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Amrit Wilson (2013), The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar. Pluto Press, London. XII + 175 pp.

With its eight chapters and more than a dozen rare photographs of Zanzibar, this book is a well-researched study by a respected author of long-standing. It outlines the dramatic history of Zanzibar and its anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles


Zanzibar has too much history and much too little geography!

A well-known commercial slogan to promote dollar tourism in Zanzibar echoes, ‘If you want to experience Paradise, visit Zanzibar!’ In the past, European colonialists, with more than a pinch of sensation, described these ‘Spice Islands’ as ‘When you play the flute in Zanzibar, people dance as far as in the lakes region of the interior of Eastern Africa!’ Later in the Cold War jargon, the Western press called this archipelago ‘the Cuba of East Africa’ and ‘the Clove Curtain’ during the roaring 1960s and 1970s respectively. One can find several shelf-metres in the libraries around the world having materials on Zanzibar. The name ‘Zanzibar’ has been exploited by many to sell their books and other works which have nothing to do with Zanzibar as such. [1]

Today, the semi-autonomous People’s Republic of Zanzibar is a densely populated junior member of the United Republic of Tanzania, heavily dependent on diaspora remittances, foreign aid and dollar tourism, constantly at loggerheads with the Union Government on Mainland Tanzania. Half of its population is under the age of 16. Most luxury tourist hotels are foreign-owned, employing a large proportion of Mainlanders or foreigners who do not have Zanzibari trade union affiliation and the associated social security. Most souvenirs and the bulk of spices for sale to tourists and local consumption are imported, except for cloves, chilly and cinnamon. The per capita consumption of food and beverages, water, electricity, vehicles, fuel etc by the tourists is grossly higher than that of the locals, and much of all this is imported, reducing drastically the net income from tourism. Together with ITC, Tourism is a top official priority in Zanzibar to boost economic development.

During the early years after the Revolution in January 1964, Zanzibar experienced political, economic and social stagnation. However, during the recent decades, it has made many strides in the right direction to modernize the country and develop an egalitarian society, with a multi-party parliamentary system. The hard-handed early revolutionary rulers grossly mismanaged the country and created even greater inequalities, limitless oppression, systematic suppression of all human rights, harassment and confiscation of private properties handed over to political and bureaucratic leaders, with corruption from top to bottom in the administration which was mostly based on nepotism.2

Today the country can boast of two universities and several university colleges, several modern clinics etc; however, its capital city the Stone Town (Kijiweni) still suffers from water and power cuts, problems of garbage collection and disposal, crime, violence and robbery. Increasing cases of rape, drug problems, Aids, prostitution and pedophilia are reported daily.

Zanzibar before 1964 was one of the most prosperous and developed countries in Africa, with a minimum of crime, almost free education and health services, low-cost electricity and water supply etc, albeit suffering from feudalism coupled with compradorial economics (whereby much East African trade in ivory, gold, diamonds and similar goods was controlled by Zanzibaris), and the resulting dichotomy of urban and rural populations and contradictions contained therein. Early party politics in Zanzibar were infected by racial/ethnic unrest, mostly aggravated by its recent history of Omani colonization of the coast of East Africa and many inland urban centres, plantation and domestic slavery and slave trade - slaves brought to Zanzibar for local employment or export to Mombasa for work on coconut plantations on Kenya coast, farms in the Juba Valley in Southern Somalia, and date plantations in Oman, had been bought from local chiefs in the interior of eastern Africa, or randomly caught, mostly in north-eastern, central and south-eastern regions of Tanganyika, eastern Congo and south-eastern Kenya. [3]


Much has been written on the 1964 Revolution in Zanzibar

Dr. Amrit Wilson’s present book came out timely when Zanzibar was hectically planning and organizing to celebrate on 12 January 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Revolution of 1964, which toppled the one month old coalition government of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) and the Zanzibar and Pemba People’s Party (ZPPP) with its constitutional monarch Seyyid Jamshid bin Abdullah, the 12th and last Sultan of Omani patriline. The new revolutionary government was formed by the odd couple, the large and corrupt Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) [4] led by its charismatic populist Chairman Sheikh Abeid Aman Karume and the small radical Umma Party (UP) led by the Marxist journalist Comrade Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu supported by the marginal Zanzibar Communist Party (ZCP) led by the Maoist Abdulrahman ‘Gai’ Hamdani.

