Zanzibar: Love and Exile


by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Pantheon, 262 pp., $23.00

Abdulrazak Gurnah
Abdulrazak Gurnah; drawing by David Levine

In 1872, the year Henry Stanley returned to Zanzibar from the East African interior with the letters that made both him and the supposedly lost Dr. Livingstone famous, Richard Burton published his two-volume travelogue Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast. Perhaps he wanted to remind the reading public in Europe and elsewhere that he had been looking for the source of the Nile back in 1856, long before Dr. Livingstone came to brood on the edges of Lake Tanganyika. Burton’s work mostly reminds us that the slave trade in East Africa had been as widespread as it was in West Africa, if not more so. Like the Bible, the Koran does not prohibit slavery and in the early nineteenth century Zanzibar derived most of its wealth from slaves. However, the British Empire that had been created by slave labor no longer needed the slave trade, and in 1847 the British government persuaded Zanzibar’s sultan, Seyyid Said, to sign a treaty outlawing it, though once it was signed the British navy had trouble enforcing it.1

A meeting place of Arab, Indian, European, and African commercial interests, the slave depot at Zanzibar supplied labor for the date palm plantations on the Arabian peninsula and the tea plantations on the Indian subcontinent, and for sugar plantations as far away as Southeast Asia and the Americas. Burton had heard about “the terrors of the middle-passage,” the atrocities of capture and the brutalities of purchase. Only one in ten of the slaves selected to be eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire survived the unhygienic castration.

Burton estimated that two thirds of Zanzibar’s population were slaves, but in Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast he writes as if he doesn’t know who the black or brown people are or where they came from. Zanzibar’s population was so variously descended, from Africans, Arabs, Persians, and “Asiatic settlers and colonists,” that Burton felt himself “in the presence of another and a new race.” The “African element,” the Wasawahili, comprised of the Mahadimu, or “serviles,” and the Shirazi, or “nobles” who claimed Omani Arab origins, were, to Burton, a half-caste or mulatto people who differed from their Egyptian, Nubian, Abyssinian, Galla, Dankali, and Somal “cousins” in the crucial respect of their “negro effluvium.”

I am compelled by its high racial significance to offer a few words upon this unpleasant topic. The odour of the Wasawahili, like that of the negro, is a rank foetor, sui generis, which faintly reminded me of the ammoniacal smell exhaled by low-caste Hindus, popularly called Pariahs. These, however, owe it to external applications, aided by the want of cleanliness. All agree that it is most offensive in the yellow-skinned, and the darkest negroids are therefore preferred for domestic slaves and concubines. It does not depend upon diet. In the Anglo-American states, where blacks live like whites, no diminution of it has been remarked; nor upon want of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.