"METODO", N. 18/2002

Beatrice Nicolini
(Researcher of History and Institutions of African and Asian Countries
Faculty of Political Science – Catholic University of the Sacred Heart – Milan)


The aim of this short note is focusing on the role played by religion and its influence, both numerous and complex, on Zanzibar Island and on the Subsaharan East African littorals throughout history with special reference to the nineteenth century.
Due to the wide and extremely complex subject, I would like to concentrate on Zanzibar, Unguja in kiswahili, as a case study, as I consider to be one of the most interesting and fascinating islands of the Western Indian Ocean.
From time immemorial, the spread of Islam through short as well as long-distance trade routes strongly influenced, and in many cases modified, East African societies. Islam undoubtedly made a tremendous impact upon the people of East Africa and of Zanzibar. Along the centuries, due to an increasing number of merchants, travellers and immigrants coming from southern Yemen, from Hadramawt and from other non Shiite areas, a solid Sunni-Shafi’i community emerged(1).
Along the littorals of East Africa the impact of Islam with pre-existing religious realities, mostly animism, was inevitably a shock for the latter ones. The growing predominance of Islamic trade and exercise of power politics in East Africa led to a misconception of the delicate, as well as of the troublesome, relationships between different societies and cultures. And the process was getting deeper and deeper within both Islamic and non-Islamic societies, especially western societies. So much so that Chabal still thinks today about East Africans:

[...] at the same time they (the Africans) seem locked into what outsiders all too readily tend to see as ‘backward’ social or psychological conventions ≠ such as ethnicity or witchcraft [...](2).

