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History of Zanzibar

The first overseas visitors to the islands of Zanzibar were Arab traders who sailed across from West Asia in the 8th century. From time to time, Zanzibar attracted the attention of the merchant traders from across Asia, Asia Minor and Europe. Over the next centuries arrived other major naval powers like the Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch and English. Some like the Shirazi Arabs, the Omanis and the Indians stayed back and made the islands their new home. A few communities even intermarried and created an entirely new indigenous culture and people.

The Omanis, who sailed in on dhows borne along by the trade winds, exerted the strongest influence on the native culture. The Sultan of Oman found the small islands easier to defend than his homeland in West Asia and soon shifted his capital from Muscat to the island of Unguja, or Zanzibar. From this vantage position, he controlled a lucrative trade in spices, ivory and slaves extending from the shores of Mozambique to Somalia.

By the middle of the 19th century, the Zanzibar archipelago had grown into the biggest producer of cloves. Other spices that gave it its exotic name “Spice Island” were cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper and cardamom. The spice and slave trade made Zanzibar very prosperous.

Zanzibar remained the centre of the slave trade for more than 60 years. Every year, between 10,000 and 40,000 slaves were sold in Zanzibar’s slave market. Traders traveled into the African hinterland, bought or captured the local people and brought them to Zanzibar before being paraded and sold off at the Slave Market. All of the main racial groups were involved in the slave trade that flourished till under threat from the British, Sultan Barghash was forced to close down the Slave Market and declare sea-trade illegal in 1873. The Slave Market was demolished and Cathedral Church of Christ erected in its place.

After the World War I, Zanzibar became a British Protectorate. The 1950s and 60s saw the birth of many freedom movements in the European colonies across Africa. Zanzibar gained its independence from the British in 1964, following which the Afro-Shirazi Party’s Abeid Karume became Prime Minister. A few months later, Karume and Tanganyika's Julius Nyerere signed an Act of Union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.


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