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Globalization and the City

Andreas Exenberger
Philipp Strobl
Günter Bischof
et al.

Zanzibar: Imperialism, Proto-Globalization, and a Nineteenth Century Indian Ocean Boom Town

Erik Gilbert

Texte intégral


1Zanzibar feels ancient. The Stone Town, as the older part of the city has come to be called, feels truly ancient. Its Swahili name, Mji Mkongwe, means roughly the “aged town”. Tourist literature treats the city as if it were a survivor of the medieval tradition of urbanism on the Swahili coast. The Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and UNESCO’s official description of the city, while noting that its most recent architectural development began in the late nineteenth century, nonetheless traces the city’s antecedents to a purported “confederation of small coastal city-states known as Zenj bar (Black Empire), which operated in the eighth to tenth centuries”. Zanzibar, it says, is “[t] he best preserved of these towns […]”.1

2Linking modern Zanzibar to the Swahili towns that flourished between AD 1000 and 1500, or even to the earlier and mostly mythical Zenj Empire, is historically unwarranted, but it is excusable. The city feels like no other city in East Africa. It has crumbling stone and coral rag buildings and streets too narrow for automobiles. During the clove harvest, the smell of cloves leaks out of the godowns or warehouses near the port and reaches into the northern half of the city. The port itself is crowded with dhows, the traditional sailing ships of the western Indian Ocean. It is home to a unique style of music called taarab, which in stark contrast to most African pop, uses violins and zithers and is as popular in the Persian Gulf as it is in Zanzibar. The city looks and smells and sounds like an ancient, exotic spice-trading port.

  • 2 For an overview of the city’s history, see Sheriff (1994), 8-29.

3But all this apparent antiquity is at odds with the reality of Zanzibar. Zanzibar is a new city; it is younger than Boston or Philadelphia and about contemporaneous with Washington D.C. The site of the city has been occupied for a long time, and there are some very ancient towns (now ruins) on the island of Zanzibar (more properly Unguja), but at the beginning of the nineteenth century Zanzibar town was little more than a fishing village. In fact, one neighborhood of the city is called Shangaani, which was the name of the village in question. There are a few tombs in the city that suggest that there may have been a town on the site in the distant past, and a few oblique references to Zanzibar in the works of Arab geographers and Portuguese accounts of the region, but it is always hard to tell whether they refer to the island or to a city. But if there was once a town on the site of modern Zanzibar, it was not even a distant memory when the modern city grew on the site in the early nineteenth century.2

  • 3 Prestholdt (2004, 2008 and 2009); Metcalf (2007).

4Zanzibar came into being because of the global reach of the Industrial Revolution and British imperialism. Far from being timeless and exotic, Zanzibar was on the cutting edge of nineteenth century modernity and globalization. Its story embodies the larger changes that the Industrial Revolution wrought on the world and reminds us that Africans and people on the Indian Ocean rim participated in and even shaped this global and regional process. The development of this process in the Indian Ocean has been examined in the work of Jeremy Prestholdt and Thomas Metcalf.3 Taking their work as its point of departure, this chapter will argue that a particular type of globalization or proto-globalization occurred in the Indian Ocean that was shaped by British India and that port cities like Zanzibar played a crucial role in that process. The conditions that created Zanzibar were a consequence of the emergence of a peaceful but open regional system which allowed the unfettered movement of goods, capital, and labor (though the laborers themselves were more often than not in fetters). This period or phase of regional globalization came to an end in the post-war period as decolonization swept the region. Previously open colonial borders became closed national borders, and the societies that had created commercial port cities like Zanzibar found themselves in the grip of nationalist movements, often with ethnic nationalist overtones. As that era of regional or proto-globalization ended, Zanzibar’s importance waned. The city is still there, but the harbor is quiet; it now trades primarily on the touristic representation of its commercial heyday.

  • 4 Sassen (1991, 2006).

