The British Empire Library

Zanzibar Under Colonial Rule

by Abdul Sheriff

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Brian Eccles (Colonial Administrative Service, Zanzibar and Tanganyika, also one time Private Secretary to the Sultan)
This book is not directed at those who lived and worked in Zanzibar but it will find among us some who are prepared to read between the lines of Marxist dogma and to discover some interesting notions: but there are few facts (and there is little reference to primary sources) in the interpretation of colonial rule in Zanzibar. Professor Sheriff has written an introduction and conclusion to the papers collected in this book, which are interesting both in themselves and as a commentary on what the individual authors (himself included, for he has a chapter - first published in 1976 - on 'The Peasantry under Imperialism') have written and as a summing up as to the significance to many of colonial rule in Zanzibar and the immediate result of the revolution. The revolution, it should be said, occurred after colonial rule. A. M. Babu's chapter 'The 1964 Revolution; Lumpen or Vanguard', while it describes the genesis of the revolution, is at its most interesting when it hazards a description and interpretation of the events.

Between the beginning and the end of this book the Marxist argument is worked out with what most colonialists would regard as a wilful disregard for the facts. Professor Sheriff claims that this book offers a "foretaste of a new generation of interpretive studies rather than a definitive history of colonial Zanzibar". It is an interpretation with which very few of us will find sympathy but which, for all that, we ought to think about in our retirement.

To most expatriates Zanzibar seemed to be a lotus island (they knew Unguja, very few of them knew Pemba) which was occasionally disturbed by some rather bloody riots, but which remained a place whose domestic problems were soon settled. The descent through Avernus after the death of Seyyid Khalifa was so fast as hardly to disturb the calm of the English Club or ruffle the waters of the Sailing Club.

But the government's dilemma was an awkward one. Jacques Depelchin, who shows a greater respect for primary sources than most of his co-authors, admits that it is difficult to date the beginning of 'colonial' rule, but whether it be 1873 (when the slave trade was abolished) or 1890 (when the status of slave was abolished), the British had from the outset put themselves under an obligation to protect the sultanate and to keep the landlords, whose position had depended on slavery, afloat. The period of colonial rule was one in which Zanzibar evolved "from a slave mode to that of capitalism" in an ad hoc manner, dealing with problems as they arose and finally (because no-one in Whitehall had a plan) being unprepared for the ultimate crisis of the revolution which came after the conclusion of colonial rule.

Although this book is intended to be an interpretive study, its contributors have used the opportunity to expose the shortcomings of British colonialism in Marxist terms. They do not explain the dilemma which confronted Whitehall - the dilemma which resulted from protectorate status, which demanded the preservation of the sultanate and the status quo. Professor Sheriff acknowledges this dilemma himself in a paragraph in his conclusion.

"British policy in the region was not single minded. While championing the abolitionist movement, it emerged as the patron of the Busaidi state. Having pursued a policy of progressively narrowing the arena of the slave trade to East Africa.... London developed cold feet and took a full quarter of a century to abolish slavery itself in Zanzibar."

Thereafter, London's grand designs concerned East Africa as a whole, or at best the mainland countries individually. Neither in Whitehall nor on the Lakes was anyone more than sentimentally concerned as to what tune they were playing on the pipes of Zanzibar. Professor Sheriff's conclusion is correct - the revolution settled old domestic scores without opening up new doors of emancipation or democracy.

British Empire Book
Abdul Sheriff
James Currey