Asian Studies in Africa

The First Sultan of Zanzibar. Scrambling for Power and Trade in the Nineteenth Century Indian Ocean

Beatrice Nicolini
Markus Wiener, Princeton, New York, USA

The Sultanate of Zanzibar has been the object of many different studies. The present research arises from the traditional forms of investigation, pursued by western and local historiography through a re-examination of existing literature, integrated with an accurate investigation into Archive sources, combined with field surveys, I focused my research on the figure of Said Sa’id of the Al Bu Sa’id (1806-1856).
Prince-merchant of his epoch, Lord of the Seas, founder of a real thalassocracy where his capital was the small island of Zanzibar, he succeeded in imposing his laws also on the Great Powers of the time, France and England, who were fighting for mastery of those seas. The power of this extraordinay oriental prince was a mercantile power, built on the ivory trade, on cloves and on the slave trade, based on delicate balances of forces (and ethnic-social groups) deeply different between them: the shawkah, that is the strength, of the Baluch tribal populations of Makran; the keen financial astuteness of the Indian mercantile communities, and the ambiguous support/consent of his Arab people.
The predictability of the monsoons in the Indian Ocean had opened for centuries - if not for millenniums - regular commercial routes, which linked the Asian Continent and the coasts of East Africa; in consequence, sailing up the two liquid western lines of the Indian Ocean (the Red Sea and the Persian/Arab Gulf), or through the caravan routes which crossed the Arabian Peninsula, the commercial trades reached the Mediterranean basin, touching those regions and countries facing onto its waters. Along these routes, together with the precious goods coming from the Orient and from the West, was a mercantile and cosmopolitan world, active and full of life, decisively international, rich not only in its precious merchandise, which were bargained and exchanged along these routes, but also rich in cultural exchange, flowing together with oriental silks and porcelain, Central Asian glass, luxuriant veils and brocades, carnelian, turquoise, pearls, ivory, dyes (particularly indigo and purple) perfumes, incence, frankincense and myrrh, spices, ostrich’s feathers and eggs, and African ivory, with “lionfants” (which so impressed Marco Polo), and, the most highly sought after, in all the courts of the period, slaves (Tatars, Slavs and Circassians, Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Hindus).
Men of all colour and religion were meeting in these mercantile emporiums exchanging goods and ideas.
Starting from the XVIII and XIX centuries, the Indian Ocean became the heart of new political and economic strategies, which brought onto the scene a new protagonist: Europe with its new emerging National States. Within this new scenario, at the beginning of the XIX century, emerged the figure of Said Sa’id of the Al Bu Sa’id.
The present study aims to describing the strategic importance of the Western Indian Ocean, and, more precisely, the centrality and the rôle played by the small Island of Zanzibar, along with the arrogance of the wider framework of the Anglo-French rivalry during the first half of the century. The direct knowledge of these scenes which became the key and the heart of the strategic games of the period - integrated and completed by accurate inquires in western and local Archives – allowed me to developing an objective analysis from a particular perspective. This has been articulated on two levels, which interact well together: the research of the deep forces of the local policy, which permitted Said Sa’id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id a direct confrontation - and often a winning one - with the Western colonial Powers on the one hand, and the study of the goals and the steering gears of power of the West from an overwhelming military and technological superiority, on the other hand; it follows the identification of three main key elements, that is misinterpretation, distortion, exaggeration.
Through the use of these three “lenses”, it has been possible to comprehend not only the main political lines inside the British mechanisms of power, but also the ambiguities of the relationships which linked Sa’id Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id - prince-merchant of Muscat and Zanzibar - to the representatives of the British Government.
The factor “Islam” becomes a background setting of a scenario where mercantile interests of all actors involved, and their rules, impose themselves and prevail.
Within this framework, arises a significant episode. The policy pursued by Napoleon in the Orient, through its Turkish and Persian alliances, forced Britain to a policy of security, in order to guarantee the life-line to India, including the necessity to secure the main mercantile routes in the Western Indian Ocean. These are pages of history relatively well known to historians. Less known are the avances made by Napoleon to the father of Sai’d Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’idi: Sultan bin Ahmad Al Bu Sa’id. And, more precisely, the way the policy of this prince wedged right in the middle of the struggle between the two Great Powers; he seized the right moment, and did not hesitate to negotiate his suzerainty and the formal recognition of his authority with the British necessity of extending and consolidating its mantle over these tropical seas. This was the beginning of the rise, also economical and commercial, of the Island of Zanzibar. It concerns unpublished documentary evidence, that brings to light an episode of “frontier” powers, but one of the key points of what would become the British maritime policy.
