If You’ve Visited Zanzibar, You Got A Taste of Oman: A Brief History Lesson on Oman’s Former Capital
The ubiquitous kuma headdress worn by nearly every male in Oman is said to come from Zanzibar.
I’ve never been to Oman, but I did visit Zanzibar exactly two years ago to the day (June 2015) and was struck by what seemed to be vast Arab influence throughout the capital of Stone Town. It took writing this article to learn that Zanzibar was colonized by the Omani Empire not very long ago.
The word Zanzibar itself is said to be derived from the Persian words for ‘black coast’ or ‘land of the blacks’. On a visit to Oman, you may even meet people for whom Zanzibar is their homeland. Somehow, the rich relationship between the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar is often reduced to a historical footnote, at least for us Westerners who know well the history of the transatlantic slave trade, but little about the East African Arab slave trade. Here’s a quick history lesson for those who are curious, but especially those with plans to one day find themselves in this magical place.
When you bear witness to the trade of dhow sailing, it’s as if you’re peeking back in time. For hundreds of years, dhows crisscrossed the Indian ocean along trade routes connecting East Africa, India, Iran, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula. It is unknown whether the dhow was first created in India or Arabia, but it is undeniable that seafaring by dhow enabled the Omani Empire’s great dominance over regions touched by the Indian Ocean. Oman found trading in ivory, cloves, and slaves particularly profitable.
Along the Swahili Coast, centuries of contact with Arab traders is evident in the prominence of Islam and the prevalence of Arab-influenced Swahili architecture in cities like Lamu, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. Zanzibar would later become the central hub for the East African slave trade and the world’s leading producer of cloves. After taking the land from the Portuguese after some two centuries of rule, Zanzibar became an official holding of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698. If you have seen Zanzibar for yourself, perhaps you can understand why Sultan Said decided to relocate his court (and the official capital of the empire) from Muscat to Stone Town around 1840. For a short time, Zanzibar was the capital of Oman. Zanzibar’s allure drew the Sultan to make a new life for himself and others who would follow his lead. During this time, clove plantations expanded on the fertile Zanzibar island of Pemba and slavery exploded. Annual estimates between 11,000 – 15,000 enslaved peoples were arriving in Zanzibar from the interior regions surrounding the African great lakes. At its peak later in the 19th century, as many as 20,000 per year are estimated to have been brought thru Zanzibar from the interior of East Africa. Even as pressure to abolish slavery grew, the economic benefits of slavery were too substantial to abandon full stop. By this point, Oman was still quite poor and underdeveloped which meant that life for Omanis in Zanzibar (mostly land and plantation owners) was the better option.
Fast forward to the 1960s: Sultan Said’s death incites infighting among his sons about succession, Oman and Zanzibar are officially separated into two principalities (reinstating Muscat as the capital), increasing encroachment and eventual colonization by the British, and ultimately independence from the British in 1963.
One striking characteristic of Zanzibar is the sheer diversity of the population, particularly in and around Stone Town. With the Sultan’s relocation in the 1840s, it is no surprise that many Arab settlers followed. As a thriving trading post, Zanzibar’s diversity grew to also include a contingent of European ex-pats (as it was formerly a British protectorate) and a predominantly South Asian merchant class.
The Sultan of Zanzibar and his ruling class of Arab elites held tightly onto power despite growing civil disdain for the lack of African representation in government well into the mid-1900s. Almost immediately following independence from the British, some sources estimate as many as 17,000 Arabs and other ethnic minorities were murdered by revolutionaries in a single day in January 1964. The property of Arabs and South Asians were looted and families massacred. This was the beginning of the Zanzibar revolution; the mostly Arab government and political establishment were overthrown, the Sultan exiled, and others were left to flee or risk harm if they stayed behind. While some stayed, many Arabs found refuge in Gulf countries like Oman despite being official citizens of the Sultanate of Zanzibar and in many cases, several generations removed from Arabia.
Zanzibar’s more recent stint of political stability might go unnoticed if you find yourself strolling the streets of Stone Town since there has been a recent boom in tourism. Among these tourists are Omani citizens with ancestral roots in Zanzibar repatriating, reconnecting with family members, and in some cases, investing in business ventures on the island. This complicated history is enshrined in the island’s architecture and embodied in the people themselves. Zanzibaris, whether in Oman or on any of Zanzibar’s islands, are proud to be from Zanzibar. Whether their ancestors were traders, sailors, merchants, or revolutionary freedom fighters, they all share a certainty about themselves that emanates from the audacity of their ancestors’ truth: that Zanzibar was and is one of the most fantastic places on Earth to call home.
A slightly different version of this article was commissioned by — and appeared in — the March 2017 Oman destination issue of Griots Republic, an urban travel magazine. You can find the article here complete with beautiful photos provided by the editors.