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Dhows and the Colonial Economy of Zanzibar, 1860-1970

Author(s):Gilbert, Erik
Reviewer(s):Sheriff, Abdul

Published by EH.NET (February 2005)

Erik Gilbert, Dhows and the Colonial Economy of Zanzibar, 1860-1970. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press; Oxford: James Currey; Zanzibar: Gallery; Nairobi: EAEP, 2004. xiii +176 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8214-1557-3; $26.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8214-1558-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Abdul Sheriff, Zanzibar Museums.

The book is one of the very few but growing number of academic books yet written on the dhow, the Indian Ocean sailing vessel with its characteristic lateen sail (Martin, 1979, Agius 2004). The vessel was the premier vehicle for economic and socio-cultural exchange in the western Indian Ocean before the entry of the Europeans in the sixteenth century, and especially before the steamers from the nineteenth century. The book owes its origin in a Boston University doctoral dissertation in 1997 by the author who is now an Assistant Professor of History at Arkansas State University. Subsequent visits to Yemen and the coast of Kenya, as the author says, brought home to him “just how much of a coherent region the western Indian Ocean littoral is,” but substantive results from these excursions are not included in this volume. The book therefore remains primarily a treatment of the dhow trade in the colonial economy of Zanzibar from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, based primarily on sources in the Zanzibar and Tanzania Archives, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

The hero of the book is the dhow, and the story is about its valiant struggle to survive against all odds in a rapidly changing world with growing competition from steamers, and despite all colonial machinations to consign it to the dustbin of history. Gilbert sets the argument against the modernization theory that the dhow was an archaic survival from the past that had remained unchanged for centuries. He quotes Chaudhuri, arguably the father of modern Indian Ocean studies who occupies a position comparable to that of Braudel for the Mediterranean, that “If the Kwaiti (sic) booms and their Indian fellow-vessels continue to cross the Arabian Sea, they do so, it could be said, either as part of a backward economy or because their owners are not rational beings,” although his argument is more nuanced than is suggested by Gilbert (Chaudhuri 1985: 221-2). He admits that he was not entirely immune to this view, and indeed, despite his revisions that view is not entirely absent from the text before us, describing it as part of the so-called “informal sector” (p. 59). However, the persistent prediction of the imminent demise of the dhow since the middle of the nineteenth century proved to be premature and wildly exaggerated. The main thesis of the book is that even if Zanzibar lacked the means to resist occupation, the dhow enabled Zanzibaris to resist the steamship until the regional economy was fundamentally transformed in the twentieth century with the generalization of the oil economy in the Persian Gulf.

Gilbert begins his analysis with a survey of the dhow in the nineteenth century when the Atlantic trade system linked up with the Indian Ocean at Zanzibar. Although the former potentially could have diverted the trade from the latter, in fact the expansion of commerce in general enabled the dhow to expand its local entrepot activities between Zanzibar and the mainland out-ports, collecting ivory and other east African exports, and distributing imports, including American cloth, Merikani. At the same time, the older long-distance dhow trade to Arabia and India, dealing in local commodities, such as salted fish, dates and mangrove poles, was not touched, while in the export of ivory to India in exchange for textiles, there was some adjustment but not a complete “rout.” Thus “dhows kept a foot in both worlds.”

More damaging was a series of events that began to undermine the dhow trade more substantially. The first was the British anti-slavery activities which progressively limited the slave trade before prohibiting it altogether, thus depriving the dhow trade of one of its traditional cargoes. In the process many dhows were destroyed even when they were not caught carrying slaves. The second was the colonial partition of Africa which dismembered Zanzibar’s hinterland on the African continent, gradually destroying the entrepot trade between Zanzibar and the mainland in which dhows had flourished, leaving Zanzibar to rely on a single cash crop, cloves. Finally, in 1890 Zanzibar itself was declared a British Protectorate, and the colonial authorities moved to impose their authority and create a colonial economy. In the case of the dhows, they were to be “monitored, listed, registered, labelled, flagged, charged fees and relegated to their own corner of the Zanzibar harbour.”

However, the home-grown dhow refused to die without a fight. The strongest part of the book is in fact Gilbert’s documentation of the ability of the dhow economy to resist attempts to marginalize it in the colonial economy. In the long-distance monsoon trade with India, it increasingly lost ivory and cloth to steamers. However, when the colonial authorities tried to encroach even on the local carrying trade between the two islands within the Protectorate, transporting cloves from Pemba, which was the larger producer, in exchange for consumables, the dhow was able to put up a stiff resistance against government steamers. Although the latter were able to capture a larger proportion of the passenger traffic, especially after the government instituted free passages for clove pickers, when it came to cloves, the dhows’ lower freight rates and ability to penetrate the numerous creeks and small ports in Pemba enabled them to capture most of the freight, leaving less than fifteen percent of the cloves and even a smaller proportion of the return cargo to the steamers. This was despite the fact that most of the port facilities were available to steamers rather than to dhows, and the steamers were continually subsidized.

