Zanzibar has a rich and vibrant history of occupation, slavery, trade, colonisation and finally revolution. Originally occupied by people of east African descent, the early settlement of Zanzibar was added to by a combination of traders from the Mediterranean, Arabia and the Orient. Zanzibar was a major port on the trade route from the Roman Empire to the far East. Bantu people from West Africa arrived by 4 AD bringing with them their Bantu language which was to form the basis of the present day Kiswahili spoken in Zanzibar and the rest of East Africa. The other large influence in Kiswahili is Arabic. This and the religion of Islam, were brought by Arabs and Persians fleeing war and famine in their own countries. The Bantus, Arabs and Persians intermarried forming a new group of people and culture known as the Swahili. The term Swahili comes from the Arabic word for coast: sahil.
With the Persian influence and Persian trade partners, Zanzibar continued a thriving trade in slaves, ivory and gold among other things. It was its own Sultanate at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese expedition of Vasco Da Gama in 1498. Like all European expeditions of the times, the Portuguese colonised much of the East African coast, Zanzibar included. They brought with them Christianity in the form of Roman Catholicism and attempted to convert the entire population. This was unsuccessful as most Zanzibaris are Muslim today.
The harsh Portuguese rule lasted 2 centuries but their stubbornness proved to be their downfall as they failed to send enough reinforcements to protect their territories. Very little remains as evidence of the Portuguese although some words in Kiswahili can be attributed to them. On Pemba Island, bullfighting remains as testimony to the Portuguese.
The Omanis took over where the Portuguese left off, much to the protest of the local chiefs. The Omanis ruled Zanzibar until the Revolution in 1964. The most famous Sultan to rule Zanzibar was Seyyid Said bin Sultan who was known as Said the Great. He was responsible for introducing the now famous cloves and other spices to the island. He moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in the 1840’s as a result of the wealth generated by trading of slaves, ivory and spices. His death in 1856, resulted in many power struggles by his relatives.
The British capitalised on the death of Said the Great, managing to control most of the island. The successors of Said were all pressured to abolish slavery but it wasn’t till Sultan Ali, the last of them, that the treaty was upheld. Whilst nominally the Sultans were the rulers of Zanzibar at this time, essentially it was a British Protectorate.
When Sultan Hamed bin Thuwain (grandson of Said the Great) died in 1896, his cousin announced unlawfully that he was the new Sultan. This act lead to the shortest war in history with the British opening fire on Stone Town which destroyed the Palace, Harem, Lighthouse and the Sultans Ship. Within 40 minutes the war was over allowing for the declaration of the rightful Sultan, Seyyid Hamoud bin Mohammed. The British protectorate granted Zanzibar independence on 10th December 1963.
A bloody Revolution was begun a month later on 12 January 1964 by John Okello a Ugandan President who incited the black African population to revolt against the Arabs and Indians. Over 17000 were killed and many fled leaving their possessions and land to be seized by the revolutionaries. The leader of the Afro-Shirazi party Abied Karume became the new President. On April 24 of the same year Zanzibar joined Tanganyika but retained its constitutional right to maintain its presidency.
Abied Karume was succeded by his son Amani Karume who rules to today.