Starting from the beginning of the nineteenth century, the level of influence on trade routes strongly controlled by Arab and Asiatic merchants in the Western Indian Ocean was high. And the reasons perhaps could be found in the endogenous characterisations of what was sadly destined to become what we tend to identify as a ‘backward’ reality. As we all know, Islam in East Africa – as elsewhere – was not monolithic, encompassing as it did so many regional variations and changes over times. Nevertheless, it provided a framework; and within this framework, Muslim merchants, often culturally shocked by the animism of East Africa, were more likely to emphasise their Muslim identity; moreover, their minority status and their geographical isolation led to the creation of Muslim enclaves which served as bases for extensive islamization and created an ideological support for resistance to economic and political competition as, for example, in Zanzibar(3).
Near the coast of equatorial Africa, separated from the continent by a canal some 50 kilometres long, is the island of Zanzibar. It is the largest of the coral islands of the eastern coast of Africa and forms part of a coral reef that extends from the near island of Pemba (al-Khudra), which means the Green, or Emerald island, to the north, as far as the island of Mafia to the south. It constitutes a type of extraneous coastline to the continent. The city of Zanzibar is situated to the west of the island and its port, one of the best of East Africa, allows deep anchorage for the docking of the ships. Zanzibar has always been strategically and commercially important due to two fundamental points: its proximity to the continent and the monsoon winds. The regular recurrence of the latter allowed continuous contacts with India, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf; while the closeness of Zanzibar to the coast placed it in an ideal position for commerce between the interior of the African continent and the Indian Ocean.
Notwithstanding a marked heterogeneity of its population – a polyethnic and a multireligious society – south-eastern Zanzibar was inhabited principally by Bantu speaking people known as Hadimu (Wahadimu), while the Tumbatu (Watumbatu) were found in the northern part of the island. The Wapemba tribe, however, inhabited the island of Pemba. During the XIX century these groups were Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’i school, despite strong connections to animism (witches, sorcerers, and an aggressive dwarf with one eye named Popobawa played, and still play, a crucial role in Zanzibar and in Pemba). Both the Hadimu and the Tumbatu were dedicated to fishing, agriculture and animal breeding, whilst the Hadimu women were entirely responsible for the manufacture of cord made from coconut fibre in villages in the south of the island. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the links between the East African Coast and the western Indian Ocean opened up a great deal of commercial contacts, which then flourished. With this in mind, the hegemonic accession of the Omani tribe of Al Bu Sa’idi, Ibadhi, to Zanzibar could be seen as highly symbolic.
During the nineteenth century, the island of Zanzibar represented one of the four terminals of Oman-Arab mercantile powers of the Al Bu Sa’idi tribe, together with the port of Maskat in Oman, the ports of the Asiatic coastal strip of Baluchistan, Makran, the mercantile centres of the coast of West India and the coasts of East Africa. Starting from the XIX century, there were clear power connections among the Sunni Baluch of Makran, the Ibadhi Arabs of Oman, the Hindu and Ismaili mercantile communities of West India and the animist Africans of Zanzibar: the Omani were the political leaders, the Baluch the military force, the Indians were brokers, financiers, bankers and tax collectors, and the Africans were slaves. And with this in mind Michael Pesek thinks that the Swahilis had much to lose and lost much(4).
The Al Bu Sa’idi and in particular their most ‘glorious’ exponent of the XIX century, Saiyid Sa’id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’idi (1791-1856)(5), proposed a division of power, thanks also to their ethnic-religious superiority as one is Ibadhi only through birth and not conversion. This division would not be without conflict, although the Ibadhi Sultans were highly tolerant, and it has to be remembered that – as already stated above – the centrality of Islam, together with the power of magic and ritual of the different ethnic and religious groups on Zanzibar, decreased from the early nineteenth century. Inevitably, the presence of Omani governors (liwali) with their Baluch mercenaries, and of Indian merchants was bitterly resented by the local population.
The Asiatic community of Baluch coming from Makran represented strength, the shawq‚h. They were Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school and, those coming from Makran, Zikris; as they were famous for their cruelty and courage, the Arabs always considered Baluch more trustworthy than the Arab mercenaries. Another essential and decisive factor for the extraordinary development of Zanzibar in 1800 was the even more active presence of the Indian mercantile communities. The banyan, considered by the Arabs as mushrikŻn (polytheists), were absorbed into and protected by the institution of aman (protection). The first Indian merchants to trade in the Western Indian Ocean seas were the Bhattia (from bhatti, subhatta, Hindu warriors from the Vaishnavi caste), originally from Rajahstan. Another group of Bhattia was the Kutchi, also comprised of Hindus who enjoyed great privileges in Oman as well as in East Africa and who were exempt from paying taxes to the Arabs. Together with this group of Hindu merchants were the Khoj‚s (Khwajahs), Ismailites. They were described by explorers and English merchants of the nineteenth century as being slight of figure, with a lighter complexion than that of the Arabs, with long moustaches, no beards and a Chinese pony-tail at the base of their shaved heads. The richness and elegance of their clothing, distinguished by silk tunics with long, ornate sleeves, was a sure sign that manual work was foreign to them. Socially isolated from the Arabs, they observed a strict endogamy and were principally devoted to boat construction. The Ismailite Indians were numerically the largest group in East Africa. Yet at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was the Hindu merchants who maintained and intensified an undisputed financial hegemony.
Coming back to the Muslim presence, Islam in Zanzibar was often used as a political weapon, defining hierarchical differences and ethnic origins. But, it should be stressed that profit, not power, was what counted(6).
Consequently, the Omani dynasty of Al Bu Sa’idi respected the Hindu merchants wide-ranging connections in the Western Indian Ocean, which allowed them to enjoy the functions of both mediators and lenders in the various Indian mercantile communities settled in Zanzibar, and also to benefit from their widespread presence within Swahili society. It was this emergence of a politically powerful élite, in contact with the native population that gave rise to the commercial splendour of Zanzibar. The lucrative trading of the West Indian Coast constituted all types of merchandise and spices, which in most cases were valuable.
But the most important products bought by the Arabs in Africa in 1800 were slaves. Bearing this in mind, the growth in the demand for sugar cane from the Mascarene islands and for ivory and cloves from East Africa, fired the continual demand for slaves on the plantations (shamba) in Zanzibar and for manual labour for the transportation of the goods. This caused a widespread migration of slaves from the interior of the African continent towards the coasts and the islands. Slavery did not only occur as a result of direct capture, but also resulted from misleading contracts between the tribes of the interior – among others the Yao and Nyamwezi(7) – and the slave merchants. Furthermore, the recurring periods of drought along the Mrima coast pushed people to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Moreover, slave trade was a perfect means for obtaining European goods, especially weapons. Demand for slaves grew as much as the growing demand for weapons in East Africa; as a consequence, violence and war were totally pervading, and gradually destroying(8), East African traditional religions and cultures as well as local powers. European rifles were used not only by slave caravan traders, but also by elephant hunters and ivory traders.
As Islam was the religion of all free Swahili within the Arab dominions, those slaves that came from areas not influenced by the Swahili culture were not Muslims; these slaves were the property of their owners. They represented a closed caste not yet absorbed into the coastal population, either having been transported in their childhood within the borders of Zanzibar or born into slavery. The most privileged were naturally the domestic slaves. The demand for slaves came from various quarters: from Arabia, foremost, where the cultivation of dates demanded a high influx of man labour at zero cost; from western India, where they were used on oases, on sugar and tea plantations; from Central Asia, where they started the practice of cotton cultivation; from various areas of the Ottoman Empire; and from America. Another speciality was the eunuchs, especially appreciated in the Ottoman Empire. The organ mutilation was carried out in totally unhygienic conditions, resulting in a survival rate of one in ten of those eunuchs transported from Africa(9). Those who survived often became very powerful and closely connected to regional dynasties, mainly because their physical condition inhibited any kind of menace to power.
Between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century the influence of Europeans in Zanzibar was exerted through commercial treaties and agreements with the Arabs present on the island concerning trade in slaves and African ivory, both flourishing and lucrative commodities. Very soon, however, fascination for the blank spaces on the world map, together with the archetype of the exotic island which Zanzibar represented (rich in spices, perfumes, luxuriant vegetation, with drinking water, fruit and good money-making prospects through the commercial trading of slaves, ivory and spices and other commercial temptations) opened the door to a new world scene.
The centre of this scene was to take the shape of European rivalry for strategic control and political-commercial supremacy over the Western Indian Ocean; a rivalry that developed from the growing predominance of Great Britain, which virtually transformed the waters of the Western Indian Ocean into an “English lake”.
Britain’s impact on Zanzibar during 1800 undoubtedly interfered with the social and religious composition of the island; its strategy was based on commercial-political control of local mechanisms of power, mainly through the banning of the slave trade. Therefore, in 1800 the power of the Omani-Arab ťlite of the Al Bu Sa’id in Zanzibar was inevitably destined to decline. The growing strategic importance of the Western Indian Ocean as a watering highway was soon to become the focal point of world politics, making the region the pivot of world affairs. The promotion of trade and its influence and impact on religious realities has been a source of deep and complex relationships between different people and different cultures and religions(10).
Drawing on the above therefore leads to the conclusion that during the XIX century trade and religion in Zanzibar and in East Africa were deeply connected and strongly influenced by local cultures and populations.


