The History of Oman in Zanzibar

Free «The History of Oman in Zanzibar» Essay Sample

Oman and Zanzibar are closely related to each other and have a common history. The history of Zanzibar as the Oman part started with the rule of Seyyid Said. He was the Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman who took the control over mainland ports. The influence of the rule of the Sultan on Zanzibar development was huge. In particular, through international trade treaties, Zanzibar experienced a great economic development due to relationships with France, Britain, and the United States. The country was known for the production of clove and ivory. Additionally, it became a new slave trade center in East Africa. Therefore, the interest of Oman in Zanzibar was logical. At the same time, the political system development in Zanzibar under Omani rule was grounded on ethnic and racial issues and depended on the plantation owners. Ethical differences were reflected in the developed political parties. Overall, Zanzibar and Oman have a strong historical connection because, for Oman, Zanzibar was a place with a great perspective for product and slave trade.


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History of Oman and Zanzibar Relations

As mentioned above, Zanzibar and Oman are tightly related from the historical perspective, and both countries played a critical role in each other’s history. At the beginning of the 19th century, Oman put emphasis on East Africa, especially Zanzibar that is located about twenty miles from African continent shores. By the middle of the 18th century, it gained control over Zanzibar and by the beginning of the 19th century, it ruled over most of the Swahili coast (Ghubash, 2014). In 1804, “Imam Ahmed, Seyyid Said bin Sultan came to power and ruled Oman” until 1856 (Gilbert, 2011). Under his rule, Oman expanded its political impact throughout East Africa and the Persian Gulf. His reign was a critical time of the development of strong relationships between Oman and Zanzibar. These were the years of rivalry between France and Britain for India and Indian Ocean control (Lapidus, 2002). The Oman capital Muscat was a strategically critical port, and the Omanis became the problem for Britain (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). Nonetheless, the Al-Busaidis allied with Britain and thus managed to take control over trade and shipping in the area. Seyyid Said was interested in Zanzibar, and he started negotiations with the Mwinyi Mkuu, the Zanzibar feudal lord, for the Busaidy colonial state establishment in Zanzibar. The resistance was impossible. The relationships between the local Zanzibar government and Sultan were quite specific. Instead of avoiding the Mwinyi Mkuu, Seyyid Said decided to work through him. The Busaidis retained the right to conduct external affairs that involved trading relationships and the collecting and levying of duties (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). However, the Mwinyi Mkuu was provided with financial compensation for the authority loss and cooperation.

For Oman, East Africa had several advantages. The first reason for going to Zanzibar was the slave trade (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). France needed slave labor to expand sugar plantations, the United States needed slaves for Southern plantations, and the Portuguese needed slaves in Brazil. Furthermore, clove plantations played a great role. With their expansion, Zanzibar aimed to use more slave labor (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). Another economic advantage was the ivory trade, and these two issues were related to each other (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). Moreover, Zanzibar had a deep harbor and part of it and the Pemba Island were well adapted for the clove cultivation. Consequently, there was a ready market for cloves. Sultan knew that the large merchant and naval fleet would ensure that Zanzibar became the cultural, political, and economic center of the area (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). Economic and political reasons were tightly related to each other. For Oman, Zanzibar became a critical place for building political relationships with other states. In particular, through the slave trade, Oman managed to build political relations with the Portuguese, Britain, and France because all these states needed the flow of slaves, and Oman became an important political figure by providing such services. Therefore, Oman had both economic and political interest in Zanzibar.


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Economic Development of Zanzibar under Omani Rule

With the Omani colonial state establishment, Zanzibar became the trade center in East Africa. Sultan signed commercial treaties with the United States in 1833, France in 1844, and Britain in 1839 (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). Under these treaty terms, “three nations had the liberty to sell commodities without interference as to price and were required to pay duty of five percent on cargoes landed, excluding the goods unsold or re-exported” (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). One of the critical treaties’ terms was that Zanzibar could not arrest or try the citizens of these states in its courts (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). In this way, Zanzibar economic development started under Omani rule.

The Zanzibar trade was strongly impacted by India, and it involved the concentration of enormous power of the Indian commercial bourgeoisie that influenced the Zanzibar economic life. Then the trade with the United States started, and most of the American trade was with the Salem merchants (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). Ivory was exported from the African east coast in great amounts (Bhaker, 1994). The main products that were sold were tallow, cowries, tortoise-shell, coconut oil, copra, red pepper, hides, ivory, copal, and cloves (Nocolini, 2015). However, after the death of Sultan, the prosperity time ended. In 1886, Germany and France decided to control the extent of the Zanzibar Sultan dominions in East Africa (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). After that, Britain became more focused on Kenya, and the importance of Zanzibar decreased. Therefore, the role of Zanzibar changed from the international perspective due to the other states’ interests in different areas.

With the change of Zanzibar importance, clove plantations became the chance to survive from the economic perspective. They were the labor product provided by the Mwinyi Mkuu in respect of the agreement with Sultan, as well as slave import from the mainland. The labor cleared the forest and planted clove trees (Croucher, 2014). In the end, the process of the expansion and development of clove plantation economy led to the alienation of land from Wahadimus by Omanis (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). Moreover, the Indian commercial bourgeoisie was involved in clove plantations, and they became credit suppliers and financiers, affecting the plantation economy. As a result, the relations between India and Britain became more difficult. After the slavery abolishment in Zanzibar at the end of the 19th century, plantation owners had to rely on wage labor. The labor export from Zanzibar during the latter part of the 19th century led to the acute labor shortage, and the slavery abolishment only slightly addressed the problem (Bhagat & Othman, n.d.). To solve the situation, British colonialists decided to import labor from India. The situation in Zanzibar continued escalating and during the independence struggle, squatters and workers opposed colonialism and plantation owners.

