By the mid-15th century, Prince Henry ‘the navigator’ of Portugal was encouraging voyages of exploration around the African coast. He hoped to find a sea route to the east, as well as the Christian kingdom of the legendary Prester John (or ‘priest-king’) of Abyssinia. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire in 1453, all goods from the east, including the increasingly valuable spices, now reached Portugal via potentially hostile Muslim countries.
Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, encouraged by the reports of Dias and da Covilhan, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed northwards up the coast of East Africa, on the way to India. He passed Zanzibar and landed at Mombasa, where he received a hostile reception from the sultan. But he got a warm welcome in Malindi, an old enemy of Mombasa. Da Gama built a pillar of friendship on the shore at Malindi and employed an Omani navigator called Ahmed bin Majid to guide him across the Indian Ocean. On his return from India in 1499 he moored for a day off Unguja.
More Portuguese ships followed in the wake of da Covilhan and da Gama. They needed safe provisioning and repair bases for their voyages to and from the Far East, and so garrisons were established in the harbours of Unguja, Pemba and Mombasa.
Any early friendship was soon forgotten when the Portuguese took control of Unguja in 1503. A ship commanded by Rui Lorenco Ravasco moored off the southern end of the island while Portuguese sailors captured over 20 Swahili dhows and shot about 35 islanders. The Mwinyi Mkuu (king of Zanzibar) was forced to become a subject of Portugal and agreed to allow Portuguese ships free access to Zanzibar. Additionally, he was required to pay an annual tribute to the Portuguese crown.
Portuguese domination of the region continued. In 1505 they took control of Mombasa and in 1506 Pemba. Between 1507 and 1511 the Portuguese also occupied territories in the Arabian Gulf, including Muscat and the island of Hormuz.
By 1510 Unguja’s tribute had fallen short and the people of Pemba had also become hostile to the Portuguese. Under Duarte de Lemos, the Portuguese looted and set fire to settlements on Unguja, then plundered the town of Pujini in Pemba. They soon regained both islands and by 1525 the whole east African coast, from Lamu to Sofala, was under Portuguese control. Gold, ivory, ebony and slaves from the interior were carried to Portuguese colonies in India or back to Portugal. Iron ore and garnets from Sofala, and coconut fibre and gum-copal (a tree resin) from the islands were also exported. Cloth, beads, porcelain and metal tools were imported to the east African coast from Oman and Portugal.
Around 1560 the Portuguese built a church and small trading settlement on a western peninsula of Unguja. This was to become Zanzibar Town. But although the Portuguese occupied Unguja, and forced the local people to trade under their supervision, the islanders continued to pay allegiance to the Mwinyi Mkuu, their king.
Portugal was not the only European power with interests in the Indian Ocean. In November 1591 the Edward Bonaventura, captained by Sir James Lancaster, became the first English ship to call at Zanzibar. It was supplied with fresh food and water by the Mwinyi Mkuu. Soon, more European ships were calling at Zanzibar on their way to and from the Indian subcontinent and islands of the East Indies.
John Henderson, a Scottish sailor from one English ship, was reportedly held captive on Zanzibar in 1625. He later escaped, but not until he had fallen in love with a Zanzibari princess who escaped with him back to Scotland. Today, their portraits are in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
With the advent of English ships in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese needed to strengthen their position on the coast. In 1594 they built a fort at Chake Chake in Pemba, and from 1593 to 1595 Fort Jesus in Mombasa was constructed. Settlers arrived from Portugal, and a Portuguese garrison was established in Fort Jesus, brutally suppressing the local population. Mombasa became known as Mvita, ‘the place of war’, and the Portuguese governor as Afridi, ‘the devil’.
Domination of Oman
Zanzibar first became a sultanate in 1840 when the ruler of Oman, Said bin Sultan, moved his capital from Muscat, Oman, to Stone Town, Zanzibar, after defeating the Portugues in Mombasa, Kenya. Said recognized the island’s suitability for clove growth and encouraged the development of clove plantations using the island’s slave labour. Zanzibar was separated from Oman after Said’s death in 1856 when his son Majid bin Said became the first sultan of Zanzibar. Although Majid consolidated his power around local slave trade, his successor Barghash bin Said helped abolish the slave trade and largely developed the country’s infrastructure. This was done through a treaty with the British in 1873 that aimed to replace slave revenue with legitimate economic activities such as the trade of rubber and ivory.
However, in 1885, Barghash began to lose control over trading routes when the Society for German Colonization forced local chefs to agree to German protection. In 1886 the British and Germans colluded to gain control over Zanzibar’s trading routes and agreed on dividing the territories. Both countries leased coastal territory from Zanzibar and established trading stations and outposts which they used in the following years to take over mainland possessions that eventually became solely administered by Europe imperial powers.
In 1890 the United Kingdom and the German Empire signed the Helioglan-Zanzibar Treaty which established Zanzibar as a British protectorate; this lasted for several decades. During the period of this protectorate, the sultan’s authority was greatly reduced and the island’s slave trade curtailed. Although most sultans were generally aligned with the British, Khalid ibn Barghash was a notable exception. In 1896 when Khalid seized the throne instead of the British-supported candidate, Hamud ibn Mohammed, he was given a choice between relinquishing control of the nation and going to war with Great Britain. Khalid’s refusal to stand down initiated the Anglo-Zanzibar War which is considered the shortest war in history, having lasted less than an hour before his forces surrendered.
