Imperial legacies

Zanzibar has a history of exploitation, but for once the British weren't to blame

Like most attractive tourist destinations around the world, the island of Zanzibar - now part of Tanzania - was built on cruelty and exploitation. But for once, the British were not primarily responsible. For centuries, young Zanzibaris were enslaved by the sultanate of Oman and sent to work on Omani date plantations. Other slaves worked locally on the spice plantations under the aegis of Zanzibar's sultan. He built an (unused) concentration camp for runaway slaves on Changuu, or Prison Island. The most notorious slave trader was a local entrepreneur, Tippu Tip.

It was actually the British - David Livingstone and other missionaries - who drew the world's attention to Zanzibari slavery, and it was a splendid Welsh naval man, Lloyd Mathews, whose ships finally destroyed the Arab slave trade. By 1889, slavery had ended on the island and by the following year Zanzibar was absorbed into the British empire. Mathews was no saint; he helped prop up client sultans, and trade with the mainland was severely distorted in their favour. But even the most hostile anti-imperialist might find something positive in Zanzibar's British past.

Zanzibar in its time had great wealth. Its trading vessels, single- and twin-masted dhows at first, transported cloves and cinnamon, timber and ivory from the harbour in Stone Town across the Indian Ocean. Ageing palaces on the waterfront testify to the affluence of Zanzibar's former ruling class. Craftsmen flourished in labyrinthine side streets, and indeed still do.

Otherwise, there is today the all too usual African picture of decay - unemployed men at the roadside, fettered by inactivity; buildings in Stone Town lapsing into dereliction, with little new construction visible; upcountry, huts of coral with leaf roofing scarcely standing at all. The period of Marxist rule after Tanzanian independence in 1964 destroyed what little new investment there was. The best building we saw, inevitably, was a government ministry, but there were also new schools, their bouncy students a portent of a better future.

Zanzibar depends heavily on tourism, which is a mixed blessing. Old buildings are turned not into homes but hotels. The money goes not to local people but to multinational chains. Tourism, perhaps, is the old colonialism writ large. But subject to this caveat, Zanzibar has an immense amount to offer visitors. It became British as late as 1890, bizarrely in a territorial swap for Heligoland with the German empire. So there are relatively few memorials to British rule. These include driving (nominally) on the left, and an island composed, it would seem, of Arsenal supporters, making heroes of that club's African players such as Émmanuel Adebayor, from faraway Togo. But the basis of Zanzibar's tourist appeal is a vibrant fusion of Swahili, Arab and Indian cultures, both relaxing and stimulating.

The most obvious attractions lie in the natural world. Environmentally, Zanzibar is lovely, with a beautiful undulating coastline, long white beaches and large coral reefs beyond. Its tree and plant life is rich in variety and colour. The vivid sunsets, finely observed at Stone Town's Africa House Hotel (once the British settlers' club), are utterly memorable. The spice plantations, rich with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, are fascinating, not least in showing ignorant Europeans where precisely such familiar products as pepper, vanilla and the natural form of iodine come from. The animal life is also distinctive. There are red colobus monkeys galore in the Jozani Forest (with their own pedestrian crossings). Dolphins do their graceful ballet off the east coast, even if they are not assisted by tourists diving in to join them. The Aldabra giant tortoises on Changuu, some close to 200 years old, enjoy a wonderful sanctuary for a species once close to extinction.

The one place of significance is Stone Town, and here there is much to enjoy. There are many testaments to Zanzibari fine art, especially the ornate door frames, status-bearing symbols of conspicuous consumption. The sturdy Arab Fort dominates the harbour front. The House of Wonders (once a sultan's palace) contains a fascinating, if run-down, museum with a splendid display on Arab dhows through the ages. The nearby Palace Museum is more intimate, with a particularly enjoyable tribute to the remarkable Princess Salme, a daughter of the sultan who was an East African feminist of the 1860s. She fled to Hamburg with a German husband, wrote her liberated memoirs in German after his early death, and lived on until 1924 as a surviving voice of the Victorian-era traveller Karl Peters's one-time Afro-German dream.

The most famous Zanzibari is not Salme but Freddie Mercury, late lead singer of the glam rock band Queen. He was born in Stone Town to Parsi parents who worked for the British Colonial Office and although Mercury left the island at the age of eight, he is a local icon, commemorated by a waterside restaurant that offers excellent seafood.

After the tranquillity of Zanzibar, an unscheduled delay on the way home meant a stay on the mainland in Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam. So my daughter and I looked around the National Museum downtown. It contains riveting material on Tanzania's period as German East Africa before 1914. The Teutonic military colonisers look even more bizarre there than the plumed, public-school English. Best of all, there is wonderful material from prehistory.

The Leakeys - father Louis and son Richard - worked in the then Tanganyika, and their hominid and animal fossils offer rich insights. Louis Leakey claimed, after excavations in the Olduvai Gorge, that humanity actually originated in Africa. The museum also displays the 65 million-year-old coelacanth, whose discovery in local waters once excited journalists. The huge fish sprawls there, timeless and terrifying.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future