Integrating the available documentation in the local and British Archives with the direct knowledge of the “field”, I tried to reinstating the extremely interesting profile of the complex personality of Sa’id Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’idi. Certainly shrewd, but also gifted with a great amount of personal courage, he built the fortunes of his dynasty, playing not only with the rivalries between the Western Powers, who were fighting for the ivory and spice markets, but also playing with the struggles and those cultural peculiarities of the local populations. It was a fortune never left from the Al Bu Sa’idi to a single local element. It was a fortune based on three basic elements of his power in the Western Indian Ocean. That is the mercantile élite of the Indian banyans, who financed the prosperous trade centres of Zanzibar in a symbiotic relationship with Sa’id Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’idi, and, at the same time, in a close relationship with the populations of the East African hinterland, thus they allowed this Arab dynasty the control (de facto a real monopoly) of the main commercial ports and outlets of Arabia and of India. Then we have the jam’dar, the warrior populations of Baluchistan, were the second element - that is the military force, that shawkah above described - on which the authority of Sa’id Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id was based; famous for their cruelty and their courage, the Baluch were the bodyguards of the Al Bu Sa’id, and the army, entitled from these princes to the defence of their fortunes and their lives till a few years ago; considered certainly more reliable than the Arab mercenaries, the jam’dar, recruited among the tribes of South Asia, in more than one occasion gave shelter to a troubled Al Bu Sa’id within their lands, organising his revenge and militarily supporting his return to power.
The relationships between Oman and the southern region of Baluchistan, more precisely Makran, were always very close, not only with regard to the mercantile trades (the slave trade had in this region one of its best markets) but also under the strategic and military profile. The proof is given by the port of Gwadar, a natural port, well protected along the Makran coast, separated from Muscat only by a short sea inlet, remained an Omani enclave until 1958; the turreted palace of the wali of Zanzibar is still towering above the centre of a modern Pakistani sea port, an imposing witness of what once upon a time was the heart of the thalassocracy of the Al Bu Sa’id, together with the two minor harbours of Pishukhan and Sûr; loved by these princes as an ideal place for hawking, it represented the best refuge when an Arab revolt was undermining their throne, and, besides personal safety, gave them the possibility to reorganise a counter-revolt, supported by the Baluch populations.
Finally, the third element is constituted by the Arab element, which is the most intriguing one. Certainly Sa’id Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id relied on the Arabs, most of all on those fierce coastal populations of East Africa and of the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula; certainly, the authority of this peculiar Sultan was based “also” on an Arab aristocracy with a mercantile tradition, in most cases members of his own family, or linked by kinsman; nevertheless, as is well testified in literature, these relations had never been so close and strong as the relations with the indian merchants and the Baluch. Too often individualism and particularism prevailed, ambitions and inter-ethnic and inter-clan rivalries, which represented a serious element of instability, as in nearly all those state structures that the XIX and XX centuries saw arising from the remains of the dominions and of the colonial empires. Sa’id Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id was perfectly aware of this instability when he started the conquest of “his” Sultanate, as he was aware of the unreliability of the Arab mercenaries.
My study aims to concentrate on these elements; I have been trying to analysing the different components and their interaction through extremely delicate internal balances; and the fragility and precariousness revealing the skill and the singular character of the founder of the fortunes of the Al Bu Sa’idi, the charisma which undoubtedly characterised him, and his mobility. According to the more recent historiography, sailing untiringly from one port to another of his maritime reign, he succeeded for more than a half century, in maintaining his supremacy in the western waters of the Indian Ocean, gaining the favours and the advantages of that British “mantle”, under which he was never totally submissive. Yet, when Britain found itself involved in the difficult question of the banning of the slave trade, it was this mobility which contributed to creating within British policy a real tangle of misinterpretations, distortions and exaggerations.
One of the merits of the investigation carried out is that of accurately catching these aspects, till today neglected from the historiography, and of delineating with clear documentation the rôle effectively played by this Arab prince from an English perspective, whose destinies never relied on the loyalty of the Arab peoples. Undoubtedly, Sa’id Said bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id made Zanzibar a beautiful market of his era, a most outstanding one, rich and cosmopolitan thanks to the free flow of people and goods; well perceiving the western strategies and rivalries, he succeeded in involving himself in real world politics. His modernity was based on “mobility”, a mobility among three continents - Asia, Africa and that Europe of the Mediterranean basin; and this mobility enabled the Al Bu Sa’id to play politically on the two poles of Muscat and Zanzibar, and militarily on the generous supporting troops from Makran, escaping when necessary from the pursuits of the British Navy, then reconciling with this Great Power in an extended willingness; a willingness which was based on both ambiguity and elusiveness, typical of their authority and their strength.