The British protectorate ended on 10 December 1963 through the Zanzibar Act of 1963 which made provision for full self-government in Zanzibar as an independent country within the Commonwealth. Upon the removal of the protectorate, Zanzibar became a constitutional monarchy under Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah who was overthrown a month later by the Zanzibar Revolution. Shortly after, in April of 1964, the short-lived communist republic was united with Tanganyika to form modern-day Tanzania.
How the Stone Town was Made
Try to use a modern cell phone inside a traditional Stone Town building. The reception will fail and the call will never get connected. The average thickness of a wall in Stone Town is 40 – 60 cm. The building material used is coral rag and lime mortar, appropriate technology for a hot and humid climate where heat needs to be kept out and humidity varies over the seasons. When the monsoon swept in over Zanzibar the walls managed to absorb the dampness. The material in the walls could expand. When the hot and dry season entered the walls dried out and the heat was kept at bay.
Due to neglect and poverty, many buildings have already collapsed in Stone Town. The sad remains of those crumbled houses show the handsome work of the interior of the wall. The coral stones and mixed with sand and mortar, holding the construction together.
Floors, ceilings and roofs
Most rooms found in traditional houses in Stone Town are quite narrow and deep. This is because traditionally, floors and ceilings were made with mangrove poles, which only grow a certain length. Only in houses where imported teak could be afforded, and in later constructions where iron beams were introduced, are the rooms wider and more spacious. Lime mortar was also used for the floors and ceilings giving the same flexibility to building as the walls. The height from floor to ceiling was generous and made it possible for the air to circulate and cool off. Initially, the houses had a flat roof with a crenel around the top. When corrugated iron was introduced to the Island, many houses got an additional pitched roof on top.
Zanzibar louvres and other details.
The windows in the Stone Town buildings are also worth some attention. They often stretch from the floor and high up the walls, with deep niches protecting the inside room from direct sunlight. The lower part at floor level had a separate shutter that could open and helped to increase the ventilation in the rooms – once again an appropriate construction for the humid climate. The special louvres, even named ‘Zanzibar louvres’, at the mid part or upper part of the windows have a vertical stick in the middle making it possible to change the angles of the louvres. This finesse made it possible to open for maximal light and air and then close for privacy and shade
The Arab houses had in general plane facades with windows giving the inhabitants the possibility to look out but no one from outside could look in. The Arab women were not supposed to be seen in public and hence there are often no outdoor sections of these houses. Still, several houses can be found with the most beautifully decorated verandas. Some of these houses have had their balconies added later or the houses were built by Europeans or non-Arabs. The Zanzibar Conservation Centre (the Old Customs House) is one example of an Arab-mansion that has had its significant veranda some thirty years after its original construction.
A typical detail at the houses in Zanzibar is the stone benches either outside the house or seen in the first hallway when looking in from the main entrance door. These benches, or sitting arrangements, are called ‘baraza’ in Kiswahili and a symbol for the rich social life in the Swahili culture. The outside baraza benches are often found in the merchant part of Stone Town were business could both discussed and displayed openly. In the Arab houses, the baraza benches are found inside. In the more prominent Arab houses there was even a second ‘Zanzibar door’ in the hallway leading to a room where guests could be invited for more private discussions. Black and white marble tiles found on the stairs and entrance to a house is yet another sign of wealth and importance of its owner.
British influence and rule
A Zanzibar market place, around 1910. A British colonist can be seen in the middle, wearing a linen suit and a Pith helmet.
The British Empire gradually took over; the relationship was formalized by the 1890 Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany pledged, among other things, not to interfere with British interests in Zanzibar. This treaty made Zanzibar and Pemba a British protectorate (not colony), and the Caprivi Strip (in what is now Namibia) part of German South-West Africa. British rule through a sultan (vizier) remained largely unchanged.
The death of Hamad bin Thuwaini on 25 August 1896 saw the Khalid bin Bargash, eldest son of the second sultan, Barghash ibn Sa’id, take over the palace and declare himself the new ruler. This was contrary to the wishes of the British government, which favoured Hamoud bin Mohammed. This led to a showdown, later called the Anglo-Zanzibar War, on the morning of 27 August, when ships of the Royal Navy destroyed the Beit al Hukum Palace, having given Khalid a one-hour ultimatum to leave. He refused, and at 9 am the ships opened fire. Khalid’s troops returned fire and he fled to the German consulate. A cease-fire was declared 45 minutes after the action had begun, giving the bombardment the title of The Shortest War in History. Hamoud was declared the new ruler and peace was restored once more. Acquiescing to British demands, he brought an end in 1897 to Zanzibar’s role as a centre for the centuries-old eastern slave trade by banning slavery and freeing the slaves, compensating their owners. Hamoud’s son and heir apparent, Ali, was educated in Britain.
From 1913 until independence in 1963, the British appointed their residents (essentially governors). One of the more appreciated reforms brought in by the British was the establishment of a proper sewer, garbage disposal system and burial system so that the beaches of Zanzibar reeked no more of bodies, excrement and garbage, finally eliminating the foul smell of Stone Town, which had repulsed so many Western visitors.
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