The book, with its eight chapters and more than a dozen rare photographs of historical importance to Zanzibar, is a well-researched study by a respected author of long-standing. It outlines the dramatic history of Zanzibar and its anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, the British transfer of power to a royalist coalition government, and the subsequent overthrow of that government followed by neo-imperialist coercion to stifle the Wind of Change in Africa by high-jacking the Zanzibar Revolution and constructing the Union of Tanzania.

Under the insulating umbrella of this Union, the new revolutionary leaders turned increasingly anti-intellectual and developed Zanzibar into a police state using extreme violence and tyranny that is typical of dictatorial governments and despotic rulers. This ultimately resulted in the catastrophic assassination of the first President of the People’s Republic, Sheikh Karume, in 1972.

The first five chapters treat well the anti-colonial struggles in Zanzibar, the British transfer of power to the royalist coalition, the Revolution and the Imperialist fears, the union with Tanganyika, and the first decade of despotic rule. Chapter 6 of the book treats in detail the “Kangaroo Court” of Zanzibar, the trials of the progressive elements, their long imprisonment and exile. As vestiges of that period, with the demise of the legal system and a culture of nepotism, one witnesses rife corruption even today and court cases that have been going on for 15 to 20 years without any final judgement in sight!

The important role of the Umma Party and its Marxist visionary leader Comrade Babu in radicalizing the politics of Zanzibar is highlighted throughout the captivating narrative.[5] The book is thus also a tribute to Professor Babu and his Umma Party. The last two chapters deal with the current state of the Union and the increasingly strained relations between the Islands and the Mainland. The Islanders demand among other changes, equal representation at all levels and in all union organs as it is claimed it was categorically expressed by Sheikh Karume – Nusu bi nusu! (50/50). It seems the Union will soon develop into a federation with separate state governments for Tanganyika and Zanzibar, under the umbrella of a small Federal Government as it was understood by many in the beginning, leading eventually to an East African Federation.

The Zanzibar Revolution was bloody, as all revolutions are! A Revolution is a kind of civil war in which thousands are killed, and it leaves many wounds unhealed for long and their ugly scars remain forever. In the aftermath of the Zanzibar Revolution, several thousand people were remanded or jailed for short or long periods without trial, and a couple of hundred of them were summarily tried and sentenced to death – many of them buried in hidden or unmarked graves or thrown in the sea.

The Zanzibar Revolution was carried out with outside help and immigrant elements in the country, and it echoed racial tones. The revolutionaries and their leaders were of all ethnic and mixed origins, and the new rulers tried to rectify the ethnic/racial imbalance that had been cemented by the British colonial rule based on a prodigal aristocracy and indebted feudal class fraternizing with rising merchant and industrialist classes, both of mostly non-African origin, specially South Asian. According to the December 1958 Census of Zanzibar, which was also a kind of social survey with 32 questions, the population of Zanzibar 5 years before the Revolution numbered only about 360 000 souls, and they had perceived their ethnic origins as follows and identified themselves as such:

Shirazi Africans 56%
Mainland Africans 19%
Arabs 17% (Omanis, Yemenis, mixed Arab-African-Indian origins)
Indians 6 % (Sunni Muslims, Shia Ismailis, Shia Ithnaasheri, Shia Bohora, Hindus, Jains, Ceylonese Budhists, Indian Parsis, Goans and other Indian Catholics)
Others 2% (including Comorians, Somalis, Shia Bahrainis etc)