5Zanzibar’s nineteenth century history was not entirely unique. Other port cities around the Indian Ocean rim followed eerily similar trajectories. Both Aden and Singapore grew from fishing villages to thriving port cities in the nineteenth century. All three were creations of people who were connected with the East India Company. All three attracted labor, capital, and commodities from around the Indian Ocean and the emerging global economy. All three were founded before steamships came to dominate the sea lanes, but they proved capable of accommodating steamers and continued to prosper and grow as sail gave way to steam. All relied on recently arrived ethnic minorities for capital and commercial expertise: Indians in Zanzibar and Aden and Chinese in Singapore. Cities like these represent precursors to the urban centers that Saskia Sassen has dubbed “global cities”.4 While cities like Zanzibar lacked the economic scale and reach of the global cites of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they did play a critical role in the incorporation of regional economies into the emerging global economy of the nineteenth century. As points of articulation between the regional and the global economies, they were multi-ethnic centers that provided financial services to merchants, served as labor recruitment centers, and concentrated commodities. Zanzibar and Singapore played central roles in the integration of their regions into the world economy, suggesting that some cities were as central to globalization in the nineteenth century as they are today.


  • 5 Chaudhuri (1985), 41.
  • 6 So diverse was the city that it took Richard Burton, who visited in the middle of the nineteenth ce (...)

6Commercial cities are nothing new on the East African coast. The Indian Ocean monsoon system, which produces winds out of the southwest from May through September followed by winds out of the northeast from November to March, has made travel in the Indian Ocean relatively easy compared to other major oceans. This is especially true if one considers travel within the three main basins of the ocean – the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. Sailors could easily make trading voyages within these basins that took them from one side to another in a single year. Thus sailing ships might set out from the Persian Gulf or India for the East Africa coast in December and expect to arrive in four to eight weeks. They would then settle into their destination port until the monsoon changed in the summer. During that time, they would sell their cargoes, buy a return cargo and possibly make some short local trading voyages. Once the monsoons changed, they would head home, arriving in late summer or early autumn. Voyages that reached across multiple basins of the ocean usually took more than a single season and thus required traveling merchants to be away from home ports and markets for a long time. The result was a sort of economic and cultural segmentation of the Ocean.5 While trade goods passed through multiple basins, changing hands in the entrepôts that developed where trade systems of the various basins overlapped, sailors and migrants tended to stick to one basin. Thus Zanzibar ended up with a population of Gujaratis and Cutchis (both from western India), as well as Somalis, Malagasies, Comorians, Hadramis, Omanis, Baluchis, and Africans.6 But it had only a handful of Chinese inhabitants, who arrived in the early twentieth century. Aden had a similar mix. Singapore, by contrast, had a South Asian population that derived from the shores of the eastern Indian Ocean and from eastern India; it had a large and economically dominant Chinese population and, of course, a more local Malay element, too.

  • 7 Wynne-Jones (2007).

7Merchants had used the monsoons to travel to East Africa as early as the first century AD, as evidenced by the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, which describes a voyage to a town called Rhapta. By 1000 AD, accounts by Arab geographers and the discoveries of archaeologists (coastal East Africa is the most excavated part of the under-excavated African continent) show that there were towns on the East African coast that were engaged in trade (some of it indirect) with places as distant as West Asia, India, and China. The Swahili people of the East African coast, as we now call them, accepted Islam, began to build parts of their towns in stone and shifted from a diet of indigenous African millet to Asian rice. In some ways, the readiness with which they embraced Indian Ocean culture presages Zanizbar’s nineteenth century cosmopolitanism. For the Swahili, Asian trade goods seem to have had an almost talismanic quality. Chinese bowls, for example, were pressed into the plaster around the mihrabs of mosques and into tombs of prominent men. One mosque on the island of Pemba had 20 porcelain bowls displayed around the edge of its mihrab, demonstrating the wealth and cosmopolitanism of the patron who built it. Thus, from very early in the history of the coast, wealth and prestige have been tied to trade and to access to people, ideas, and goods from “away”.7

  • 8 Walshaw (2010); Fleisher (2010), 148-149.

8At the same time, the Swahili coast’s approach to cosmopolitanism was intensely local. Imported trade goods – clothing, ceramics, beads and such – all seem to have been used in ways that were imbedded in a local tradition of competitive feasting. The Swahili towns themselves seem to have been almost stage sets rather than economically functional towns. There is no evidence of markets in Swahili towns of the classic period (AD 1000 to 1500). Trade seems to have taken place at the household level, where Swahili patricians hosted foreign merchants in their homes, which actually contained apartments for visitors. Production of food and local manufactures also took place at the household level, even in places like Pemba that were known for exporting grain to the coast.8

9By 1500, a couple of towns had grown rather larger than their peers. Kilwa, Mombasa and Mogadishu were bigger than the other towns of the coast, but none of them ever tried to expand their political scale beyond that of the city-state. The towns had kings, but the power of the kings seems to have been highly constrained; they were more primus inter pares than autocrats. The fact that towns often went for years without rulers hints at the relatively limited role kings played. Despite the presence of Asian rice on the coast (probably the only part of sub-Saharan Africa where Asian rice was cultivated at the time), nothing like the Southeast Asian “padi-state” emerged on the Swahili coast. None of these towns ever achieved the economic dominance of the coast that Zanzibar had in the nineteenth century. The Swahili towns of this era were functionally quite different from nineteenth century Zanzibar.