The crunch came in the 1930s when the colonial state sought to “rationalize” the clove economy by trying to use its power to drive out the Indian middlemen, and with them, the dhow, by setting up a parastatal Clove Growers’ Association that would use only steamers to transport cloves. With their back to the wall, the Indian merchant class called a boycott of Zanzibar cloves that was supported by the Indian National Congress in India, and the colonial state was forced to reach a compromise that was to last until the Revolution of 1964. With their partial success, dhows were also able to retain their niche in the clove economy.

The second commodity on which the dhows had relied was mangrove poles. For hundreds of years they have been used around the treeless coast of Arabia as well as on the East African coast as beams to support the ceiling and as a source of fuel. With the progressive loss of other cargoes, the dhow were forced to rely on them as their main export to Arabia and the Persian Gulf during the twentieth century, while their production and local transport along the East African coast gave employment to a large number of dhows, sailors and cutters. It was an item that did not feature in the conception of the colonial economy, and therefore the authorities were prepared to let the dhows carry on their trade unmolested apart from attempts to charge a royalty fee. Because of these reasons, archival material is less dense, and the chapter devoted to it is therefore much thinner in substance. The exception was the sudden demand for mangrove bark in the 1940s to meet the need for industrial leather tanning in Europe, and it led to frantic stripping of mangrove swamps and their decimation, forcing the colonial state to intervene to conserve the swamps.

Ironically, the mangrove trade peaked in the 1950s with the first flush of the oil wealth in the Persian Gulf. Up to a quarter of a million mangrove poles were exported from Zanzibar alone in a single year, presumably to build traditional houses there, most of them shipped in the monsoon dhows. But this was a false dawn that was a precursor on the one hand to the age of cement and iron which would kill off the monsoon mangrove trade altogether, and on the other, to kill the monsoon dhow traffic itself as easier means of livelihood in the Gulf made it increasingly difficult for dhow captains to lure sailors to the extremely hard life on the dhows. The Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, which had targeted the Arabs in particular and banned port calls by Arab dhows, dealt a coup de grace to this centuries-long exchange between Zanzibar and Arabia. It cut off Zanzibar from the regional trade in the western Indian Ocean precisely when it could have benefited from a trickle down of wealth from the Persian Gulf until the trade liberalization reforms in the mid 1980s.

The same Revolution also dealt a blow to the local dhow traffic in cloves when it nationalized the whole clove trade, and by fiat of state power, accomplished what the colonial state had failed to do, to transfer the whole clove traffic to the even bigger state-owned steamers. This double blow was probably devastating to the dhow trade and the whole community of people from sailors to owners and mangrove cutters and others who were in one way or another involved in it. In India in the post-war period Vaidya had made a very strong nationalist case for support of the dhow industry precisely because it was an indigenous industry in which a very large number of local people found employment as dhow builders, sailors and porters, as opposed to foreign-built steamships which employed only a small number of sailors and much of the porterage was done by cranes. But “Zanzibar’s revolutionaries embraced modernity with a vengeance,” regardless of the consequences for the local population that they proclaimed to serve.

Gilbert thus makes a strong case for the role of the dhow which had made it possible for Zanzibar to play an important part in the world of cultural interactions that cut across the continental division between Africa and Asia. It may be an instrumentalist argument, but in a debate that had hitherto ignored the instrument almost completely, it is well-worth making. In a perhaps overly defensive response to the Africanist historians who harp on the “essentially African character of the Swahili” like a “mantra,” as Barendse puts it, Gilbert says that it is just as useful and valid to look at Zanzibar from the perspective of the western Indian Ocean world as it is from an African perspective. “The structures of the western Indian Ocean’s monsoon economy remained the rock-solid foundation of Zanzibar’s life, dictating what people would eat and wear and how they would shelter from the elements” (14).

All in all, the book is a solid piece of scholarly work that makes a very useful contribution to the history of Zanzibar and of the Indian Ocean during the past two centuries. Perhaps the fly in the ointment is the extremely high price for a rather slim book of 175 pages.

Abdul Sheriff was a professor of history at the University of Dar es Salaam, and is now Advisor and Principal Curator of the Zanzibar Museums. He is a specialist on the history of Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. His major publication is Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar, 1770-1873, and he is currently working on a book on the Indian Ocean.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII