Zanzibar: History

Powdery white sands and crystal clear waters

Zanzibar History

Zanzibar has successfully seduced adventurers, traders, explorers, and plunderers to its shores for centuries. The Arabs, Assyrians, Chinese, Dutch, Egyptians, English, Indians, Persians, Phoenicians, Portuguese, Omani and Sumerians, have all been in Zanzibar through its history. The Shirazi Persians and Omani Arabs, stayed to settle and rule. The earliest visitors to Zanzibar were Arab traders who first showed up in the 8th century. The earliest building that remains on Zanzibar is the mosque at Kizimkazi which dates from 1108 or so, and is a present-day tourist site.

Arabs have sailed with the Monsoon winds for centuries from Oman to trade primarily in slaves but also in ivory and spices. The two main islands, Pemba and Unguja (normally known as Zanzibar Island) provided an ideal base for the Omani Arabs. It was small, and easy to defend. From Zanzibar they were able to control 2500 kilometres of the mainland coast stretching all the way from present day Mozambique to Somalia. In 1833, Sultan Seyyid Said, of the Busaid Dynasty that had emerged in Oman, moved his Sultanate from Muscat, which was perhaps more difficult to protect, to Zanzibar where he and his descendants ruled for 132 years. Most of the wealth lay in the hands of the Arab community, who were the main landowners were the arab community and that’s where most of the wealth of Zanzibar was, The Arabs kept to themselves as many Arabs of the time were wont to do, and generally did not intermarry with the Africans.

On the other hand the Shirazi Persians who came from the Middle East to settle on the East African coast did intermarry with the Africans – a lot. Such widespread intermarriage gave rise to a coastal community with intriguingly mixed features, and a trade language with a lot of g-sounds in it, derived in part from Arabic, known as Swahili. The name ‘Swahili’ comes from the Arab word sawahil which means 'coast'. The Zanzibar descendants of this group were not greatly involved in the lucrative slave, spice and ivory trades. Instead, they immersed themselves mainly in agriculture and fishing. Shirazis that did not intermarry preserved their identity as a separate group.

Two smaller communities were also established. Indian traders arrived in connection with the spice and ivory trade, and quickly settled as professionals skilled artisans, shopkeepers, traders. The British became involved in trading and also missionary activities in East Africa, and attempting to abolish the slave trade the mainstay of its thoroughfare Zanzibar.