Zanzibar: Arabs, Africans and a forgotten legacy of slavery and ethnic cleansing

Zanzibar: Arabs, Africans and a forgotten legacy of slavery and ethnic cleansing
The 1964 mass killings in Zanzibar and the slavery which preceded them highlight uncomfortable issues about Arab-African relations at a time when the world focuses on race.
10 min read
03 July, 2020
Omani Arabs were detained and killed in the 1964 'Zanzibar Revolution' [Getty]

The recent global focus on racial issues in the wake of the killing of George Floyd has cast a spotlight on the relationship between Africans and Arabs.

Issues such as the mistreatment of African workers in the Arab world – particularly Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon - and casual racism against people of African origin in Arab countries have received media attention, along with inappropriate and embarrassing actions by Arab celebrities who have used blackface to express "solidarity" with African-Americans.

However, there has been little discussion of the Arab world's past relations with Africa south of the Sahara, and the impact of that period of history today. The historical involvement of Arabs in the slave trade may be common knowledge, but there is little awareness of the complexities of that period of history and its impact.

This is despite the fact that slavery and the slave trade are still current issues in the Arab world, particularly in Mauritania, a country with a mixed population of Arabs, Berbers and Africans where an estimated 20 percent of people still live as slaves.

Probably no event highlights the fraught and complex historical relationship between Africans and Arabs as much as the 1964 'Zanzibar Revolution', a little-discussed event of immense tragedy and horror which is outside the public consciousness in most of the Arab world and largely a taboo subject even among those who survived it and their descendants, most of whom live in Oman today.

Probably no event highlights the fraught and complex historical relationship between Africans and Arabs as much as the 1964 'Zanzibar Revolution'

Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa also known as Unguja, constitutes a single political unit with Pemba and a number of smaller islands. It is today part of the United Republic of Tanzania. Muslims are a minority in Tanzania as a whole, but over 99 percent of the population of Zanzibar is Muslim. The slave trade in Zanzibar has a history dating back to ancient times but it greatly increased in size and proportion at the end of the 17th century, when Oman took control of Zanzibar from its previous Portuguese rulers.

'A fable land of spices and a vile centre of slavery'

The Omanis set up a lucrative empire based on clove plantations worked by slaves captured from the East African mainland. Historical accounts by Europeans and Americans describe the luxurious conditions of the island and the brutality of slavery. Don Petterson, author of Revolution in Zanzibar: An American's Cold War Tale, says that by the 19th century Zanzibar was "a fabled land of spices, a vile centre of slavery, a place of origins of expeditions into the vast, mysterious continent, the island was all these things during its heyday".

European travellers gave graphic illustrations of the way slaves were treated 
in Zanzibar [Getty]

The island and its slave trade was so profitable that the Omani royal court under Sultan Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid moved there in 1840. Following a power struggle among Sayyid's sons Zanzibar became a separate sultanate to Oman in 1861 under Sultan Majid bin Said, Said's sixth son. 

Abdulaziz Lodhi, a professor of Kiswahili and African Linguistics at Sweden's Uppsala University and the author of The Arabs in Zanzibar: From Sultanate to People's Republic characterises slavery in Zanzibar and East Africa as "relatively benign", saying that freed slaves could rise to any position in society.

He notes that two of the six governors of Zanzibar appointed by Sultan Said before his 1840 move to Zanzibar were freed slaves of Ethiopian origin and that slaves in Zanzibar could work for themselves, cultivate their own plots of land, and earn their own income for a number of days every week.

In contrast, European travellers have given graphic accounts of the horrifically brutal ways in which slaves were treated, with huge numbers of captured Africans dying on the way to slave markets from starvation, overcrowding, and disease on their forced marches and sea journeys to Zanzibar. Petterson estimates that 40-50,000 slaves were taken to the island every year under Omani rule and that 30 percent of slaves died on plantations due to the harshness of their treatment. 

Omani sultans had encouraged traders from south Asia to settle in Zanzibar, and along with the Arabs, these formed an elite of plantation owners and wealthy merchants on the island

The number of slaves and the conditions of slavery remain a matter of great debate, with academics like Lodhi saying that it is impossible for such a high number of slaves to have been transported to Zanzibar every year. The true number of people forced into slavery in East Africa will likely never be known because of the lack of records and the difficulty of estimating the population of the area in the 19th century.

From slavery to inequality and racial tension

In 1896 Britain invaded Zanzibar and declared a protectorate, installing Hamoud bin Mohammed Al-Said as the sultan under their suzerainty. The following year Hamoud formally abolished slavery on the island but most Africans remained in practice slaves until 1909. After the abolition, most of the former slaves lived as landless "squatters" according to Lodhi.

Read more: Dear Arab celebrities, Expressing Black Lives Matter solidarity in blackface is racist

The Omani sultans had encouraged traders from south Asia to settle in Zanzibar, and along with the Arabs, these formed an elite of plantation owners and wealthy merchants on the island. Some of the Africans native to Zanzibar (in contrast to those imported as slaves), who referred to themselves as "Shirazis",were also able to own plantations, but Lodhi says there was little change in the relationship between Africans and the Arab and Asian elite, with most of the freed slaves and their descendants being attached or bonded to plantation owners in some way.

Click to enlarge

It is important to remember that nearly nine decades separated the abolition of the slave trade and its associated violence and horror from the genocidal events of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. The period of British colonial rule, which lasted from 1896 to 1963 saw the establishment of constitutional government and towards the end, the formation of political parties.