  • 9 The strongest proponent of this position is Kusimba (1999).

10In the century after Vasco da Gama’s opening of the sea routes between Europe and Asia, the Swahili coast was subordinated to the Portuguese. The Portuguese sacked Kilwa in 1505, and the city never really recovered. Mombasa also came under attack, and there the Portuguese constructed a huge fortress, called Fort Jesus, to keep the city under control. The standard interpretation of these events is that the arrival of the Portuguese marked the end of the glory days of the Swahili coast.9 However, it is not clear that the Portuguese fundamentally changed the social and economic structure of coastal life. Swahili patricians continued to engage in trade, and while the importance of Kilwa faded, Mombasa continued to be an important commercial center despite or perhaps because of the looming presence of Fort Jesus. All through this period, Zanzibar was barely noticeable. The Portuguese sources briefly mention a queen in Zanzibar, and there is archeological evidence for a couple of Portuguese structures on the island. Ruins in various parts of the island indicate that it was part of the broader Swahili world, and the oldest still functioning mosque on the coast, which dates from the thirteenth century, is on the southern half of the island. But the site of the future city of Zanzibar was not part of this narrative. The Zanzibar that emerged in the nineteenth century belonged to a totally different world than the Swahili world of the medieval period or even the Portuguese era.

Muscat, the East India Company, and the Founding of Zanzibar

11In the late seventeenth century, the rulers of Muscat in Oman began to assert themselves in the western Indian Ocean at the expense of the Portuguese. Interestingly, Muscat’s expansion occurred at the same time that the Dutch Vereenigte Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and the British East India Company (EIC) were also marginalizing the Portuguese. The Omanis drove the Portuguese off the Swahili coast, capturing Fort Jesus in Mombasa and building forts of their own in many other Swahili towns, a strategy they also used in Oman, where carefully resorted forts all over the country are still symbolic of the state’s reach.

12Initially, Omani rule focused on Mombasa, but in the 1790s, a new family, the Busaids, came to power in Oman, replacing the Yarubis, who had established the Omani presence in East Africa. The Busaidis were merchant-princes with strong connections to India. The Busaid ruler most central in the story of Zanzibar was Seyyid Said bin Sultan al Busaid (1797-1856). Said came to power in Muscat at the time when the EIC had become concerned with events in the Persian Gulf. From the EIC’s perspective, there were two central problems in the Gulf. These were Wahabism and piracy. Concern about piracy led to the first steps in the creation of the Trucial States in 1820. In Oman, the critical issue was Wahabism. The Omanis were Ibadis, which was a form of Islam that was neither Shia nor Sunni but derived from the Kharijite tradition. Because of this, there was no love lost between the ardently Sunni Wahabis and the Busaids. The Busaids came to depend heavily on the support of the EIC, which saw them as a bulwark against Wahbist expansion in the region. An EIC political agent in Muscat, Colonel Atkins Hammerton, had a close relationship with Said. Muscat was also home to large numbers of Indian merchants, who lived there under Seyyid Said’s protection, but who were also subjects of British India.

  • 10 Burton (1872), 295.

13In the early decades of the nineteenth century, East Africa became increasingly important to Said. Oman’s main export was dates. Dates may seem commercially fairly insignificant, but they were important enough to become the standard unit of measurement for the capacity of a dhow, which was given in the number of bags of dates it can carry. The date plantations depended on access to slave labor from East Africa. Muscat’s economic links to East Africa were deeply rooted in the structure of their economy. But Said’s interest in the East African parts of his state grew in the early decades of the nineteenth century in response to changes in the world economy that created new levels of demand for East African products and that ultimately made East Africa a bigger source of wealth than Oman. These changes led him to remove the Mazrui rulers of Mombasa in 1839 and to move his capital to Zanzibar in 1840. Atkins Hammerton went with him.10

  • 11 Sheriff (1987), 125-126.

