It is certainly a name to conjure with. I think all my associations to the word may actually come from film or perhaps there's a line in a famous poem or two. In any case it's a highly romantic word, with resonances of spices and somehow I'm thinking there's an Arabic/African trade route involved. Was there a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "On the Road to" movie?
We shall see.
Basically, my sense of Zanzibar was more or less right, which must mean that those Bob Hope movies had a hitherto unsuspected level of documentary reality...
Zanzibar is an archipelago off of Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa, and is currently a semi-autonomous region of the same. It has indeed been a kind of crossroads of not only Arab and African trade, but also that of India and Persia/Iran. There is a bit of a controversy about what the name actually means. The Persian language has it as Zangh Bar, meaning brown, Negro, or even rust coast, but the Arabs derive it from Zayn Z'al Bar, which means something along the lines of 'fair is this land'.
The spice aspect wasn't wrong either. These islands are often called the Spice Islands, which I thought might be the case, although there is an Indonesian archipelago which is a rival for that name. In fact, their main export, cloves, were originally imported from these other islands, the Moluccas. The real reason, I think, that Zanzibar is on the map for us now, though, is that the Persian traders who discovered these islands (whatever discovery means when you're talking about islands that have traces of human tools from 50,000 years ago) saw their strategic importance in trade routes between Africa, the Middle East and India. The larger island, Unguja, had, and probably still has, a defendable harbor.
After Persia, Zanzibar came under the control of the Portuguese, who retained it for 200 years. Then the Sultanate of Oman had its day there and came to hold sway not only over a major portion of the East African coast, but trade routes leading into the continent. Yes, spices were traded, but they were not the only goods on offer. There was also ivory, and, yes, slaves. In fact, Zanzibar was Eastern Africa's main slave port, and at the height of this trade, 50,000 slaves passed annually through its markets.
|Monument to the slaves in Zanzibar|
Zanzibar gained independence from Britain in 1963, but it was only a month later that an African led Zanzibar Revolution ended the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Arabs and Indians living there, and in the process put an end to the Arab dominance of the coast that had gone on for a couple of centuries.
Freddy Mercury was actually very representative of multicultural Zanzibar and its destiny in many ways. He was born to a Parsee family, but his father worked as a civil servant for the British government. So it makes sense that Freddy was sent to an English boarding school, though the boarding school was not in England, but just outside Bombay. After school, Freddy returned to Zanzibar and it was actually the growing unrest in 1964 in Zanzibar that persuaded his family, rather wisely I'd say, to join many other British and Indian families seeking a new home in England.
The rest, as they say, is history.