A Materialist Approach
to Zanzibar's History
Zanzibar, which consists of the islands of Unguja and Pemba, may be considered only a dot in the Indian Ocean. With an area of about 1,000 square miles and a population of half a million, it is indeed a small place. However, it is a territory with a long history which has evoked romantic notions far beyond its shores; more importantly, it has occupied a prominent place in the history of eastern Africa. There was a popular saying in Zanzibar during the nineteenth century that
When one pipes in Zanzibar
They dance on the lakes. 1
But the tune that was being played was not one of political control, for the Sultan's sway did not extend beyond the narrow coastal belt even at the height of his power. Zanzibar did control the external trade of a large part of the region, but it must be remembered that, in the pre-capitalist period before the imposition of colonial rule, production of commodities for export to the outside world formed only a small proportion of the total production of East African societies. As a result of its political and economic pre-eminence at the coast, however, Zanzibar did develop as a seat of learning and a centre of Swahili culture, a fountainhead of Kiswahili and Islam from which the language and the religion were disseminated over a vast region of middle Africa. This is the enduring cultural contribution of Zanzibar to the history not only of East Africa but of humankind in general.
These aspects of the apparently more glorious pre-colonial history of Zanzibar have received a fair share of historical attention. 2 There is, however, a more urgent need to study the recent