The Sultanate of Zanzibar: Oman’s Empire Along the Swahili Coast

The ubiquitous kuma headdress worn by nearly every male in Oman is said to come from Zanzibar. The word Zanzibar itself is said to be derived from the Persian words for ‘black coast’ or ‘land of the blacks’. On your next visit to Oman, you may even meet people for whom Zanzibar is their homeland. When you walk the streets of Muscat or read about the history of Oman, the rich relationship between the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar is often reduced to a historical footnote. If you want to see Oman in a different light, we must go back 400 years to the beautiful shores of the Arabian sea and revisit the nation’s long tradition of seafaring.

IMG: Consider. Georgie Pauwels. Flickr. CCBY 2.0

You can’t visit Oman, or most points along the coast of Southern India and East Africa (also known as the Swahili Coast) and not find yourself sailing on a dhow for a sunset cruise. It is one of those things you must do at least once. It is incredible to bear witness to the trade of dhow sailing if only for a glimmer of an ancient mode of transportation that forever transformed the region. These beautiful sailing vessels were used to crisscross the Indian ocean along trade routes connecting East Africa, India, Iran, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula. It is unknown whether the dhow was first created in India or Arabia, but it is undeniable that it was seafaring and these impeccably crafted vessels that enabled the Omani Empire’s great dominance over regions touched by Indian Ocean trade networks. For Oman, trading in ivory, cloves, and slaves was particularly profitable.

IMG: Stone Town. Jorge Cancela. Flickr. CCBY 2.0.

Along the Swahili Coast, centuries of contact with Arab traders has contributed to the prominence of Islam and the prevalence of Swahili architecture in cities like Lamu, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. Zanzibar would later become the central hub for the East African slave trade and the world’s leading producer of cloves. After taking the land from the Portuguese after some two centuries of rule, Zanzibar became an official holding of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698. If you have seen Zanzibar for yourself, perhaps you can understand why Sultan Said decided to relocate his court (and the official capital of the empire) from Muscat to Stone Town around 1840. For a short time, Zanzibar was the capital of Oman. Zanzibar’s allure, somewhat magical and time-suspending, drew the Sultan to make a new life for himself and others who would follow his lead. During this time, clove plantations expanded on the fertile Zanzibar island of Pemba and slavery exploded. Annual estimates between 11,000 – 15,000 enslaved peoples were arriving in Zanzibar from the interior regions surrounding the African great lakes. At its peak later in the 19th century, as many as 20,000 per year are estimated to have been brought to Zanzibar from the interior of East Africa. Even as pressure to abolish slavery grew, the economic benefits of slavery were too substantial to abandon full stop. By this point, Oman was still quite poor and underdeveloped which meant that life for Omanis in Zanzibar (mostly land and plantation owners) was the better option.

IMG: Zanzibar Chicken Market. Mark Robinson. Flickr. CCBY 2.0.

Fast forward to the 1960s: Sultan Said’s death incites infighting among his sons about succession, Oman and Zanzibar are officially separated into two principalities (reinstating Muscat as the capital), increasing encroachment and eventual colonization by the British, and ultimately independence from the British in 1963. One striking characteristic of the Zanzibari is the sheer diversity of the population, particularly in and around Stone Town. With the Sultan’s relocation in the 1840s, it is no surprise that many Arab settlers followed. As a thriving trading post, Zanzibar’s diversity grew to also include a contingent of European ex-pats and a predominantly South Asian merchant class. The Sultan of Zanzibar and his ruling class of Arab elites held tightly onto power despite growing civil disdain for the lack of African representation in government well into the mid-1900s. Almost immediately following independence from the British, some sources estimate upwards of 17,000 Arabs and other ethnic minorities were murdered by revolutionaries in a single day in January 1964. The property of Arabs and South Asians were looted and families massacred. This was the beginning of the Zanzibar revolution; the mostly Arab government and political establishment were overthrown, the Sultan exiled, and others were left to flee or risk harm. While some stayed, many Arabs found refuge in Gulf countries like Oman despite being citizens of the Sultanate of Zanzibar and in many cases, several generations removed from Arabia.

IMG: Zanzibar. Worldwide. Flickr. Public Domain.

Zanzibar’s more recent stint of political stability has coincided with a boom in tourism. Among these tourists are Omani citizens with ancestral roots in Zanzibar who are repatriating, reconnecting with family members, and in some cases, investing in business ventures on the island. This complicated history is enshrined in the island’s architecture and embodied in the people themselves. Zanzibaris, whether in Oman or on any of Zanzibar’s islands, are proud to be from Zanzibar. Whether their ancestors were traders, sailors, merchants, or revolutionary freedom fighters, they all share a certainty about themselves that emanates from the audacity of their ancestors’ truth: that Zanzibar was and is one of the most fantastic places on Earth to call home.

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