from Coastweek-- Many books have been written about the history of Zanzibar from 1850 to 1900, but these books focus almost entirely on the role of the European powers and their relationship with the Sultans.
Left out of these histories is any mention of the important role played by Indian merchants and politicians.
This new book attempts to fill in the missing information by looking at the role of Indians during this complex period of Zanzibar history.
The main character in this intriguing book is a man named Peera Dewjee.
He was born in India in 1841 and lived until 1904. Much of his life was spent in Zanzibar during the years when European nations were taking an active interest in Zanzibar and the eastern coast of Africa.
He started out as a lowly labourer for Sultan Barghash and over the years rose to become a prominent advisor to four different Sultans.
Although raised in India, Peera Dewjee was a Muslim belonging to the sect called Nizari Ismaili.
The founder was an Iranian missionary named Pir Sadruddin who traveled to India at the end of the 14th century and converted many Hindus to Islam.
These Indian converts called themselves Khojas and they organized themselves into a close-knit community based in Bombay.
Their Imam was later referred to as the Aga Khan, a title still used by subsequent Imams to this day.
Their society was based on trade with an annual tithe paid to the Aga Khan.
Close trade links were set up between Bombay and Zanzibar with many Ismailis eventually settling on Zanzibar where they became prominent members of society.
Peera Dewjee was raised in Bombay and was well educated.
He knew how to read and write and spoke numerous languages including Arabic, English, Hindustani and Urdu.
As a young man he moved to Zanzibar where he lived with relatives in the Khoja community.
Eventually he got a job in the Sultan’s palace as a lamp cleaner and barber.
Over time he earned the trust of Sultan Barghash and worked his way up to the roles of messenger, spy, chief steward, advisor and ambassador.
He even travelled to England with the Sultan to meet Queen Victoria.
When Sultan Barghash died, Peera Dewjee continued to serve as advisor to the three following Sultans in turn.
In spite of his great influence during this jumbled period of history, Peera Dewjee remained a shadowy figure, hidden in the background of Zanzibar politics.
The author of this book, Judy Aldrick, has done extensive research in libraries and through interviews.
Her research is to be commended as Peera Dewjee is revealed through the haze of Zanzibar history.
In later life Peera Dewjee was a significant figure in Zanzibar politics.
He had the ear of the various Sultans and was at the forefront in dealing with British, French and German ambassadors.
He was involved in negotiating many treaties - especially in ending the slave trade.
He was considered to be a smooth and able politician - often playing one side against another.
During his career he continued to be a successful merchant and businessman.
At various times he was the manager of the Sultan’s steamship line and collector of customs tribute at the port.
Above all he was a highly skilled organizer. At the installment of Sultan Hamoud, he planned the festivities, called Siku Kuu in Swahili.
He organized a feast in the Sultan’s palace for 8,000 people.
Over 10,000 plates were used at this feast and 55 different entries were served.
It took over 300 cooks to prepare the food. For such feats he was often referred to as the “Majordomo to the Sultans.”
This book is a fascinating history of Zanzibar as seen through the eyes of Peera Dewjee, an Indian merchant and confidant of the Sultans.
For a new and insightful look into the history of Zanzibar, I highly recommend this book.
Reviewed by Jon Arensen, Professor Emeritus, Houghton College