Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Question of History


If you visit Zanzibar today as one of the thousands of tourists now pouring into this small island off the coast of East Africa, you will want to visit the sights. One of the top activities, as listed in the Bradt Travel Guide, is to see the places that record the history of slavery on the island. One of these localities is the Anglican Cathedral in Stone Town, the capital of the island. Zanzibar is a Muslim country, whereas the mainland of Tanzania is predominately Christian. Over 95 percent of the population of one million follow Islam and the 48 mosques in the town testify to its long standing influence.

Slavery was finally outlawed in 1873. When the slave market was closed, the Anglican Christian Mission was given the site by a local Hindu and Sultan Barghash donated the tower’s clock. There is more symbolism in that the altar is the reputed site of the slave whipping post and the wooden crucifix in the nave is made from the tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.

Nowadays there is a statue outside the Cathedral, a memorial to those thousands of slaves that were traded through Zanzibar. You will be asked, when you arrive, to pay three US dollars to a guide and he will explain the horrors of slavery. Tourism is providing many jobs for locals. The enthusiastic guide will take you to the building opposite the Cathedral, St Monica’s Guesthouse, and show you the cellars there. The latest Bradt Guidebook is most eloquent:

‘Its basement provides one of Zanzibar’s simplest, but arguably most moving and evocative, reminders of the dehumanising horrors of the slave trade … (they were) crammed five deep on the narrow stone slabs and shackled with chains which still lie there today.’

Countless websites and blogs echo this story and recount how people weep when they hear the stories of this basement.

However, it is not true, it is all a fabrication. The St Monica building was erected in 1905, more than 30 years after slavery was abolished. The cellars were used by the missionaries for dry storage of medicines in the tropical climate. But the story lives on in the streets of Zanzibar. Fundamentally, stories about slavery in Zanzibar are historically correct. David Livingstone’s vivid accounts of the effects of slave raids into Africa’s heartland alerted the British population to this ghastly trade. Long tentacles of traders worked their way as far as Malawi, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the need to find more victims. And nowadays British people like to feel good about the issue when they remember the work of people such as David Livingstone and Wilberforce.

Yet again, it is more complex than that. On one telling of history, Britain grew wealthy on the back of the slave trade. Cotton from India was made into cloth in the new industrial mills in the Midlands. British ships traded these goods into West Africa for slaves. The slaves were taken in dreadful circumstances across to the Caribbean where they worked the plantations of sugar cane. This is the infamous ‘Middle Passage’. The sugar was then traded back to Britain, to a country that was increasingly drinking tea and sugar. Millions died in this triangular trade. British ships were estimated to be responsible for shipping 2.5 million slaves out of the 6 million transported in the 18th century. The leaders and the population of Britain hardly reacted. Did they know? Did they care? Yet by the end of that century they stopped their trade in slaves. Their motives for doing so have been questioned.

So we come back to Zanzibar. Does it matter that there is a small untruth in the telling of the tale of slavery? Prof. Abdul Sheriff, an expert on the conservation of Stone Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, says that slavery has become a product to sell to the tourists. But it goes further than that. The question of slavery, and who was responsible for it, has riven the island for 50 years. It has split the population into racial lines and ultimately it became one of the reasons that over 10,000 people were massacred in 1964.

As democratic institutions were designed for Zanzibar in the late 1950s and the first years of the 1960s the political parties that arose were loosely divided on racial lines. Those of more African heritage felt more dispossessed of power and joined the ASP. Those with more of an Arab background tended to support the status quo, the Sultan and supported the ZNP coalition. However, it was an old socially inclusive Muslim state and most people were very mixed in their racial lineage. They were Zanzibaris.

The British encouraged parties to develop that represented different interest blocks so there was a choice in the democratic process. This caused the parties to try and differentiate themselves. So the ASP brought up the issue of slavery and the Arab involvement in the trade, over 80 years previously. Stories of terrible acts were spread around, rumours of what might follow if the ZNP won were started. One of the stories my father told me: ‘it was said that some Arab men were arguing about how a baby lay in the womb, head up or down. They could not decide, so they called up a pregnant slave and using their swords cut her open to see who was right’. A ghastly fantastical story.

And the hatred engendered would be visited on the innocent people who had nothing to do with slavery. Independence in December 1963 from British control was short-lived. In January 1964 a revolution resulted in the genocide of tens of thousands of Zanzibari Arab people, Arab looking people, small merchants, land holders or people that got in the way.

The successful revolutionaries organised themselves into the Revolutionary Council and proceeded to abolish democracy and created a dictatorship. The quality of life, for those citizens who chose to stay in Zanzibar, became appalling. A police state evolved, spies abounded and all land and property was nationalised. Over forty years later, times have changed and a multi-party system is working again. However, the issue of, what I might call, ‘Arab guilt’ continues to play its part. In order to acquire legitimacy, the Revolutionary Council has written into history the justification of the revolution. It has portrayed the revolution as a great liberalising event that gave the population a better life. The more the facts of this purported ‘better life’ that they delivered are criticised, the more they have to portray the time before the revolution as terrible and the influence of the Zanzibar Arabs as being of a ruthless and colonial nature.

So we come back to the slavery story. It carries behind it other meanings. The more the current powers show you how terrible slavery was and connect it to the old regime, the more it is apparent that it was right to get rid of (and kill) the Zanzibari Arab descendents in the 1960s. I think this crazy logic is repeated across the world. We seek to justify the acts of history in many ways. Only in rare instances do we, as a human race, try to make amends. And one of those occasions was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa where victim and perpetrator faced one another and both wept for what had happened.

So, in Zanzibar, one day an account should be made of those innocent people who died in the genocide that swept across that beautiful tropical island. And the survivors, who fled to the mainland, to Oman, to any country that would give them sanctuary, still carry the sadness of their loss. No one has been called to account. No mass graves are recognised to give people proper ceremony. It is sadness that still haunts many Zanzibaris.

After all, remembering the cruelties of slavery is important, but using it to justify a revolution where thousands of innocents were massacred is another. We should be wary of how history can be manipulated to enhance power of current governments.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing such a well-balanced account. Demonizing others by fabrication is still on of the most important and dangerous political tools used by cynical politicians to manipulate a naive population to do morally reprehensible things. Donald Trump is a case in point but sadly Hilary Clinton is also guilty of using the demonization of muslims to achieve regime changes, with horrendous and still unpredictable consequences to the entire word. It's time that everyone accepted that believing horror stories about others (without first checking the facts) is just another form of bigotry and when it involves different ethnic groups it is just plain racism.

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