Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Story to be Told: John Baptiste da Silva - 1937-2013

By A. Tapper & F. McKenna - from EA Circle

The wind was blowing and the movie screen was shaking on a hotel rooftop high above the remains of Stone Town, ancient capital of the Zanzibar archipelago. Yet John da Silva, then 75, was undeterred. He wanted to tell his story. Many followers and friends will remember how the frail man with spectacles made up his way on the steep staircase of Emerson Spice hotel to give entertaining power point lectures about the elaborate and often painful history of Zanzibar, every fortnight or so. The audience of eager listeners was growing every week - tourists, expatriates and locals alike.

John da Silva passed away on March 20, 2013 at the age of 76, with his family by his side, leaving many wondering: Who, now, will pick up where the renowned historian left and continue to tell the story?

Da Silva, who died of heart complications, some related to diabetes, had been ill for some time and leaves behind his devoted daughters Donna, Valerie and Cecilia, his adored nieces Bernadine, Presilda, Lucas, Lorna, Francesca, Lorraine, Ulrica, Roselee and Ramona, and three brothers Santana, Abel and Cajetan. His wife Carmen, who he had met and married in Zanzibar, died in 1993 and his late brother Rudolph had passed away recently.

Not least, he leaves an island, which is in mourning today for a man universally loved, admired and cherished for his gentle, generous and gregarious soul, his sharp wit, intellectual brilliance and tenacious dedication to the integrity of Zanzibar and its people. All its people. Those from every community he so lovingly sought to be preserved in their intertwined intricacies of their diverse histories.

The historian, artist and family father was Zanzibar's living memory. And he had indeed a story to tell. Of artistically carved doors of Indian, Persian and Arab origin, of Sultans' times and merchandise, of Zanzibar's development over the centuries under the gentle trade winds of the monsoon. Audiences were spellbound when he talked about "The doors of Zanzibar", "The history of Cosmopolitan Commerce" or "The history of Zanzibar thorough old photos" as some of his lectures were titled. In his later years, when the end of the Cold War in Africa and the world finally enabled him to speak more freely, Da Silva was using his private archives of photos, drawings, street maps, shop signs and files to bring to life chapters of the rich history of Zanzibar, the spice islands off the coast of Tanzania. He presented facts and photos, which might have otherwise been lost forever.

As the main historian of Zanzibar he had witnessed it all: Born in Portuguese Goa on the 24th January, 1937, as the son of Goan immigrants, his family moved to Zanzibar in 1947. His father, a renowned tailor, had been the dressmaker of the island's ninth sultan, Seyyid Sir Khalifa II bin Harub Al-Said. The Omanis had ruled Zanzibar for two centuries before it became independent. As history has it, John's father also designed and stitched a dress for Princess Margret from England during her state visit to Zanzibar in 1954. Often, little John was to make the deliveries of the royal gowns to his father's clients.

In 1964, when Zanzibar became part of Tanzania after a bloody revolution where many were killed and fled the country, da Silva stayed on initially working for the local registrar. In 1958 he started work in accounting, but his interest in art soon led him to work on the restoration of of the paintings and murals in the Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph. Built by the French about 1898, the Cathedral's Romanesque style is a replica of the basilica of Notre Dame de La Garde Marseilles.

Although Da Silva's early paintings featured Zanzibar portraits, the work on the Cathedral stimulated his interest in the architecture of Stone Town. Concerned that there was no documentation of these diverse architectural styles influenced by cultures of the Omani Arabs, Indians, Persians and European colonials, he soon focused his art on the buildings of Stone Town.

Da Silva captured these facades in pen and ink and watercolour as well as with his camera. He leaves a collection of over 300 photos, and in many instances, the only known record of the carved wooden doors, windows, iron lattice work decorating the balconies, alleys, streets, historical and architectural important buildings of Stone Town.

Over the years he saw the decay of the main island's historic city centre, a unique collection of 2000 or so elaborate palaces, temples, merchant houses built entirely from coral stone, most of them stemming from the height of Zanzibar's development in the mid-19th century.

"In 1880, this was one of the richest trade towns in the world after New York, Paris and London; we had a garage for Rolls Royce cars here but only a one-mile-stretch of road", da Silva used to amuse his listeners in his typical dry humour.

Following the revolution in Zanzibar it was not allowed to photograph Stone Town - yet, although it endangered his freedom, da Silva did. As an historian he felt a personal obligation to document the fate of the islands, which had seen 11 dynasties of Omani rulers in three centuries, before it became a British protectorate in 1890, and where last Sultan, Barghash, had built "The House of Wonders", Africa's first property with electricity and an elevator south of the Sahara.

John da Silva was intimately connected to the history of the island. Not only in talking but also in doing. He personally re-painted some of the frescoes of St. Joseph Cathedral, the centre of Catholic faith on the predominantly Muslim island, and he took part, although not voluntarily, in the building of the so-called German Flats, a present of residential buildings by former East German Democratic Republic to Zanzibar.

His walking tours became legendary amongst visitors to the island, often undertaken in his later life with the help of a walking stick in searing tropical heat during periods of ill health. Walking with Da Silva, Stone Town became a living museum. He pointed out the details that distinguished the Arab (Swahili) doors from the Indian (Zanzibar has the largest number of carved doors in East Africa): the simplicity of the Arab mosques as compared to the ornate Indian mosques and four Hindu temples: Gothic, Italian and English window styles all in the same building; history learned from change of ownership of buildings as new rulers came to power.

In 1991 the united Republic of Tanzania approved a proposal by Da Silva to dedicate a series of postage stamps to the rich architectural heritage of Stone Town. A unique collection of four stamps was issued featuring his pen and watercolour drawings of the National Museum, The High Court building, the Balnarna Mosque and a Balcony.

Not last with da Silva's documentation and scholarly assistance Stone Town was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000. Experts fear, however, that 80 per cent of the building stock is already beyond repair. The House of Wonders was turned into a Museum in 2002, and is currently under repair after parts of the backside of the historic monument collapsed late last year. John da Silva was furious about this, as he always was when neglect overran conservation.

He was an ardent defender of historical sites appreciating their immeasurable value against all odds. A conservationist of high moral standard, he always pleaded in favour of protecting the cultural sites of Zanzibar in all their variety - but also stressed that he did not want Stone Town to become a museum nor a collection of boutique hotels. Meaningful restoration to him meant authentic, multi-purpose reuse of old structures. The preservation and restoration had to be done without creating a sterile, new environment affordable only to the wealthy and the tourists.

John da Silva loved the island, which was his home and the island loved him. He was one of Zanzibar's true and rare cosmopolitans. He has lived to tell his story.

Da Silva's funeral mass took place Thursday 21st March at St Joseph's Cathedral, Stone Town  and was followed by his interment at Mwanakwerekwe Cemetery.


  1. In the mid 90's as 16 year old Canadian traveler, I landed in Zanzibar looking for some remnants of my family home and any mark they might have left on the beautiful island. While wandering the streets of Stone Town, I managed to meet Mr. Da Silva. He was simply a name given to me by his niece, a girl 4 degrees apart who I have still yet to meet. Yet John, without hesitation, provided me meals and a bed, shared his family and friends, and most of all, the warmth of a grandfather figure. This is the type of man he was, in just days he left an impression without any effort.. sending a young man back on his journey with a life lasting lesson on how easy it can be to be humble and selfless.

    Nirav Chandrakant Mehta
    Grandson to Zanibar’s health and police department member, Mohanlal P Mehta

  2. Mr.john de silva was our very close family friend in zanzibar stone town he was genius and very kind person