14By 1840, Zanzibar had emerged as the dominant port in East Africa, partly because of Said’s tax policies. In fact, the standard interpretation of Zanzibar’s rise emphasizes the dual roles of differential taxation rates and economic geography to explain Zanzibar’s meteoric rise.11 While this may explain why Zanzibar became the dominant port city in the region, it does not explain why, in contrast to earlier periods in the coast’s history, one city should totally overshadow all others. One possibility is that the concentration of services and expertise that makes a few cities globally dominant occurred on a regional scale in the nineteenth century, an idea I will explore in the next section.

Zanzibar and the World Economy in the Early Nineteenth Century

15Zanzibar in the early part of the nineteenth century produced little. Rather, it was a transit point for goods from the East African coast on their way to other parts of the Indian Ocean or, and this marks something of a change, to the industrializing economies of Europe and North America. In fact, when Said moved his capital in 1840, Zanzibar already had an American consul, who had held his office since 1838.

  • 12 Gilbert (2004), 55-58.

16The staples of Zanzibar’s trade were ivory, slaves, gum copal and hides. All of these, even the slaves, met the demands of the industrial world economy rather than being part of some sort of ancient or traditional trade. These trades were more tied to the world of industry in old and New England than to the world of the medieval Swahili.12

  • 13 Burton (1860); Rockel (2006), 49-61.

17Ivory had been exported from East Africa since the time of the Periplus. But in the nineteenth century, the demand for ivory grew dramatically, driven by the development of new technologies that allowed ivory products to be manufactured on an industrial scale. Ivory was the plastic of the nineteenth century and was used for everything from billiard balls to combs to chop sticks. Above all, piano keys were made from ivory. The piano was an iconic symbol of middle class status in the nineteenth century, and as the industrial revolution brought more and more people into the middle class, more and more elephants died to furnish them with piano keys. Because East African ivory was softer and less brittle than that of Asian or West African elephants, it was more suitable for industrial uses and was preferred. The result was a dramatic expansion of the ivory trade in East Africa and the steady westward shift of the ivory frontier as the elephant populations near the coast were hunted into extinction. Ivory became a mainstay of Zanzibar’s trade and triggered the creation of the first trade routes that reached all the way from the coast to the lakes of central Africa. By the 1850s, there were settlements of coastal merchants on the lakes and increasingly beyond them as Arabo-Swahili merchants moved into the interior in search of ivory.13

18Gum copal is a plant resin produced by a tree that is common along the East African coast. It too saw demand rise in the nineteenth century for much the same reason as ivory. Gum copal, an ingredient of varnish, was used in carriage making. Like pianos, carriages were an increasingly affordable sign of middle class status in the nineteenth century, and demand for gum copal expanded along with the carriage business. Zanzibari gum copal was not used exclusively in the west; India too had a growing market for carriages and thus for gum copal.

  • 14 Bennett (1973), 120.

19References to hides are prominent in the records of American merchants in Zanzibar.14 Hides from the goats, sheep, cattle and occasionally East African antelopes adorned the hands and feet of New Englanders. Zanzibar, of course, produced little in the way of livestock, but it was a transshipment point for hides from parts of the coast where cattle were more abundant.

  • 15 Cooper (1980).

20Finally, slaves were central to the creation of modern Zanzibar. When Seyyid Said and Colonel Hammerton moved to Zanzibar in 1840, the only restriction on the slave trade was that slaves were not to cross the so-called Moresby line that ran from Zanzibar to Cutch. This was meant to keep slaves from being imported to British India and the Mascarenes. Thus the trade to the Persian Gulf and Oman was a legal and significant part of Zanzibar’s trade. However, the British had been grumbling about the Indian Ocean slave trade for some time, and Said seems to have perceived that it was only a matter of time before the British would force an end to the trade. As a sort of a hedge, he took a step that puts him in the company of the nineteenth century modernizer Muhammad Ali of Egypt. Seyyid Said introduced cloves to Zanzibar. Cloves are native to the islands of Southeast Asia, and the VOC had a carefully constructed and tended monopoly that limited clove production to just a few islands in the Sunda Sea. Early in the nineteenth century, a Frenchman had obtained a few cuttings and had attempted to grow them in Mauritius. In the 1830s, Said established his own plantations of clove trees and encouraged other Omanis to do likewise. Zanzibar’s sister island of Pemba turned out to be so well-suited to clove growing that, by the middle of the century, Zanzibar was the world’s leading producer of cloves. Cloves were exported to India, where they were used as a spice, to Indonesia, where they were mostly used in cigarettes, and to Europe, where they were used in the manufacture of clove oil. Clove oil was used as an oral anesthetic and, then as now, as the source for most of the world’s supply of vanillin. So in 1844, when the EIC’s Atkins Hammerton imposed a new treaty on Zanzibar that ended the slave trade to the Gulf but kept it legal within Said’s East African possessions, the measure was not an undue hardship. Slaves that might have been exported were sent to the clove plantations instead, and the cloves were exported. Eventually the slave trade was entirely outlawed, but labor for the plantations continued to come to the Islands. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, free laborers were recruited from the same areas of central Africa that once provided slaves to work on clove plantations in Zanzibar.15

