"A Solitary Tree Builds Not": Heshima, Community, and Shifting Identity in Post-Emancipation Pemba Island*

By McMahon, Elisabeth | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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"A Solitary Tree Builds Not": Heshima, Community, and Shifting Identity in Post-Emancipation Pemba Island*

McMahon, Elisabeth, The International Journal of African Historical Studies

When emancipation occurred on the Indian Ocean island of Pemba, most slaves' movements were constrained by colonial policies. While many certainly moved from their former master's land, many more remained.1 The responses of former slaves on Pemba to emancipation mirrored similar patterns found on other small island communities such as St. Louis and Gorée in Senegal, and the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Antigua, and Montserrat among others.2 In all of these islands government policies and limited access to land for purchase forced ex-slaves to remain as squatters on the land they had previously worked and used as their provision gardens. For ex-slaves around the world, freedom rarely meant citizenship.3 Thus, former slaves had to find ways to incorporate themselves into the larger society in which they lived. As in the Senegalese colonies, former slaves on the island of Pemba worked to integrate themselves into the local community.

In day-to-day life on Pemba, community mattered in how a person negotiated their status in society. A variety of factors counted in creating status, but one that has been overlooked is the role of heshima or "honor." There was no single way to earn heshima and no single person who bestowed it on others. Rather, it was a social status that a person earned from their community over time and through their behavior. While economics and heritage were certainly reflected in one's heshima, they were not the only factors in deciding who had heshima and who did not. Only the members of a community could impart this status, which was constantly renegotiated as people moved, married, and progressed through life.

For the majority of the Pemban population-who had legally been slaves until the final abolition in 1909-the development of heshima was one way in which members could redefine their identity.4 As Ann Twinam's work in colonial Latin America suggests, honor was communally negotiated-not something that was simply assumed. "Embedded in a simple hello could be underlying codes that precisely located an individual's rank within the social hierarchy."5 While this suggests a top-down approach to who could confer heshima on an individual, it is more likely that this negotiation took place from both the top and the bottom. Trevor Getz notes that in colonial Senegal, "Wherever possible, these individuals [former slaves] sought to assert a higher status by reworking their family trees or suing their antagonists, who were usually their former masters or their masters' relatives, with whom they were economically forced to remain in contact."6 Social status was something in flux and contested, on all levels of society.

Heshima was significant for the less-affluent classes on Pemba: the former slaves, migrant workers, peasants, and especially women. For these groups, heshima allowed them status in the community, permitting them access to land and credit during the non-harvest seasons, and status in local disputes through the court system. Having heshima became as vital for some people as their ethnicity, and for former slaves having heshima was an important factor in giving them community acceptance in the post-emancipation period. As later examples will show, people's status, their heshima, was negotiated regularly and denoted their place in the communities in which they lived.


Omani Arabs began a concerted effort to colonize the East African coast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the 1840s, the Omani Sultan moved his capital to Zanzibar Town on Unguja Island, the largest of the Zanzibari isles. While Unguja was the home of the Arab elite, the majority of the agricultural produce exported from the islands came from the second-largest island, Pemba. Slave labor was used throughout the Sultanate to produce cloves and coconuts for export. In 1890, ostensibly to end slavery, the British declared a protectorate over the Omani domains. Within seven years the British had forced the initial abolition of slavery and ushered in a period of shifting identity as former slaves and masters negotiated the difficult terrain of maintaining a social hierarchy in a "free" state.

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"A Solitary Tree Builds Not": Heshima, Community, and Shifting Identity in Post-Emancipation Pemba Island*


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