The British Empire Library

Historical Zanzibar: Romance of the Ages

by Abdul Sheriff

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Brian Eccles (Colonial Administrative Service, Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Nigeria 1952-1989)
This book is about the survival of an Austro-German family in Tanganyika (Tanzania) between the wars. There are three contrasting personalities; the father, Hans Cory; Lili, his wife and Edith, the book's author and their only child. The book describes their interaction and adventures between 1927 and 1939.

Cory was a pioneer sisal planter when the price collapsed overnight, leaving him with no assets beyond fluent Kiswahili and exceptional empathy with black Africans. These gifts enabled him to keep together a loyal band of workmen, which built sections of a new railway and undertook contracts on other men's plantations, providing his family with a living of sorts.

During this period Cory became absorbed in tribal custom, studying music, dance and herbal medicine and being invited to wimess many esoteric ceremonies. A chance meeting led to occasional commissions to advise the Tanganyika Government on local custom and these, as this reviewer knows, were the door to his later appointment as official sociologist. He also pioneered the use of African actors in educational films. Whether earning steady money or unsure of next month's income, he seemed fulfilled, effective and content.

Lili, warm-hearted and sentimental, came from a well-to-do Viennese family and the appallingly primitive conditions in which she was forced to live must have nearly broken her. The byplay between the couple is well described. Cory could joke about poverty, pointing to the riches of the sunset, and seemed to show little understanding of his wife's pining for a better life. Though often ill and depressed, Lili, a superb home maker, never let her standards slip. If there were no gracious fabrics, some colourful grass matting was as good. Tea was a ceremony, poured from a silver teapot, even if the water had been boiled on a camp fire. Lili never lost her faith in Hans nor her love for him but she understood less and less of what drove him along.

Edith, the family chronicler, must have been a remarkable and precocious child. Her memory, with uncannily total recall of incidents and conversations overheard as a very young girl, is stunning. She grew to realize that she was missing other children and that her loneliness did not seem to be understood by her parents. If it was, they knew there was nothing they could do about it. There was no free schooling and, although Hans could earn a subsistence living, there was no money for school fees. So, to some extent this book may have been a writing out of bitterness stored from years of denial of a normal childhood. Eventually, friends helped procure Edith a bursary to an English speaking school. There, life was tough in a different way and she faced bullying and unhappiness. She came through, however, becoming quite a leader among her peers and at 15 was set to be an outstanding pupil.

So it is through the mind of a lonely girl, with fluent Kiswahili and in close contact with Africans, that this remarkable story is told; the ups and downs of the family in the remote places where they had to live, the intimate gossip of African peasants, the bazaar chat of Asian shopkeepers, the baking savannah and the occasional health and climatic crisis. All these are painted in a vivid and convincing style.

This is a gripping book but the end is flawed. As described, Hans Cory seems a failure. However, those who knew him later remember his ultimate eminence, employed and revered by Ministers. They know, too, of Lili's comeback as gracious hostess and of Edith, following her father into a career in anthropology. In the book, in contrast, the family seems downgraded. And it is not just for colleagues that the story is incomplete. Readers with no special knowledge may be left itching to know what became of them all. A short epilogue would have put this right.

The title will do little to attract the bookshop browser. But once hooked, they will find this a compelling read, stylishly written and full of incident.

British Empire Book
Abdul Sheriff
HSP Publications


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