveler to moralize, and meditate pensively. He comes to a populous graveyard, over which the wild grass has obtained supreme control, and through the stalks of which show white the fading and moss-touched head-stones. Across the extensive acreage allotted to the victims of the sad cholera years, the Prince of Zanzibar has ruthlessly cut his way to form a garden, which he has surrounded with a high wall. Here a grinning skull and there a bleached thigh bone or sunken grave exposing its ghastly contents...

19) The Universities Mission

Standing alone amongst tropical vegetation above a line of red cliffs, the Mission at Kangani serves as a school for freed slaves. Bishop Steere, with a small staff instructs young Africans in carpentry, printing, ironwork, and a variety of other trades along with the tenets of the Church of England. Farther inland is the French Catholic Mission, known as St. Joseph's.

20) The Powder Magazine

Some two miles outside the city is the Sultan's powder magazine, seen by Jephson in 1887:

The magazine is a miserable mud built place with a dirty court in the middle in which two or three old men live and cook their food with a delightful disregard of the danger of lighting a fire with several tons of powder lying within a few yard of them. The country round is very pretty just here and is dotted about by the houses of the merchants who generally live in the country and have their offices only in the town.

21) The Summer Palace

There really is no such thing as summer in Zanzibar. The country estate, known as `Marseilles', is a rambling coral mansion of no architectural merit. Close by is the New Harem, built by Barghash as a more secluded home for his many concubines to protect them from the unpleasantness of the city.

22) The Old Slave Caves

At the height of the slave trade, the new arrivals were herded into natural rock caverns at Mangapwani, some 15 miles north of Zanzibar city. From there, the slaves were taken in batches for auction at the slave market. The caves run back into the rock for great distances, and Royal naval officers consider that much deviltry - either slaving or general brigandage - -finds its hideout in the recesses of the Old Slave Caves.


The narrow, maze-like alleys of the city which require the services of a guide if the visitor is not to become hopelessly lost have been well observed by western travelers:

It is a wretched town with streets so narrow that it is impossible to drive a carriage through most of them. Most of the houses are mere mud huts thatched with coconut leaves, but all the consulates and some of the Arab houses are good, substantial, airy buildings. Jephson

As may be supposed, there is no plan whatever about the city. It's a perfect labyrinth...

The streets are, as they should be under such a sky, deep and winding alleys, hardly 20 feet broad, and travelers com- pare them with the treads of a tangled

Local architecture consists of a mish-mesh of styles: Arab houses of coral rock, built with sloping roofs of British corrugated iron - sweltering in the heat but immensely chic - low Swahili with thatched roofs, elegant Indian homes of Hindu bankers, appalling mud shanties and lean-to hovels.

The houses, as in most Eastern towns, is (sic) white and in this bright climate it is very trying to the eyes. Many of the Arab houses have the most beautifully carved doorways.

Here the `Dar' is a dirty yard, paved or unpaved, usually encumbered with piles of wood or hides, stored for sale, and tenanted by poultry, dogs, donkeys, and lounging slaves. A steep and narrow, dark and dangerous staircase of rough stone, like a companion-ladder, connects it with the first floor, the `noble quarter.' There are galleries for the several storeys, and doors opening upon the court admit light into the rooms. Zanzibarian architecture, as among `Orientals' generally, is at a low ebb. The masonry shows not a single straight line; the arches are never similar in form or size; the floors may have a foot of depression between the middle and the corners of the room... Burton


Zanzibar to a stranger presents the guise of a pest-ridden land. No sewers, and all the filth pitched into the sea to ebb and flow with the tides, polluting the atmosphere, and stinking in one's nostrils. Mrs. French-Sheldon

Taken as a whole, the city is scarcely anything better than a vast congregation of rubbish. Even the mosques are scarcely respectable; the stone buildings are for the most part unplastered, and are in the last stages of dilapidation. After this nothing remains but cajan hovels of the most wretched description; a framework of poles, plastered with mud, and covered with a roofing of "makuti" , or palm leaves. Windows are ignored, light and ventilation are uncared for, and cleanliness is out of the question. These huts, therefore, are almost as dark as pitch, intolerably hot, and indescribably filthy.