The 1964 revolution was seen as the overthrow of Arab dominance by an exploited African majority. But the tragedy that unfolded failed to heal the deep divisions that lingered in post-revolution Zanzibar.
In popular imagination, the very mention of Zanzibar evokes intrigue; an island paradise nestled in the Indian Ocean, brimming with aromatic spices and famous for being the birthplace of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
Yet for Zanzibaris, the idea of inhabiting paradise has been a far-flung fantasy, as memories of a turbulent history continue to pervade the present. One episode in particular, that of a violent revolution which occurred on January 12, 1964, forever altered the trajectory of the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago.
The prevalent interpretation of the 1964 revolution was seen as the overthrow of an Arab landowning minority by an exploited African majority. The killing and expulsion of a large number of Arabs and by the nationalisation and redistribution of land following the revolution, however, did not solve the underlying divisions that punctuated post-revolution Zanzibar.
While race was the primary lens which attempted to paint a dichotomy of non-African aristocratic class versus indentured native Bantus, the complex social structure of Zanzibari society belies any neat generalisation.
To better understand the island’s volatile political context and peculiar social system leading to the events that transpired in 1964, it is necessary to understand a brief history.
A cosmopolitan – and colonial – history
Some 40 miles off the East African coast, Zanzibar consists of two main islands, Unguja and Pemba, and a number of smaller adjacent islands. A territory of Tanzania, its majority-Muslim population is dominated by an African community with sizeable Arab and Asian minorities.
Derived from the Persian Zangbar meaning ‘black coast’, Zanzibar has long been a cosmopolitan node of the Indian Ocean and a hub of commerce for two thousand years connecting Asia, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Hence why the island during that period has seen waves of maritime migrants onto its shores – Yemenis, Persians (locally known as Shirazis), Arabs and Indians. It is the result of this intermingling why Zanzibar is rooted in both its African and Indian Ocean heritages.
From the ninth century onwards, the native Bantu Swahili-speaking merchants operated as brokers for long-distance traders from both the African hinterlands and the Indian Ocean.
The early 16th century saw the increase of European imperialism in the region, and Zanzibar became a possession of the Portuguese Empire for two centuries, ruled with the aid of tributary sultans.
The smothering of trade and local power by the Portuguese eventually led Zanzibari elites to invite the Omanis to assist them in driving out their imperial overlords. After setting up trading colonies on the Zanzibari coast, Omani hegemony would come to dominate by the late 17th century.
Following a brief revolt against Omani rule in 1784, local elites encouraged merchants from the Sultanate to settle in Zanzibar in the early half of the 19th century.
It was around this period when the social system that came to govern Zanzibar was instituted, as the economic prosperity of both Zanzibar and the Pemba islands became intertwined with clove production.
The first clove trees were brought to Zanzibar by Oman’s first dynastic ruler, Sultan Seyyid Said, who transferred his court from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1828 and encouraged clove farming. Omani dynastic rule continued from the 1830s onwards, as many Omanis began to settle in Zanzibar and intermarry with locals.
The subsequent development of a plantation system – underpinned by an Arab landowning class and an African labouring class – deeply affected the relations of production on the island, as Zanzibar operated as a slave society until its eventual abolishment in 1897.
Even after that, the spice trade continued to prosper and imbued Zanzibar with wealth and prestige – as well as a legendary name, “the spice island”. After a series of incursions by the Germans and the French in the European “scramble for Africa”, British colonial influence arrived in 1890.
While not formally a colony, Zanzibar was by the mid-20th century a British protectorate. The Sultanic dynasty that remained was administratively under British sway, as the island was declared a free port and its markets and trade duly controlled by the Crown.
The basis for British rule in Zanzibar did not provide any reliable mechanism for long-term stability, as land, wealth and power remained concentrated in Arab hands, alongside an Asian merchant class.
Just as they did in their other colonies, British policy in Zanzibar intensified existing racial tensions, as colonial administrators institutionalised divisions by creating racially identified associations to which every citizen would belong and further engendered antagonisms.
As military historian Ian Speller notes, “the fact that serious social-economic discrepancies existed between different ethnic groups led to the race/class division within society becoming the key political issue.”
And by the 1950s a political storm was brewing, as anti-colonialism spread across Africa.
Part of the process of decolonisation, political constituencies were established in 1961. The major parties that emerged were primarily organised along ethnic lines: the Arab-led Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP), the African-dominated Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) and the Afro-nationalist Zanzibar and Pemba People’s Party (ZPPP).