  • 16 Source: Guillain, Charles (1856): Documents sur l'histoire, la géographie et le commerce de l'Afriq (...)

Figure 1: Map of Zanzibar Town in the 1850s16

  • 17 Sheriff (1987), 72.

21In exchange for these goods, Zanzibar imported cloth from industrial sources in New England, England and India. New England was so central to the cloth trade that a 30-yard bolt of brown sheeting, which was so ubiquitous that it served almost as a currency in the interior, was called merikani, Swahili for “American”.17

22Like the built environment of the city, a list of Zanzibar’s trade goods in the nineteenth century looks, at first glance, like a window into the past. Ivory, copal, spices and slaves all have an exotic ring to them. However, there was nothing traditional about Zanzibar’s trade. Even goods like slaves and ivory, which had been part of the ancient Swahili world’s trade, were used in entirely novel ways. Both imports and exports were tied to industries that did not even exist a hundred years earlier. The rise of Zanzibar had everything to do with the arrival of the global economy in East Africa.

Zanzibar Town in the Nineteenth Century

  • 18 Sheriff (1987), 94-101.

23The emerging city attracted an astonishing diversity of people. As is the case with boom towns everywhere, Zanzibar was a city of immigrants; there were almost no “native” Zanzibaris. As late as the 1890s, most Zanzibaris were born elsewhere. Zanzibar had communities of Omani Arabs, Hadhrami Arabs, Baluchis, Persians, Somalis, Malagasies, Comorians, and Indian Hindus and Muslims, Shiite and Sunni. There were Africans from a diverse range of communities in the interior, many of them enslaved, and some representatives of the older Swahili communities. There were also communities of European and American merchants. Indeed, many of the American merchant houses were established before some of the Indian merchant houses.18

24The commercial high ground was in the hands of Indians. The clove plantations, which almost all belonged to Arabs, were chronically mortgaged and in debt. The debt was held by Indian clove merchants. Most of the merchant community was also in debt to Indian financers. The Americans and Europeans were no exception and depended on Indian capital to keep their operations going. Even the Zanzibari state was dependent on Indian capital. The taxes were farmed first to Jairam Sewji and then, after his death, to Tharia Topan, both in their times the richest men in Zanzibar.

Figure 2: Zanzibar waterfront in the early twentieth century19

  • 20 Burton (1872), 452.

25Zanzibar’s ethnic diversity was staggering. In ways that parallel modern ideas about globalization, assimilation was not the rule of the day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Europeans resisted assimilation, but so did the Arabs and Indians. While there was some intermarriage among different Arab groups, huge differences in the social status of Omanis and Hadhramis, the former mostly landowners the latter mostly porters and coffee sellers, meant there was little common ground between the two. Indians, divided by religion and caste, also remained discrete groups. The exception to this was language. Swahili became Zanzibar’s language. As early as the 1850s, some Indians spoke Swahili at home. By the twentieth century, Gujarati and Cutchi were used more to keep commercial correspondence private than as languages of daily use. The Arabs too mostly abandoned Arabic for Swahili while clinging to their Arab identity.20

26That this wildly mixed population was able to gravitate to Zanzibar over a 50-year period is intriguing. It says something about the ease with which people moved within the western Indian Ocean in the nineteenth century. This ease of movement is attributable in part to the British Empire. The end of the Napoleonic Wars and the British suppression of piracy made the western Indian Ocean a safe place to travel. In the second half of the century, steamships made sea travel safer, more predictable and eventually cheaper.

