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Flying Qatar to Zanzibar

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Al Age gets much of its advertising revenue from Etihad and Emirates, so it behoves them to praise Islamic destinations and promote them wherever possible. Hence we get glowing articles about Dubai  (see: Dubai – Paradise for Aussies?) and the Maldives (“Paradise in Peril”).

Recently a new star has burst onto the Australian firmament - Qatar airlines - and has been heavily advertised in Al Age. (Of course, you won't hear anything bad about Qatar in that paper, but for a little bit about what lies beneath the surface, read AIM: "Aussies Love Qatar".)

True to form, Al Age's Traveller section promoted Zanzibar as the place to go (flying Qatar airlines of course!) 

On the island of Zanzibar, Susan Gough Henly is charmed by the buildings and beat of the trading city.

The aromatic clove plantations, traditional dhow fishing boats and castor-sugar beaches of Zanzibar evoke an aura of the exotic. At the heart of Zanzibar, an island archipelago that is part of Tanzania, is Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose coralline buildings and labyrinthine laneways are a thriving melange of African, Arabic, Indian and European cultures.

When it was the seat of power for the Omani sultanate in the mid 19th century, Stone Town was a trading hub that reached heights of opulence on the back of the lucrative ivory, spice and slave trades.

A million slaves were shipped through Zanzibar to work on plantations before the threat of British bombardment ended the trade in 1896 during the 38-minute Anglo-Zanzibar war, the shortest war in history.

In 1963, Zanzibar gained independence from Britain and the following year the presidents of Tanganyika and Zanzibar united the two countries to create the republic of Tanzania.

Let's pause for a minute's reflection here:

  1. Henly is charmed by the "beat" of the city, but should she care that Stone Town thrived on SLAVERY?
  2. Slavery flourished under Islam, until it was extinguished by the Brits.
  3. Since 1963, Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, has been independent of colonial rule.
  4. So what's happened to slavery?

...explore the narrow streets with their stone houses set behind massive carved-teak doors. The bigger and more elaborate the door, the richer and more prestigious the owner. Look out for Arabic buildings with inner courtyards and doors with Koranic inscriptions to compare with Indian-influenced houses with overhanging latticed verandas and doors with pointed brass studs.

You can't miss the four-storey Beit el-Ajaib, constructed in 1883 by the second sultan Barghash as a ceremonial is now the Zanzibar National Museum of History and Culture with exhibitions on the dhow culture of the Indian Ocean, Swahili civilisation and the Zanzibar struggle for independence.

...the castle-like Arab Fort, the oldest structure in Stone Town, built on the ruins of a Portuguese church. Today, it houses the Zanzibar Cultural Centre.

For a sobering experience, visit the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, built by British missionaries over the site of the world's last open slave market. The altar stands at the site of the whipping post and a wooden crucifix is made from the tree in Zambia that marked the spot where Dr Livingstone's heart was buried. (Many believe the Scottish missionary, based here for a short time, was influential in the abolition of the slave trade.) You can also crawl into the next-door cellars, where slaves were kept before being auctioned.

Enjoy sundowners on the deck of The Africa House Hotel. Once a slave trader's home, then a guesthouse for the sultan, it eventually became The English Club, complete with billiards room.

Dar es Salaam is the nearest major international airport. Qatar Airways has a fare for about $1591 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax, flying non-stop to Doha, Qatar, and then non-stop to Dar es Salaam. (source)

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm not too charmed by Stone Town. Too much slavery and human misery for me. Still, I'm sure it's all different today, now that:

...about 95% of the population are followers of Islam. The remaining percentage is a mix of Christians, Hindus and followers of various other religions. Swahili is the national language of Tanzania but English is also spoken in Zanzibar, and a percentage of the population also has a working knowledge of Arabic. The population consists of people from the following ancestries: African, Persian, Omani (and other Arab states), and Asian.

Stone Town is home to 51 Mosques, 6 Hindu Temples and 2 Christian Churches. 

