History of Zanzibar to 1890
- Abdul SheriffAbdul SheriffDepartment of History, University of Dar es Salaam
The East African or Swahili coast is at the confluence between the continental world of Africa and the maritime world of the Indian Ocean, giving rise to a cosmopolitan culture. The Zanzibar archipelago is geographically at the center of the East African coast, and was ideally located in terms of the monsoons for trade and social interaction with the African mainland as well as across the Indian Ocean. The first golden age of the Zanzibar archipelago blossomed from the middle of the first millennium ce when transoceanic connections began to be forged between the western seaboards of the Indian Ocean as far as China in the east. It was spearheaded by Unguja Ukuu, followed by a number of ports on Pemba and Unguja, including Kizimkazi with its unique 12th-century Kufic inscription.
The Portuguese intervened from the 15th century to monopolize and divert Indian Ocean trade to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope, although they did not succeed. Nevertheless, they disrupted the former patterns of trade and social interactions in the Indian Ocean. After the Portuguese interlude, the Swahili civilization tried to recover its initiative, but it could no longer hold its own. The Swahili city states had to seek assistance from Oman. Zanzibar developed as the seat of a vast commercial empire in the 19th century based on the clove economy on the islands and commerce that extended from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, and a vast hinterland that extended as far as the African Great Lakes. It flourished, but it could not withstand the onslaught of the European colonial powers in their scramble for Africa to monopolize its natural resources and markets for their industrial revolution. With the colonial partition of Africa, Zanzibar was reduced to a minor British protectorate by 1890.