(1) W. GERVASE CLARENCE-SMITH & U. FREITAG, (Eds.), Hadrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean 1750-1960, Leiden, 1997.Su
P. CHABAL, Africa: Modernity without development?, ISIM Newsletter, n. 5, Leiden, 2000.Su
P. RISSO, Merchants and Faith. Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean, Boulder, 1995, pp. 104-105.Su
“Die Swahili hatten viel zu verlieren und sie haben auch viel verloren”. M. PESEK, Sulayman bin Nassor und die Q‚dÓryyia. Islamische Eliten und Koloniale Herschaft in Deutsch-Ostafrika, 1890-1919, VII DAVO Congress, Mainz, October, 2000.Su
J.G. LORIMER, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, Calcutta, Superintendent Government Printing, 1915, 2 Vols. (repr. from I ed.), Vol. 1 (geographical 1908), Vol. 2 (historical and genealogical, 1915), 1970, Vol. 1, pp. 440-469; R.S. RUETE, Said Bin Sultan (1791-1856). Ruler of Oman and Zanzibar. His Place in the History of Arabia and East Africa, London, 1929; IDEM, The Al Bu Said Dinasty in Arabia and East Africa, “Journal of the Royal Asiatic and Central Asian Society”, Vol. 16, 1 July, London, 1929, pp. 417-432; S.A.S. FARSI, Seyyid Said Bin Sultan. The Joint Ruler of Oman and Zanzibar (1804-1856), New Delhi, 1986; V. MAURIZI, History of Seyd Said, Sultan of Maskat, I ed., London, 1819, new ed., Cambridge, 1984.Su
J. MIDDLETON, The World of the Swahili. An African Mercantile Civilization, Yale, 1992, p. 44.Su
S. ROCKEL, A Nation of Porters: The Nyamwezi and the Labour Market in nineteenth century Tanzania, “Journal of African Studies”, 41, 2000, pp. 173-195.Su
See for example the progressive decadence of the traditional power elite of the rain-men in Subsaharan East Africa.Su
R.F. BURTON, Zanzibar: City, Island and Coast, 2 Vols., London, 1872.Su
L. BRENNER, The Study of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, ISIM Newsletter, n. 4, Leiden, 2000, p. 3.Su