In Stone Town, one can spend many idle hours wandering through the narrow labyrinthine alleyways where... pools of sunlight wash the small squares and street-front cafes in a warm glow... The chants of the Quran may draw you toward a cool and ancient Madrasa tucked away in a sleepy corner, or you may glance up at the girlish laughter tinkling down from a latticed balcony high above, where dark eyes flash within the velvet shadows.

the Palace Museum (Beit-alSahel) served as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until 1964, when the dynasty was overthrown in the people’s Zanzibar Revolution. It serves as a museum devoted to the era of the Zanzibar sultanate.

Occupying the site of an old Portuguese Chapel is The Old Fort. The Abusaidi family of Omani Arabs, who had gained control of Zanzibar in 1698, following two centuries of Portuguese occupation, built this massive structure in the 1700s. The Arabs used the fort to defend themselves against the Portuguese and against a rival Omani group.

 The Anglican Cathedral stands on the site of the public slave market. It was constructed by the Universities Mission in Central Africa in 1877 when the slave trade was abolished. ..Outside there is a sombre monument to the memory of the countless number of slaves who passed through the islands’ markets. The life-like stone statues of male and female slaves, attached with iron shackles and chains, stand in a pit symbolising not only their inhumane incarceration but also depth of their despair.


It is believed that Bantu people (Africans speaking Bantu languages) settled in Zanzibar somewhere around the 4th century. By the 7th century, Islam had made its way to Zanzibar by way of Arab and Persian immigrants  fleeing political strife, war, and famine in their own lands. The Arabs mixed with the local African population and along with trading goods, traded words as well, which eventually resulted in a language called Kiswahili. The people referred to themselves and their culture as Swahili (thought to be named from the Arabic word sahil meaning coast) and thus the language was named as well. For the following centuries the Arabs and Persians continued to trade with their homelands, while marrying into local society in Zanzibar and along the East African coast. Typical cargoes bound for Persia or Arabia consisted of gold, animal pelts, tortoise shells, ivory, ebony, and slaves; return ships contained porcelains, beads, and cloth.

By the 15th century, Zanzibar was its own Sultanate but this independence did not last. In 1498 Vasco da Gama's expedition from Portugal began a stronghold over the whole East African Coast that lasted for two centuries. During this time, Jesuits, Dominicans, and Augustinians built churches and tried to convert the local populace to Roman Catholicism, but were largely unsuccessful. The Portuguese did not send enough men to protect their new territory and by the late 1600s they had lost their last East African holding.

After the Portuguese were beaten out of the region, the Omanis took control of Zanzibar despite protest from local African chiefs, and ruled Zanzibar up until the bloody revolution of 1963. During this period, about a dozen sultans took the throne. The most influential, successful, and possibly the most kind of these was "Said the Great" or Seyyid Said bin Sultan, who introduced cloves to the island in the early 1800s and, together with the lucrative slave trade that ran out of Zanzibar, put his empire in riches.

By mid 19th century, Zanzibar was the world's leading clove exporter as well as a large exporter of slaves. A reported 25,000 slaves passed through Zanzibar every year. Slave trader Tipu Tip got so rich off the trade that he was able to afford over thirty concubines and their children in addition to his official wife and her two children.

After Sultan Said died in 1856 , the royal family faced a series of near debilitating power struggles. Plagued by jealousy, intrigue, and the abolition of slavery, the sultans and their subjects faced a slump during which the British wrested away from them much of the control of the island. The British had been trying to abolish the slave trade from the island since Sultan Said's rule, but had only been successful in effecting quotas and intimidating traders of certain nationalities. After his death, the British succeeded in pressuring Said's successors to stop the slave trade on Zanzibar. In 1873, Sultan Barghash signed a treaty agreeing to the end of the slave trade in his dominions but didn’t honor it. By 1890, Sultan Ali signed the third treaty of its kind promising an end to the slave trade in Zanzibar. This one stuck and all slaves to enter the area after that date were declared free and no more were sold. By this time, members of the Zanzibar Sultanate (having broken by this time from Oman) were reduced to powerless figureheads on a British salary.

