Sunday, September 25, 2011


Getting back to my more usual subject matter here, I've found that ignorance has once again given me an easy topic. I was sitting with a sales rep the other day, who was showing me some photography books he was trying to sell. Each was dedicated to a country or region. One of them was Cuba, one of them was some Arab desert region that I had never heard of, and one of them was Zanzibar. Of course I'd heard of Zanzibar. It was only later, after he'd taken the books back and left, that I realized that I had no idea where Zanzibar really is.

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.


Yep, there was a movie. But the more contemporary cultural reference, and the reason some of you will know more about the place than I did, is that one of its most famous sons was Freddy Mercury, a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara, of Queen.

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

The British gradually gained control by influence of the sultanate, and took real control after a sultan they did not approve of came to power. What followed was the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, which military buffs may like to know is, at 38 minutes, still on record as the shortest war in history--at least according to Guinness.

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.


  1. Just think: All that history finding its culmination in the birth of Freddy Mercury.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. God has his plan, Peter, though sometimes his ways are mysterious to us.

    I guess Bob Hope features as kind of a John the Baptist here. He was probably chosen for his name.

  3. I had no idea that Freddy Mercury was from Zanzibar, amazing! This is perfect timing-James is going to be Freddy for Halloween, so it will give him some time to incorporate this into his embodiment of Mr. Mercury.

  4. That's terrific. It kind of makes my wasting all too much time on this yesterday worthwhile.

  5. And he was a Zorastrian, which meant that his family were keepers of the sacred fire. It used to be that Zorastrians would bury their dead on high platforms where they would be gradually eaten by birds. They didnt do this with Freddie Mercury if I recall correctly.

    Evelyn Waugh made an amusing if borderline racist visit to Zanzibar in one of his travel books. Its worth looking out if you can find it.

  6. I'll try to find the Waugh, although I will probably strongly disapprove.

    Yes, one thing I left out about Zanzibar is that it was apparently the first place that Zoroastrianism was practiced in the southern hemisphere.

    I am not sure how James will work in the birds in his Freddy Mercury interpretation, but it will certainly add something if he can pull it off.

  7. John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar may be my favourite new wave science fiction novel.

    Its a while since I read it but its basically about overpopulation in a dystopic future. I remember liking it a lot.

  8. Shoot--I recognize that title, but as it's always kept in science fiction, I thought Zanzibar was another planet.

    I'll look at it if it comes my way.

  9. Loved learned all this about Zanzibar. It also took me back to memories of a year in London and a friend there from Tanzania. Wow, that monument is powerful.

  10. Thanks, Kathleen. I hadn't realized until writing this that Tanzanika came about when Tanganika and Zanzibar became one political union.

    And I'm chagrined to admit that I almost skated right over the whole slave trade association to the archipelago, not intentionally, but through not being a very close reader.

  11. Read MM Kaye!
    Death in Zanzibar is a 'modern' romance set in Z, and the prequel Trade Wind, is very romantic.

  12. So funny, I had read the title of the post a few days ago and the first thing that popped into my head was Freddy Mercury. I was already to let you know this, but alas... Very interesting, especially about the cloves.

  13. Sean, I am not surprised that you already knew thi tidbit, music guy that you are.

  14. I found this out via a VH1 Rockumantary on Queen many years ago. I distincly remember at the time wondering where the is Zanzibar. I feel a sense of closure thanks to your post.

  15. Happy to oblige, Sean. Unfortunately, I now feel that I have to put Stand on Zanzibar on my reading list and probably listen to a lot more Queen. So for me, closure is not an option.