Soon after the Revolution, the new government classified the population of Zanzibar as 80% African, 15% Arab, 4% Indian and 1% Others. This was the quota used by the Ministry of Education under the Marxist leader Comrade Ali Sultan Issa, a so-called ‘Arab’ by patrilineal origin, to allocate secondary school places to students for a couple of years to redress the imbalance of admission to secondary schools which was a result of the dichotomy of the rural (mostly African) versus the urban (mostly non-African) communities. No such ‘racial’ criteria were used for access to higher education, however, during the first year of the Revolution, in state and local government employment, some amount of selective ethnic cleansing was practiced to remove non-citizens and Zanzibari citizens of Arab, Iranian and Indo-Pakistani origin. Most Zanzibaris are of mixed origins, essentializing their agnatic descent in different social and political contexts. With a minimum of meritocracy, the bureaucrats of Zanzibar were recruited in the early revolutionary administration primarily through pure nepotism and favoritism. Zanzibaris of today are much more ethnically mixed then they were 50 years ago.

About one fifth of the population, including many semi-permanent migrant workers and non-citizens, mostly males, were born in Tanganyika or other parts of eastern Africa. About 2000 of them including more than 600 policemen, 60% of the Police, did not adhere to Islam, the religious conviction of 98% of Zanzibaris at that time. This was crucial in bringing the ASP close to the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) on which ASP depended quite much financially, finally leading to the formation of the Union of Tanzania which the Western powers indirectly imposed on Zanzibar to contain the leftist Revolution – the alternative for Zanzibar was to face a Western-supported rightist invasion from the Portuguese occupied Mozambique. This may have been an empty threat, but it did work. Some researchers have strongly argued that the Union of Tanzania is a Cold War construction, and therein lies the main cause of the current constitutional crisis that has been shaking the United Republic.
One immediate consequence of the Revolution was the closing down of several factories producing coconut oil, soap and oil cake used as cattle feed, many furniture and mechanical workshops, dozens of shops producing garments, shoes and other consumer goods, a couple of hundred businesses dealing with import of piece goods and their further export to the rest of eastern African, and the loss of trade in ivory, gold and diamonds, created a mass exodus of people to the rest of East Africa, primarily Tanganyika, which also gained much from the brain drain of Zanzibar.[6]

Amrit Wilson’s fluent narrative includes meticulous details with deep insight and convincing analysis of the colonial condition in Zanzibar and the neo-colonialism it has been subjected to. The story is based on much material previously unavailable including personal narratives of and interviews with many who were involved in the different events that have shaped modern Zanzibar.


The 1964 Revolution in Zanzibar, which started as a rather badly planned insurgency by certain sections of the opposition alliance of ASP and UP, and which took both the CIA and the world at large by surprise, gave high hopes of constructive changes in many parts of Africa; it had far-reaching implications on the politics of eastern Africa in particular and the Cold War in general in the region. One immediate consequence of this Revolution was the army mutinies in Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda, which were effectively dealt with by help from Britain and Nigeria. The African Revolution was thus high-jacked in its infancy and the people were betrayed by the new elites. Later, far-reaching socialist attempts at socio-economic reforms on Mainland Tanzania in the form of Mwalimu Nyerere’s much-discussed and commented Ujamaa “experiments” were also sabotaged by the mostly Western-educated bureaucracy, and as once aptly expressed by Professor Issa Shivji and reiterated by his colleague the late Professor Haroub Othman, “The Revolution in Tanzania Mainland was also betrayed in the same way.”

Amrit Wilson’s present book offers the most complete and detailed description so far of the events in Zanzibar, based on reliable sources and first-hand accounts, which can be verified by those who were active participants in those developments, (including the present reviewer who was an active student and youth leader during the 1960s before he went into self-exile in 1968 after a short period of political detention in Daressalaam and Zanzibar).