By the time Zanzibar became independent at the end of 1963, there were approximately 50,000 Arabs, 20,000 Asians, and 230,000 Africans living there, although ethnic distinctions were becoming increasingly blurred amid intermarriage and integration – the Sultan's own family, for example, was multiethnic.

In 1956, the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) was formed. Dominated by Arabs, it officially promoted a multiracial Zanzibari identity based on Islam, as well as independence and constitutional government and it ruled Zanzibar in the run-up to independence from 1961. Its main rival in the period before independence was the Afro-Shirazi Party, which had a predominantly African membership and espoused Marxist-Leninist ideals.

A 'genocidal' revolution

Only one month separated the declaration of Zanzibari independence on 10 December 1963, under the rule of the last sultan of the island, Jamshid bin Abdullah al-Said, from the "Zanzibar Revolution" and its associated mass killings, which began on 12 January 1964. Zanzibar's first elections, held under British rule in 1961, were accompanied by deadly ethnic violence and inflammatory propaganda.

According to Lodhi, Britain had helped exacerbate racial divisions by treating Zanzibar as an Arab state with an Arab ruling class, and in effect handing power to a minority government at a time when racial tensions had already been inflamed and politics was sharply polarised along racial lines. This polarisation manifested itself in the gerrymandering of elections in the ZNP's favour, and the dismissal of African policemen by the ZNP-dominated government.

By the time Zanzibar became independent at the end of 1963, there were approximately 50,000 Arabs, 20,000 Asians, and 230,000 Africans living there

On 12 January 1964, members of the youth wing of the ASP with the support of 600 dismissed African policemen seized the police armoury, the broadcasting station, and other key sites in Zanzibar city. The government capitulated almost immediately and the Sultan fled into exile the next day. However, this was only the beginning of the mass killings that followed. The revolution was led by John Okello, a Ugandan who proclaimed himself "field marshal" of Zanzibar and openly called on his followers to slaughter the Arabs of Zanzibar.

Read also: Racism is a weed and we are all responsible for tending the garden

On the other hand, Okello ordered his followers not to attack Europeans or Americans living in Zanzibar, some of whom gave horrific accounts of the atrocities against Arabs. Arab men were slaughtered in the streets after being castrated and having their private parts shoved into their mouths, and Arab women were gang-raped by the "revolutionaries". Don Petterson describes seeing an Arab man beheaded outside his house while hearing the screams of his wife and children, who were raped and killed inside. The same event, he said was repeated again at the next Arab house and the one after that.

The only video footage of the massacres of Zanzibar comes from Africa Addio, a 1966 Italian shock documentary released in English-speaking countries as Africa: Blood and Guts. It talks about various African countries, lamenting the end of colonial rule and slandering Africans as backward, violent people who need white European rule.

While the film's racist agenda is obvious, the footage it contains, widely shared on YouTube, is unique and captures the full tragedy of the event. Groups of victims herded in cemeteries, waiting to be executed by militiamen are shown. Desperate Arabs are also filmed from a plane fleeing into the sea, boarding any available boat to get away. The plane which captured the footage returns a day later, showing that they have all drowned on the beaches.

Hundreds of victims of the Zanzibar massacres are shown in the Africa Addio footage. There is great variance in the estimates of the total number of those killed in the massacres. Don Petterson gives a figure of roughly 5,000 people killed and says, "in parts of Zanzibar, the killing of Arabs was genocide, pure and simple." John Okello, the man who instigated the massacres, gave suspiciously precise figures, saying that 7994 Arabs and 1417 Africans were killed.

Seif Sherif Ahmed, a member of the government which took over following the revolution estimated that 13,000 people had been killed. Other estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 people were killed. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that between a tenth and a third of Zanzibar's Arabs were killed in the massacres.

An unacknowledged legacy

After the events of 1964, the new government of Zanzibar, led by the Afro-Shirazi Party, united the country with the former British colony of Tanganyika to form the modern state of Tanzania. Most of the remaining Arabs and Asians fled abroad, the Arabs mostly settling in Oman.

Read more: Reparations for slavery should just be the beginning

While many of the Arabs of Zanzibar have today prospered in Oman, the massacres go largely undiscussed and remain outside of the public eye, although there have been a couple of media articles recently about the experiences of the survivors. In Zanzibar today, the revolution is publicly celebrated on its anniversary as an uprising against oppression and slavery, even though slavery had been abolished decades before. The massacres are either downplayed or not discussed at all.

With its legacy of slavery and ethnic violence, the history of Zanzibar probably shows the complexities of the relationship between Arabs and Africans like nothing else

People of Arab origin still live in Zanzibar and Tanzania, and after the revolution many of them played an important role in Tanzania's political, economic, and cultural life, even though they were no longer classed as a separate ethnic community. Oman and Omanis of Zanzibari origin still also maintain cultural, social, and economic links to Zanizbar.

With its legacy of slavery and ethnic violence, the history of Zanzibar probably shows the complexities of the relationship between Arabs and Africans like nothing else. It is important though, to remember that Zanzibar's history is also one of a multi-ethnic society and a unique culture. The horrific events of the 1964 killings, the violence and brutalities of the slavery of the 19th century and the ethnic-based inequality that existed under the British mandate have not been properly acknowledged, addressed or faced up to, and the ethnic cleansing remains a taboo subject, both for Zanzibar's current rulers and its survivors.

Today, racial issues are the focus of global attention in a way never seen before, and the relationship between Arabs and Africans has come under increasing scrutiny. But the history of Zanzibar has important lessons for both Africans and Arabs and its legacy and the issues it brings up should be confronted and discussed openly.

Amr Salahi is a journalist at The New Arab

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to stay connected