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Political Situation

At this point, it is possible to analyze the political development of Zanzibar. The trade-led activities by Busaidi state were related to critical state-building attempts. During the 19th century, Sultan with Arab followers gained control over local rulers and then started the progressive transformation of the horizontal relationships into superiority-inferiority hierarchical relationships that relegated local rulers of Zanzibar to dependent status, ultimately eliminating the Mwinyi Mkuu and placing the power in Sultan hands (Newbury, 1983). The process culmination was the rationalization of administrative structures that led to the situation where Arab appointees replaced indigenous authorities. Masheha or headmen appointed from above, as well as Shirazi and native to the administrated area, were at the lowest administrative level (Newbury, 1983). Before the transformation, the village elderly from the most prominent kin groups of every community composed the village council of four men and conducted village affairs. During the colonial period, these position occupants preserved considerable local impact but lost official recognition and, in some areas, tension arose between Masheha and Watu Wanne appointed from above (Newbury, 1983). Overall, the political structure was formed by the Sultan’s rule. 

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In Zanzibar, local authorities did not collect taxes and made several demands on the population, and the control concentrated over plantation areas. In this place, European racial perceptions and the political expediency of promoting ostensible traditional authority relationship were interrelated (Newbury, 1983). Predominance was grounded on land ownership coming from the political system control. The control over people was used to preserve the Arab-Asian access to the land productivity, especially clove plantations. The upper socioeconomic categories were composed of members of ethnically or racially distinct minorities. However, Asians and Arabs were powerful and wealthy (Newbury, 1983). Thus, the ethnicity had a critical role in the volatile politics.

In Zanzibar, political parties appeared. The main political parties involved the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZPN) that was founded and dominated by Arabs but sought a following among non-Arabs, the Zanzibar and Pemba People’s Party (ZPPP) that gained most of its support from Shirazi on Pemba, and the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) established by mainland Africans and Shirazi on Zanzibar Island (Newbury, 1983). In 1957, the first election for the Legislative Council in Zanzibar led to the victory for the non-Arab parties. Nonetheless, in subsequent elections, the Arab ZNP coalition with Pemba Shirazi ZPPP led to winning a majority in the Legislative Council (Newbury, 1983). In the elections of 1963 for the National Assembly, the ASP won 54% of the popular vote, gaining around 13,000 votes more than the ZNP-ZPPP coalition. However, seats in the National Assembly were distributed on a single-member constituency basis and due to the manner in which constituency boundaries were drawn, the party gained only 13 of 31 seats (Newbury, 1983). In December 1963, Zanzibar gained independence with the government led by the pro-Arab ZPN-ZPPP coalition (Newbury, 1983). Less than a month later, the regime was overthrown, and the African-dominated Revolutionary Council was formed.

The political system development in Zanzibar was grounded on ethnic issues. For instance, on Pemba, clove plantation ownership was not limited by non-Africans, and Shirazi also acquired plantations. In 1922, it was established that the number of Shirazi owners was three times that of Arab plantation owners and four times that of Hadimu plantation owners (Newbury, 1983). The clear class division absence between Arabs and Shirazi was reflected in party organizations and election results. Furthermore, the voting on Pemba showed that class relations strongly impacted the political conflict. For instance, as literacy and property qualifications for voting were changed over time, the ASP captured the increased share of the vote on Pemba. In January 1961 elections, it won less than 25% of the popular vote, a figure that increased to over 33% in June 1961 elections and over 44% in 1963 (Newbury, 1983). Therefore, the political system was grounded on ethical perceptions among the population.

At the same time, with the Sultan’s death, Imam Azzan tried to unite the state and gain the control over the Oman interior tribe, but Britain did not accept such position because the Oman and Muscat unification was not well-accepted. Thus, the British government provided the rival of Imam Azzam, particularly, Turkuibn Al-Basaid, with political and financial resources (Dresch & Piscatori, 2005). Within the time, Britain recognized the Muscat and Oman Sultanate as the independent state. Nonetheless, the conflicts between Muscat and Oman did not finish, and the political situation was tense. Omanis migration flow to Zanzibar and the African east coast was noticed in the first half of the 20th century. There was a political conflict between the Imamate of interiors and the Muscat Sultanate (Dresch & Piscatori, 2005). Interior tribal rivalries, worsening economic conditions, and oppression decreased the population of Oman to the poverty state, the Muscat Sultanate victory over Imamate in 1955 and the tribal rebellion did little to improve the situation (Dresch & Piscatori, 2005). The Sultan’s rule consolidation had negative outcomes as far as the interior population was concerned, and many people were exhausted in neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Between 1957 and 1959, around 400 dissidents fled Oman (Dresch & Piscatori, 2005). Some returned in 1963 under the amnesty guaranteed by Sultan. At the same time, many Omanis still sought work in near Gulf states where oil had been discovered (Dresch & Piscatori, 2005). Therefore, Zanzibar and Oman were also connected through migration flow due to the political situation.


Zanzibar and Oman have a strong connection from the historical perspective. Their common history started with the rule of Seyyid Said who realized the economic perspective of ruling in Zanzibar. Under Omani rule, the country experienced the economic development and prosperity. Sultan started building projects there and developed the agricultural economy through promoting the trade of ivory and cloves. International treaties concluded by the United States, France, and Britain regarding trade strongly impacted the economic development of Zanzibar. Furthermore, it became the new slave trade center in East Africa, and slave commerce was financed by Indians and organized by Omanis. At the same time, the political development was grounded on ethnic and racial perceptions, which was reflected in the formed political parties.

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