Today’s official slogan in Zanzibar is “Mapinduzi daima!” (Revolution forever!). Revolution, Yes! But Zanzibar, Tanzania and the rest of Africa needs a Mapinduzi ya Mawazo (Mental Revolution), to learn from the past, to appreciate the present and to plan and work for a better future! Tanzania has vast natural resources, a developed educational system, intellectual capacity and most Tanzanians have the willingness and desire to march forward peacefully! As Mwalimu Nyerere said, “It can be done – play your part!” [7]

After many years of monolithic rule which had outlawed parliamentary democracy by an oral Presidential Decree, Zanzibar has matured and through both national and international efforts, Zanzibaris with various political sympathies have succeeded in forming a Government of National Unity (GNU). The proposal for such a coalition government of all political parties was suggested already in 1963, a few months before Independence from Britain and the subsequent republican takeover with Marxist and racial overtones. Had such a government been formed at that time, the violent Revolution could have been avoided, and neither Amrit Wilson’s present book nor the present review essay would have been written! [8]

“The growth of Black Nationalism, the suspicion of continuity of ‘Arab’ domination coupled with propaganda that refreshed memories of slavery and the slave trade era, caused great disruption in the social equilibrium with the determination of the lower classes to end the long years of inferiority through a violent revolution. The Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, though basically a class revolution, has echoed many racial tones, for the socio-economic classes followed closely the weak – but traditional – ethnic distinctions.

The institution of slavery, though not foreign to East Africa, was escalated by non-African peoples and commercialized with de-humanizing effects on the African populations. In Zanzibar, which had been the citadel for the East African slavery and slave trade in the last century, and where servitude in some form continued to exist, the last vestiges of slavery were formally destroyed in 1964. (Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi: The Institution of Slavery in Zanzibar and Pemba. Research Report No. 16. 1973. Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, Uppsala. p.30-31)”

Amrit Wilson’s book necessarily deserves a wide audience, not only comprising concerned Zanzibaris and Tanzanians, but also all interested in eastern African affairs and the phenomenon of Revolution in general.


[1] John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is a 582 pages thick dystopian science-fiction novel, again saying nothing about Zanzibar proper.

Mary Margaret Kaye’s Death in Zanzibar (1983) is a novel involving European characters in Zanzibar setting, similar to her other books such as Death in Kenya and Death in the Maldives.

In Michael Morpurgo’s famous children’s adventure novel The wreck of the Zanzibar of 1995, “Zanzibar” is the name of the ship that is wrecked.

The contents of Johanna Ekström’s half a dozen short Swedish poems in verse under the title “Dikter från Zanzibar” (Poems from Zanzibar) published in the Swedish literary magazine KARAVAN No. 4/2001, specially dealing with literature in the Third World, have nothing to do with Zanzibar. They were written while she was on vacation there. Magnus Eriksson has pointed this out in his review in the Stockholm morning paper Svenska Dagbladet, 14 January 2002, criticizing the editors of KARAVAN for including Swedish literature in this journal using such headings as “Poems from Zanzibar” and mislead readers.

Aidan Hartley (2004) The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands, is essentially an exciting account of the author's own experiences as a hot spots journalist covering the forgotten wars such as in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, blending some pieces of his family history and tales of exploits of his parents’ friends in this narrative. This story is not about Zanzibar at all!

David Chrystal (2008) As they say in Zanzibar. OUP, is a 720 pages long collection of more than 2000 proverbs from 110 countries around the world; it however contains only a couple of Kiswahili proverbs!

