The Portuguese

AD 16th - 17th Century

Vasco de Gama (1460 - 1524)
Vasco de Gama (1460 – 1524)

The first Europeans to discover’ Zanzibar were the Portuguese, who arrived in the late fifteenth century. In keeping with their conduct in the rest of their empire, they had little interest in the place beyond keeping it out of the hands of their language.

Vasco da Gama’s visit in 1499 marked the beginning of European influence. In 1503 or 1504, Unguja (normally known as Zanzibar Island) and then Pemba fell under their control and become a part of the Portuguese Empire when Captain Ruy Lourenço Ravasco Marques landed and demanded and received tribute from the sultan in exchange for peace.

By the end of the century there is a Portuguese trading station and a Roman Catholic mission in Zanzibar and dominated the island for some 200 years. Nonetheless, their cultural impact proved to be minimal In 1698, Arabs from Oman ousted the Portuguese from E Africa, including Zanzibar.

Oman and Zanzibar

AD 1698 - 1856

Old Fort in Stone Town
Old Fort in Stone Town

In the 1690s Saif bin Sultan, the imam of Oman, is pressing down the east African coast. A major obstacle is Fort Jesus, housing the garnison of a Portuguese settlement at Mombasa. After a two-year siege, it falls to Saif in 1698. Thereafter the Omanis easily eject the Portuguese from Zanzibar and from east Africa.

Zanzibar, a valuable property as the main slave market of the east African coast, becomes an increasingly important part of the Omani empire – a fact reflected by the decision of the greatest 19th-century sultan of Oman, Sa’id ibn Sultan, to make it from 1837 his main place of residence.

Sa’id builds impressive palaces and gardens in Zanzibar. He improves the island’s economy by introducing cloves, sugar and indigo (though at the same time he accepts a financial loss in cooperating with British attempts to end Zanzibar’s slave trade). The link with Oman is broken after his death in 1856. Rivalry between his two sons is resolved with the help of forceful British diplomacy, when one of them (Majid) succeeds to Zanzibar and to the many regions claimed by the family on the east African coast. The other (Thuwaini) inherits Muscat and Oman.

British Involvement

AD 1856 - 1885

David Livingstone
David Livingstone

By the time Majid dies, to be succeeded in 1870 by his brother Barghash, the British have appointed a consul to Zanzibar. His primary task is to end Zanzibar’s notorious slave trade. This purpose is achieved by a treaty with Barghash in 1873.

The consul who achieves this treaty is John Kirk. It is poignant for him that this is the year in which he does so. For it is also the year in which David Livingstone, the great anti-slavery explorer, dies in the African interior. His embalmed corpse is carried by his assistants all the way back to Zanzibar.

Kirk, who receives Livingstone’s body in his role as consul, has been an intimate friend. For five years, from 1858 to 1863, he accompanied all Livingstone’s expeditions in the role of doctor and naturalist. He too has witnessed at first hand the brutal activities of the Arab slave traders in the interior. Livingstone would be pleased to know that their main market is now closed to them.

Well aware that Zanzibar needs to replace slave revenue with legitimate economic activity, Kirk is assiduous in encouraging Barghash to build up the export of rubber and ivory.

By the mid-1880s the sultan is earning a fortune from these sources, but Kirk proves powerless to protect him from a new threat. In 1884-5 there are reports of a German, Karl Peters, snooping around the caravan routes to the Great Lakes. In March 1885 there comes the astonishing news that Germany is claiming a protectorate in this inland region. And in August there is an alarming sight from the verandah of the palace.

British Protectorate

AD 1890 - 1963

House of Wonders
House of Wonders

On 7 August 1885 five German warships steam into the lagoon of Zanzibar and train their guns on the sultan’s palace. They have arrived with a demand from Bismarck that Sultan Barghash cede to the German emperor his mainland territories or face the consequences.

The embarrassed British consul finds himself under orders from London to persuade the sultan to sign an agreement ceding the lion’s share of his mainland territory, with the details still to be decided. In September the German gunships begin their journey home. A joint Anglo-German boundary commission starts work in the interior.

Old Indian Dispensary
Old Indian Dispensary

By November 1886 the task is done and the result is agreed with the other main colonial power, France. The sultan is left a strip ten miles wide along the coast. Behind that a line is drawn to Mount Kilimanjaro and on to Lake Victoria at latitude 1° S. The British sphere of influence is to be to the north, the German to the south. The line remains to this day the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

After the abrupt redistribution of the sultan’s inland territories, Britain remains the only colonial power with a well-established presence in Zanzibar itself. With the approval of the sultan the island and its narrow coastal regions are declared a British protectorate in 1890.

Although only wielding a fraction of their former power, the Arab sultans of Zanzibar are still during this colonial period the most influential Muslim leaders in east Africa. But their rule comes to an end soon after the island’s independence in the 1960s.

Anglican Church
Anglican Church

A new constitution, introduced in 1960, provides for a legislative assembly. The emerging political parties are split largely on ethnic lines, representing Arab and African interests respectively, and disagreement about the franchise delays the introduction of internal self-government until June 1963. It is followed in December by full independence and membership of the British Commonwealth.

A coalition of Arab parties forms the first government, with the sultan as head of state. But in January 1964, a month after independence, a communist-led revolution topples the regime. The sultan is deposed and a republic proclaimed.

Independence and Union


Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein
Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein

Zanzibar retains considerable independence in internal affairs, but its foreign relations and defense are handled by the central government. Zanzibar’s chief executive serves as the first vice president of Tanzania when Tanzania’s president is Tanganyikan, and as second vice president when Tanzania’s president is Zanzibari. In 1979 a separate constitution was approved for Zanzibar.

In 1984, Zanzibar’s president, Aboud Jumbe, resigned, as the Tanzanian government appeared to be seeking greater control over Zanzibar. Ali Hassan Mwinyi, a mainland loyalist, took over as president and several secessionists were arrested. Mwinyi went on to introduce liberal reforms in Zanzibar and in the mainland and became president of Tanzania in 1986. In 1990, Dr. Salmin Amour became president of Zanzibar; he was returned to office in a 1995 vote that observers said was rigged.

Amani Karume was elected president in 2000 in an election with such blatant irregularities that international observers denounced it as showing contempt for Zanzibar’s citizens; the opposition, which favored greater independence, had been expected to do well. An accord signed in 2001 called for a number of electoral and governmental reforms that were designed to end political tensions.

Karume was reelected in 2005 in an election that was criticized for some irregularites and political violence and denounced by the opposition, but it was also regarded as an improvement over previous elections. Subsequent negotiations to establish a coalition government that would include the opposition, which is especially strong on Pemba, proved unsuccessful, but in 2010 voters in a referendum approved the formation of proportionally based power-sharing coalition governments. A 2006 court challenge by Zanzibari activists to the legality of the 1964 Act of Union that formed Tanzania was dismissed by the High Court of Zanzibar. Ali Mohamed Shein, the ruling party candidate, was narrowly elected president in 2010.

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