When Zanzibar declared independence from the British in 1963 and became a constitutional monarchy ruled by Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah, elections were seen as an avenue to address existing socio-political and economic grievances that existed within Zanzibari society.
The turning point then came when the 1963 election, gerrymandered by the ZNP, saw the ASP led by Abeid Karume win 54 percent of the popular vote but only 13 seats, while the ZNP/ZPPP coalition won the remainder and consolidated power.
The ruling government would only exacerbate ill-will by launching attacks on the press and opposition groups, while installing party loyalists to positions in the bureaucracy. The Umma Party, formed by disaffected Arab socialist ZNP members, was banned and all policemen of African origin were dismissed.
When it came to foreign policy, by all indications the new Arab-dominated government appeared to advocate for fostering stronger links with the Arab world – Egypt in particular – as opposed to other African states.
Revolution and its aftermath
A growing social and political tinderbox would finally explode on the morning of January 12, 1964.
An armed insurrection led by Ugandan ASP member John Okello (dubbed the"Field Marshal of Zanzibar and Pemba"), an ASP Youth League mob supported by disaffected ex-police officers overwhelmed security authorities to gain strategic control of the capital, Zanzibar Town.
The Umma Party, led by the radical left-winger Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, was at the forefront. While it did not start the uprising, Umma turned it into a revolutionary insurrection, which took over state power – becoming the first time in modern Africa that a neocolonial administration had been directly overthrown.
The Sultan and former cabinet members fled the island. The Karume-led ASP, ridden with its own internal party contradictions, was tasked with steering the new revolutionary government in alliance with the Umma Party.
According to Babu, the people rose up not simply to “overthrow a politically bankrupt government and a caricature monarchy” but “revolted in order to change the social system which had oppressed them and for once to take the destiny of their history into their own hands”.
What rapidly followed in its aftermath however was a bloody reprisal against the island’s Arab and Asian populations, in part fueled by years of racist ASP propaganda. Arab and Asian women were gangraped, and Arab and Asian property looted.
While there is wide divergence on the death toll (ranging from several hundred to 20,000) many scholars have classified the wave of discriminate violence against Arabs as textbook ethnic cleansing and genocidal intent.
Following the targeted slaughter, thousands more were ushered into camps and later forcibly deported. Historian Johnathon Glassman estimated that Zanzibar had lost around a quarter of its Arab population by the end of 1964.
Drawing upon slavery on the island and the history deep-rooted racialised divisions around it served as an ideologically driver for Zanzibar’s revolutionary impetus. Meanwhile, those who jettison the idea that the origins behind the uprisings were located in unequal socio-economic relations point towards the nature of Zanzibar’s nationalist mobilisation, which disastrously simplified the complex issue of identity.
For historian Abdul Sheriff, the revolution was an attempt to “deny and erase the Indian Ocean face” of Zanzibar’s heritage and exclusively look to Africa. The ramifications of which were costly and further sowed tension and violence in the years following the revolution.
As Amrit Wilson goes at length to explain in The Threat of Liberation, the context of the Cold War cannot be ignored either.
For the British and the US, the events that transpired in Zanzibar were deeply worrying and viewed as potentially a “communist takeover,” to the point where Zanzibar was feared by some British officials of becoming an “African Cuba”.
Having eschewed conventional diplomatic means, the US State Department attempted to put in place a strategy for intervention which included British military invasion (the so-called Zanzibar Action Plan) and efforts at manipulating Karume to agree to a political union with the Tanganyika president, Julius Nyerere.
While the strategy of military invasion failed to come to pass, as did plots to assassinate Babu, the US and Britain succeeded in neutralising the revolutionary government by engineering within a few months the union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika to create a new country – Tanzania, presided over by the pro-western Nyerere – without any consent from either population at stake.
Following the union, the situation in Zanzibar would further deteriorate and spiral, as the ASP reigned despotic rule over the islands, torturing and imprisoning any opposition figures, including Umma cadres.
Till today, the cosmopolitan island continues to grapple with that revolutionary heritage and remains divided over issues of identity and its political union with Tanzania.
It is a turbulent postcolonial history that remains seared into the Zanzibari consciousness, whether those who were forced into traumatic exile and eventually settled in Oman, or those that endured the failed promise of national transformation.