Zanzibar, when the Arabs needed the British

A trading post city, with a Sultan and a trading elite, but a mass of unrepresented locals, finds itself in a vacuum when the British withdraw. So slip on your smoking jacket, fill your pipe, take your first sip of your adult beverage, and sit back in your most comfortable chair. Welcome to todays offering from The Philatelist.

The stamp today looks very middle eastern from the first half of the twentieth century. A royal sultan who is under heavy British influence, for good and bad. The issue here is that the people of the island were over 70 percent African. With the British fading, this was a situation that could not sustain. Today Zanzibar has been subsumed by the African country closest to it.

The stamp is issue A16, a 10 cent stamp issued by the Sultanate of Zanzibar in 1936. Versions of this stamp were issued for 50 years during the rule of Sultan Khalifa bin Harub which ran from 1910-1960. On the 1950s versions of the stamp, the portrait of the Sultan reflected that his beard had gone grey. According to the Scott catalog, the stamp is worth 25 cents used.

No human beings are native to the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar. Arab and Persian traders were the first to arrive. They were followed by Portuguese and Indians. The island became a favored place for the trade of Africans slaves in the Arab slave trade and the trade in ivory from African elephants. Spices were cultivated on large plantations owned by Arabs that were manned by slaves. It was estimated that 30 % of the slaves yearly did not survive the work and required constant new arrivals. The local Arab rulers were subjects of the Sultan of Oman. He also controlled trade routes on the African mainland. The British became concerned with the slave trade and over time forced the local sultans to curtail the trade and finally the practice of slavery locally. After that finally happened in 1897 the time of British influence begun.

The bulk of this time saw the rule of Sultan Khalifa bin Harub. Much was done in this period to improve sanitation with improvements in sewage control and the burying of bodies. This reduced the famous bad smell the place contained and made it more suitable as a base for British on safari excursions to the African mainland.

What it did not do was allow for political representation of the by now black majority on the island. The British did not see the Africans as ready to rule the island. In the elections that lead up to total independence, the vote was allowed to be gerrymandered to allow Arabs to keep control. Independence was achieved in 1963, still under Sultan Harub’s grandson.

This situation was very short lived. A Ugandan named John Okello led a group of Africans that overthrew the Sultan. He then got on the local radio and encouraged his followers to rape, kill, and loot all the Arabs and Indians. Several thousand were indeed killed and many more went into exile. Britain then drew up plans to invade and reinstall the Sultan. The blacks in Zanzibar quickly pushed aside Okello and cooperated with Britain and the USA on the evacuation of westerners. They also distanced themselves from communists that were part of the Okello movement. The new leaders quickly drew up plans for political merger with the new African nation of Tanzania. This was acceptable to Britain and the USA. It was seen as keeping Zanzibar from the communists. Zanzibar still has some degree of local autonomy but non Africans are excluded from political leadership and civil service. Okello died mysteriously in Uganda in 1971 where he was seen as a rival to Idi Amin.

The big cities of the world have become multiethnic and therefore less a part of the nations they occupy. This creates issues on how they are to be governed. The study of the old trading posts like Zanzibar tell us more what not to do than what works. Come again tomorrow for another story that can be learned from stamp collecting.