27Zanzibar’s intensely modern built environment reflected the cultural diversity of its population. Not only had the entire city been constructed in the nineteenth century, Said’s son Bargash, who ruled from 1870 to 1888, was an ardent modernizer. If Said were compared with Egypt’s Muhammad Ali, Bargash would play the role of a Zanzibari Khedive Ismail. He was the one who built the city’s water supply, created a police force, opened the first public schools, created the public parks that still grace the city, and most famously, built the Beit al-Ajab or House of Wonder.

28The Beit al-Ajab is the dominant feature of the Zanzibar waterfront and antithesis to all things ancient or traditional. It has three stories, each with a huge wrap-around veranda, and it is topped by a cupola with a clock in it. The inside has an elevator, said to be the first in sub-Saharan Africa. Bargash also installed the first electrical power plant in Zanzibar in 1880 and used electric light to illuminate the Beit al-Ajab.

  • 21 Prestoldt (2009), 176.
  • 22 Fair (1998).

29This fascination with the outward signs of modernity was not limited to the Sultans. Regular Zanzibaris also sought to obtain consumer goods that to them embodied the idea of modernity. For middle class families, this meant buying clocks. Clocks, often many clocks, were prominently displayed in the homes of well-to-do Zanzibaris. They preferred large pendulum-driven wall clocks. Antique shops in Zanzibar are still full of these clocks. Tourists typically show little interest in them because they do not seem authentically Zanzibari, but they were essential status symbols in the city’s heyday.21 For less well-to-do Zanzibaris, especially former slaves, the essential statue symbol was the English-style umbrella. Zanzibar men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often dressed in what was then a new style – the kanzu, kofia and umbrella.22 This use of imported goods as status symbols parallels the way the Swahili had used imported goods like ceramics earlier in their history, but it also shows that this was anything but a hidebound traditional society. Rather, Zanzibar was a newly formed, multiethnic, and dynamic society, creating new forms of social competition with newly acquired objects, and a consumer society avant la lettre.

British India and Regional Globalization

30One of the more interesting books about the Indian Ocean published in the last couple of years is Thomas Metcalf’s Imperial Connections, which traces the critical role that India, Indians and Anglo-Indians had in the making of empire in the Indian Ocean. Metcalf’s analysis takes in topics that range from the use of the Indian Penal Code in new colonies to the role of Sikhs in colonial police and military forces, from the spread of Saracenic architecture to the movement of Anglo-Indians within the Empire. Although Metcalf’s work is Indo-centric in that it concerns the movement of people, policy and ideas from India to British possessions on the Indian Ocean rim, much about Zanzibar can be understood once we look at it through his interpretive lens. The EIC’s relationship with Seyyid Said was modeled on the EIC’s relationship with princely states in India. The EIC claimed that Zanzibari Indians were its subjects and thus could not hold slaves because they were from parts of India that was controlled by the EIC. As the British exerted more control over Zanzibar in the decades after 1890, British officials began to build in the Saracenic style, as exemplified by a number of public buildings in the city (the High Court and the Museum, for example).

  • 23 Metcalf (2007), 166.

31But the influence of British India was felt in other, less direct ways as well, especially in the ease with which people could move around the western Indian Ocean. Between 1840 and 1950, Indians steadily migrated to East Africa. Metcalfe refers to East Africa as the Indian version of America.23 It was the destination for people looking for opportunity and the chance to better their lives. But people on the edges of the Empire also came to East Africa and to Zanzibar. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, South Arabia and the Persian Gulf were relatively poor compared to East Africa. Villiers, a British adventurer who traveled to East Africa on a dhow right before the Second World War, said that passengers on his vessel included a whole clan of Bedouins who joined the ship at Mukallah in South Arabia. Having lost their herds to drought, they were on their way to East Africa to start over. On his return voyage, he traveled with passengers bound from Zanzibar to the Gulf, among them three school teachers on their way to Oman for religious training. Religious scholars, businessmen, students and others moved easily through the region. Even during the Second World War, when a shortage of ships and fears about Japanese submarines made people apprehensive about traveling in steamers, dhows carried passengers between Bombay and Zanzibar.

32While this chapter has focused mostly on the nineteenth century, much of what I have said applies also to the first half of the twentieth century. During this period, the movement of goods, labor, and capital within the region had few constraints. A sort of sub-globalization took place within the western Indian Ocean, though with critical links to the world economy. This openness, which was overseen by the British Empire, made the creation of places like Zanzibar possible. Zanzibar rode the wave of nineteenth century capitalism and became wealthy and attractive to immigrants as it served the needs of the industrial economies of the west and India. This pattern is also visible in Aden and Singapore, both of which were founded by agents of the EIC and grew alongside the industrial West.

