Sunday, October 23, 2016

The man-eater of Uroa and other collective fictions in Zanzibar by Martin Walsh, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

This full article (which is very interesting) relates to events during the Colonial Administration of Zanzibar from 1948. You may download it here:

 In the early hours of 30th June 1948 a small boy was seized and dragged from a field hut near Uroa on the east coast of Unguja island, Zanzibar, and was never seen again. Pugmarks were found nearby, and it was presumed that he had been taken and devoured by a leopard. Over the next seven weeks three more people were killed in similar circumstances in the same general area: a young girl, a middle-aged woman, and another boy. These events generated considerable alarm not only in the local communities involved, but also among officials in the British colonial administration, who ascribed the killings to a “man-eating leopard”, imagined in the mode of other “man-eaters” of African and Indian jungle lore. In an effort to prevent further deaths and contain the panic, the authorities went to some lengths to trap and kill the supposed man-eater, and its demise was announced in the second week of September 1948.

We know these and other details from the contemporary documents that have survived. The archival record includes official correspondence – some of which reached up to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, district and other administrative reports, newspaper articles, and the personal notebook of Zanzibar‟s Senior Commissioner at the time, R.H.W. Pakenham. But though these written archives give us some insight into the knowledge and beliefs of officialdom, including Zanzibari Arab civil servants and local administrators, the voices of the villagers who experienced these events first hand are largely absent, though there are hints that they might have had something very different to say, not least their own interpretation of events. The few paragraphs that Pakenham wrote in his notebook make this very clear, though they were not intended for public consumption and did not enter the official record at the time.

Most of the people who witnessed or were close to the events of 1948 are now dead. In November 2011, having read the archives in Zanzibar some months before, I began to seek out and interview elderly people on the east coast who could recall something of what had happened more than 63 years earlier. Their accounts were very different from those preserved in the government archives, and not just richer and thick with local colour. Rather than a single man-eater, they described the depredations of multiple “kept leopards”, sent to do the bidding of the various witches who owned and controlled them. This reflected an understanding of leopard predation that persists to this day and that Helle Goldman and I have described in some detail in earlier publications (Goldman and Walsh 1997; Walsh and Goldman 2007; 2012). This paper is my first attempt to process material relating to the 1948 case, and to explore answers to some of the questions that it raises. Who and what should we believe? Can we reconcile the conflicting interpretations of Zanzibar‟s one-time rulers and the oral performances of their former subjects, discern unequivocal truth behind the competing fictions of colonial writing and postcolonial memory? What really happened?

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