[2] The terror of this period of the police state in Zanzibar is well-depicted in the Kiswahili novel of ‘Comrade’ Hashil Seif Hashil (1999) Wimbi la ghadhabu (Wave of terror). This short novel is being currently translated into both English and Swedish by two different trranslators. Professor Said Ahmed Mohamed Khamis’ novel (1989) Asali chungu (Bitter honey) describes the decadent lifestyle of some section of the upper class before the Revolution; and Ustaadh Adam Shafi Adam’s Kasri ya Mwinyi Fuad (The Palace of Lord Fuad) of 1978 gives a good picture of life on a large plantation just before and after the Revolution and the patrician lifestyle of the absentee landlord. Ustaadh Adam Shafi’s other Kiswahili novel KULI (The coolie) of 1979 deals with another important episode in the history of Zanzibar documented in detail by Dr. Anthony Clayton of Sandhurt Military Academy, England, in his The 1948 Zanzibar General Strike (1979), Research Report No. 32. Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, Uppsala. See also Anthony Clayton (1981) The Zanzibar Revolution And Its Aftermath. Hurst & Co., London.

[3] The Slave Trade in Zanzibar and its dominions was abolished in 1873 by Sultan Seyyid Barghash (the third Sultan, whose mother was an Ethiopian concubine). From 1890 when the Sultanate of Zanzibar was reduced to its present size by the Europeans and it became a British Protectorate, slaves could buy their freedom, which many urban slaves did – these could afford it as customarily they could work on their own for three days every week and earn some cash.

During 1897 to 1909, the government agreed to pay compensation to slave owners for manumission of male slaves while concubines were to become legal wives and their children declared legitimate heirs to their fathers. Altogether 4 278 slaves became free in this way. The legal status of slavery was finally abolished in 1911 when Zanzibar was transformed into a constitutional monarchy with the new Sultan Khalifa bin Haroub, the 10th Sultan of Zanzibar who had succeeded his brother-in-law Seyyid Ali who had abdicated while on a visit to England. Altogether 17 293 slaves were freed for a total of £32 502 as compensation to slave owners.

Professor Edward Batson’s A Social Survey of Zanzibar conducted duering 1948-49 and published by the Zanzibar Government Printer in 1962, gave the following figures for landless male Africans in Zanzibar:

Zanzibar Town/Urban: 2 220 Shirazi/Native Africans - 6 630 Mainland/Non-native Africans.
Rest of Zanzibar: 1 720 Shirazi/Native Africans - 8 600 Mainland/Non-native Africans

Mainland/Non-native Africans included both a few surviving freed slaves and immigrant Africans from the other East African countries, mostly Tanganyika.

During 1948-49, a total of 19 170 adult male Africans, 3 940 natives and 15 230 adult Mainland Africans, were landless; so were also most of the Indian and Arab Zanzibaris, both urban and rural. However, during 1964-65 the Revolutionary Government gave altogether 22 000 landless Zanzibaris of all origins including many urban dwellers with no agrarian background, mostly on Unguja Island, 3 acres of plantation land which had been confiscated from former landowners. Most of these ‘landless Africans’ were Mainlanders! Much such land was also taken over by revolutionary leaders and their relatives or friends. During the first decade, the new leaders of Zanzibar lived lavishly on confiscated properties and embezzled public funds.

For details on Slavery and Slave Trade in Zanzibar, see A. Y. Lodhi (1973), The Institution of Slavery in Zanzibar and Pemba. Research Report No. 16. Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, Uppsala. This publication can be downloaded free from the website of the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala.

See also A. Y. Lodhi, et al (1979). A Small Book On Zanzibar. Writers Book Machine, Stockholm. p. 64-70.

[4] At the time of Revolution, the ASP was almost bankrupt while several of its leaders including Sheikh Karume had bought property in Tanganyika. In the early evening of the Revolution, one prominent ASP leader, Sheikh Mtoro Rehani, whose parents were Wazigua from Tanganyika, had been chased into hiding by an angry crowd of ASP Youth League members for embezzling the funds of the ASP Miembeni Branch, the former HQ of the African Association of Immigrant Workers and the Club House of the very active African Sports Club, the forerunners of ASP. The crowd vandalized the Club House, but a few days later, not surprisingly, Sheikh Mtoro Rehani was appointed the new Mayor of Zanzibar City by the Revolutionary Government.