33The demise of these cities (save for Singapore) coincided with the end of the Empire. For Zanzibar, the crucial break came in 1964 with a Marxist revolution (as always, Zanzibar was keeping up with the latest fashions) that got rid of the newly independent Arab government and also cut Zanzibar’s commercial ties with the Gulf and sought to recreate the city and nation on an African and nationalist model. Central planning eventually ruined the clove industry, and the Islands lost their status as the world’s leading supplier. Today, most of the clove crop is left to rot on the trees because the infrastructure needed to get it to market is gone. The transit trade that once made Zanzibar an important transshipment point has disappeared. The now sovereign states of the mainland prefer to collect their own taxes and have superior ports. The sovereignty of the former colonies of the Indian Ocean rim now means that the easy movement of people that once characterized the region is gone. Where once Arabs and Indians routinely migrated to East Africa, the pattern has now reversed and Zanzibaris are trying to get to the Gulf. Oman’s jails are rumored to be full of young Zanzibari men caught trying to enter Oman illegally.

34If anything, Zanzibar’s past was more global than its present. The one exception to this is the tourist trade. While Zanzibar has always had a few tourists, the last 30 years have seen a dramatic expansion of tourists seeking sun and sand with a little oriental mystery on the side. Zanzibar’s main stock in trade today is an imagined version of its past. All it has left to sell is the idea of itself as ancient and exotic.

35Aden’s history tells much the same story. While it thrived as a coaling port and then as bunkering port, the end of the British Empire and a Marxist revolution in 1967 left Aden even more forlorn than Zanzibar. A visit to Aden feels like a stroll through a post-apocalyptic environment. As of 1997, there were still three wars’worth of bullet holes and other war damage. The old British barracks, the Mallah Lines, are crumbling. Perhaps the most symbolic image of Aden is the one-third scale model of Big Ben that the British built. Two of the four clock faces have fallen out, and neither of the others functions. The port at Dubai, Jebel Ali, has taken over the role that Aden once had as an entrepôt for the region. Aden has even less reason to exist than Zanzibar. Its built environment is too overtly British to appeal to tourists; it has more sun than most people can manage, and it lacks even rudimentary political stability.

36Only Singapore managed to survive the end of the regional sub-globalization and thrives in the current age of globalization. This may have to do with its location on one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. It also avoided the Marxist revolutions that isolated Zanzibar and Aden from the early stages of post-colonial globalization. Singapore has also recreated itself around finance and services and thus has moved away from the essentially nineteenth century economies of coal (Aden) and tropical raw materials for industry (Zanzibar). Zanzibar and Aden may belong to the past, but it is a recent and global past.



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Burton, Richard (1860): Lake Regions of Central Africa. New York: Harper.

Burton, Richard (1872): Zanzibar: City Island and Coast. London: Tinsley Brothers.

Chaudhuri, Kirti N. (1985): Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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1 Quoted from: (accessed 25 Feb 2013).

2 For an overview of the city’s history, see Sheriff (1994), 8-29.

3 Prestholdt (2004, 2008 and 2009); Metcalf (2007).

4 Sassen (1991, 2006).

5 Chaudhuri (1985), 41.

6 So diverse was the city that it took Richard Burton, who visited in the middle of the nineteenth century, three chapters and 156 pages to describe it; Burton (1872), 312-468.

7 Wynne-Jones (2007).

8 Walshaw (2010); Fleisher (2010), 148-149.

9 The strongest proponent of this position is Kusimba (1999).

10 Burton (1872), 295.

11 Sheriff (1987), 125-126.

12 Gilbert (2004), 55-58.

13 Burton (1860); Rockel (2006), 49-61.

14 Bennett (1973), 120.

15 Cooper (1980).

16 Source: Guillain, Charles (1856): Documents sur l'histoire, la géographie et le commerce de l'Afrique Orientale (Album). Paris: A. Bertrand, plate 9.

17 Sheriff (1987), 72.

18 Sheriff (1987), 94-101.

19 Source: (accessed 25 Feb 2013).

20 Burton (1872), 452.

21 Prestoldt (2009), 176.

22 Fair (1998).

23 Metcalf (2007), 166.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: Map of Zanzibar Town in the 1850s16
Fichier image/jpeg, 374k
Légende Figure 2: Zanzibar waterfront in the early twentieth century19
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k


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