At the time of Sultan Said's death he had one official wife and 75 concubine-cum-wives (called sarari). Only 36 of his over 100 children remained.

In 1896, Sultan Hamed bin Thuwain died, leaving the Sultanate's throne empty. Hamed's cousin, Khaled claimed the throne. During this time Zanzibar was a Protectorate under the British Government, and they were not about to release control of the island to an attempted palace coup. On August 26th they sent an ultimatum to Khaled stating that the British would use force if he did not lower his flag by 9:00 a.m. the next day.  At 9:00 a.m., with Khaled's flag still flying, the British opened fire and in forty minutes managed to destroy the Palace, the Harem, the Sultan's ship, the Glasgow, and the lighthouse, leaving the House of Wonders only slightly damaged. At 9:45 the war was over and Seyyid Hamoud bin Muhammed was proclaimed as the new, and British- approved, Sultan. The war lasted only forty-five minutes and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest war in history.


The British Protectorate continued until independence in June 1963 and control of the islands was passed to the constitutional monarch. The new monarchy didn't last long, however, because on January 1964, a violent revolution resulted in the emergence of the People's Republic of Zanzibar led by President Karume, the leader of the Afro-Shirazi Party.

On April 24, 1964 Zanzibar joined with Julius Nyerere's Tanganyika to form modern day Tanzania. Zanzibar's autonomous state included a constitutional right to keep its own President, so Karume managed to keep profits from the clove plantations on Pemba. During his rule he established relationships with socialist-based countries such as Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, other Eastern Bloc and African and third world nations. 

For more on the charms of Zanzibar, you might like to read this:

Historically, Zanzibar was a major center for the spice trade, but it also became the capital of the Arab slave trade, which began in the seventh century, and over a thousand years took at least ten million people out of Africa. By the nineteenth century, more than fifty thousand slaves were passing through Zanzibar's slave markets every year (and David Livingstone estimated that far more died in transit).

At first, slaves were captured south of the Sahara and brought overland to North Africa. But as maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean developed, the eastern ports, principally Zanzibar, came to displace the overland route. Slaves were captured en masse in East Africa, brought to the Zanzibar markets, and then shipped in dhows to points all over the known world, from the middle east to China.
Slaves from Zanzibar also made it to Europe. Although there were slaves in Europe throughout the middle ages, it wasn't until the fifteenth century that slaves were imported en masse into Europe from Africa. In 1452, the Pope issued a papal bull that legitimized slavery for non-Christians, but slavery in Europe never reached the scope of New World slavery. By the sixteenth century, most slaves were transported directly to the new world for work on plantations.

Britain became opposed to the slave trade in the early part of that century and banned the trade throughout their empire in 1807 (the US banned importation of slaves in 1808). Despite pressure from Britain, the slave trade did not end in Zanzibar until 1873 and slavery was not abolished there until 1897. 

You can read about the Islamic Black slave trade in Islam's Genocidal Slavery Part E, where we learn:

In the 19th century, some 769,000 black slaves were engaged in the Arab plantations of Zanzibar and Pemba, while 95,000 of them were shipped to the Arab plantations in the Mascareme Islands from East Africa alone’ (Khan 2009, p 307-308). (NOTE: this is more black slaves than were transported to the US -about 500,000!)

Still, let's not be gloomy, but let's instead enthuse about the charm of Zanzibar and its quaint mix of cultures (even though pre-Islamic cultures now seem just a historical relic, trotted out for the tourists.)  Let's rejoice that Islam came to the Island and enlightened the inhabitants.  Otherwise, they might well have remained in the dark ages, keeping their unique indigenous cultures.

Try to see it from Islam's perspective:
1.  the Sultans would not have enjoyed such prosperity, were it not for the slave trade.
2.  having to pay for labour might have meant less money was available to spread Islam.

When you come to think of it, Islam has benefitted.
So what if multitudes of black slaves lived in misery!

Last Updated on Saturday, 21 November 2009 11:10  

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