Immigrant members of the ASP conceived the party as a Saving Society, and in their Membership Card the name(s) of the heir(s) of the Member was/were mentioned on the understanding that the collected Membership Fee would be returned to Members if or when they left the Party or if the party was to be dissolved, or it would be inherited by his/her heir(s). Almost all the immigrant members of ASP were male.

[5] See also A. M. Babu (1981), African Socialism or Socialist Africa? Zed Press, London

[6] Many educated Zanzibaris dismissed from the civil service were given responsible positions on the Mainland. Zanzibari primary school headmasters became principals at secondary schools in Tanganyika, and Zanzibari secondary school teachers became college teachers and university lecturers, some of them ultimately becoming professors at institutions in the West e.g. Maalim Ali Ahmed Jahadhmi and Maalim Sultan Mugheiri in the US, and Maalim Salim Kifua in Japan. Some of them like Maalim Shaaban Saleh Farsy and Maalim Said Iliyas were commissioned to translate the Military Code and the laws of Tanzania into Kiswahili; and Maalim Jaafar Tejani, an Cutchi Indian by origin, was selected to organize the Institute of Kiswahili Research at the University of Daressalaam and lead the Kiswahili Dictionary Programe sponsored by the President’s Office.

[7] See Haroub Othman, Ed. (2001), BABU – I Saw The Future And It Works. E & D, Daressalaam.

[8] In early September 1963, upon a suggestion from the Umma Party leader Comrade A. M. Babu, the Umma Students’ wing contacted the non-party All Zanzibar Students’ Union (AZSU) to arrange a Brainstorm and invite all political parties and their affiliated organizations to discuss the possibility of forming an All-Party National Government that would lead Zanzibar to Uhuru. Those attending the Brainstorm unanimously proposed that the first government of free Zanzibar should be a National Government since Zanzibaris of all political colours had together fought for Uhuru and that it was the whole country which was becoming free, not only the coalition parties which had won the elections based on the colonial model and organized by the colonial power. The invitation to participate in the Brainstorm was sent to all political parties, women’s unions and trade unions but no political party participated in the deliberations; however, some officials of the Zanzibar and Pemba Federation of Labour (ZPFL/ASP) with its leader Hassan Nassor Moyo, and the Federation of Progressive Trade Unions/Umma Party) including Ahmed Badawy Qullatein did attend the meeting and actively participated in the discussions. The Brainstorm was chaired by Miss Sheikha Ali Al-Miskry, Chairman of AZSU, and the present reviewer, Vice Chairman of AZSU, acted as the Secetary.

About a month later, on UN Day on 24 October 1963, at a function organized by the Zanzibar UN Student Commission (in cooperation with the UN Information Office in Daressalaam), at the Haile Selassie Hall, the ASP leader Sheikh Karume and the ZNP leader Sheikh Ali Muhsin, both informed the present reviewer that it was too late to form a National Government of all parties together as “……. we have already put our signatures at the meeting in England”.

About a year after the Revolution, President Karume told the present reviewer in his office at the ASP Head Quarters “That government of all Zanzibaris that you young people had proposed last year, we have it now, under the umbrella of ASP. Now we are all Wana wa Afro-Shirazi (Children of ASP).”

Dr. Amrit Wilson (b. 1941, India) is a UK-based veteran writer and activist. Her other works include:
Finding A Voice - Asian Women In Britain. 1978.
US Foreign Policy and Revolution: The Creation of Tanzania. 1989.
Women and the Eritrean Revolution: The Challenge Road. 1991.
The Future that Works: Selected Writings of A.M. Babu. 2002. (With Salma Babu)
Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain. 2006.

* Dr. Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi (b. 1945, Zanzibar) is Professor Emeritus at the Dept. of Linguistics and Philology, Uppsala University, Sweden. He has published extensively on Swahilistics, East African Social Studies and Zanzibar Affairs. Currently he is also a Member of the International Scientific Committee (ISC) of the Slave Route Project: History and Memories for Dialogue, Unesco, Paris.



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