Zanzibar In The 19Th Century

Zanzibar became the center of a large trading empire in the 19th century. Cloves and slaves were their staples. Zanzibar's importance did not last.

In the 19th century, Zanzibar became the center of a vast, rich empire, based on trade in spices and slaves. The rise of Zanzibar as the center of a large, though not lasting, empire, was the culmination of a number of causes. The Omanis had been traders for centuries, and they were able to use Zanzibar as a port for their trading. The demand for spices, especially cloves, was extremely high and allowed for large profits to be made in trading them. When it was discovered that cloves grew very well in Zanzibar, investors like Seyyid Sa'id bin Sultan, the ruler of Oman, began to invest money and gain huge profits. The amount of slaves available from the interior provided sufficient labor for the trade to reach its maximum productivity. Zanzibar was in the right place at the right time, Omanis were able to take the cloves, sell them to the world, and for a few decades, make amazing amounts of money. Their rise was characterized by violence, bondage, and abuses of power. In the end the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. The scramble for riches, made some lives better, but destroyed many others.

Before cloves became big, there was a large market for trade in the Indian Ocean. The eighteenth century marked a time of expansion in this trade. Some of the factors that contributed to this expansion were: a revival of older patterns of trade in the wake of Portuguese decline, increasing demand for ivory and slaves, the availability of Indian capital to finance trade, and the initiative of Africans in bringing goods from the interior to coastal ports. This combination paved the way for a boom in the clove industry on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. In the early 1800's Britain, the United States, France and Germany all abolished the slave trade. In East Africa however, about 8,000 slaves were brought from the mainland to Zanzibar every year. The people of Zanzibar had to find a way to deal with this surplus. In 1812 a solution was found, cloves were introduced to the island.

The Omanis took to clove farming slowly, beginning when Seyyid Said bin Sultan began promoting the clove trade. A decline in the price of slaves, mainly because of the British actions to stop slave trading, may have influenced the Sultan and a few Arabs in Zanzibar to carry out the first experiments with clove cultivation in the 1820s. Sa'id took the lead in promoting the clove production. Others had brought the cloves to Zanzibar, but he had been the one to bolster their growth. When other Omani traders recognized the profits that could be made from cloves, they too began investing more and more into their production. Sa'id also negotiated a commercial treaty with the Americans. He understood the need to have many places to sell his new product. He balanced relations with the French, the British and the Americans, often playing one off against the other, and always making sure that he would benefit from their relationships. Cloves take a lot of work in order to maintain and therefore many slaves were needed. As the demand for slaves and ivory continued to expand, Arab traders from the coast pushed further inland. The British off and on would try to curtail the slave trade from Zanzibar, leaving more slaves available in Zanzibar. The people of Zanzibar realized that while they could not sell the slaves anymore, they could still sell the products that the slaves produced. The more the British tried to stop the slave trade, the more cloves Zanzibar was able to produce. This also meant the more slave grown products the British and Americans were buying.



After a slow and cautious beginning clove growing in Zanzibar began to boom. A clove mania began in the 1830's and 40's, the easy profits which clove plantations yielded made all the inhabitants of Zanzibar turn their eyes towards the crop. Many of the other crops on the island were cleared away to make room for cloves. The world wanted cloves, and the people of Zanzibar, were ready to supply. It seems that everyone on the island began to grow cloves, even the poor people tried to grow a few cloves. Sultan Said even made a decree that three clove trees must be planted for every coconut palm, and that any landowner failing to do so would have his property confiscated. To a large extent it was the rapid expansion of American trade with Zanzibar which encouraged the economic development of the area in the 19th century. A rich country, that could afford luxuries like cloves, was needed to make their work pay off, America was the country that made this happen.

The production of cloves had transformed the island, by the end of Saiyid Sa'id's reign a good part of the fertile area of Zanzibar had been taken over for production. It was nearly impossible to go anywhere on the island and not see the effects that the clove industry had on the island. The boom did not last however, cloves were soon overproduced and the profits came down. By the 1860's the clove economy had already entered a phrase of over-production and economic stagnation in Zanzibar. Two major reasons for this decline and the overall stagnation of the economy on Zanzibar, were; first a decline in the price of cloves, as more and more cloves were available the supply outpaced demand for cloves, and second in 1861 the British began making more effort to enforce their anti-slavery laws. In particular, they confiscated about 8,000 slaves that were held by Indians in Zanzibar. In the past the British had enforced their anti-slavery laws on the oceans, but in the 60's they began enforcing their rules on the Zanzibar island.

One important implication of this stagnation was that it stopped Zanzibar from becoming totally dependant on cloves. Had Zanzibar become totally dependant on cloves, the problems they faced after the decline in prices, could have been much worse. The trend toward the replacement of other crops by clove trees that was noted in the 1840's did not continue.With the decline in prices the rich had been able to maintain themselves, but the poorer people on the island were hurt the most by the decline in prices, they had replaced some of their other crops with cloves and now that prices for cloves were declining they were losing a large percentage of the money the used to make. However there still existed a huge influx of slaves from the mainland up to 30,000 slaves a year were brought to Zanzibar in the early 1870's, to work the clove plantations or to be sold in the market. Zanzibari traders made fortunes, and helped to de-populate huge areas. Even though the clove boom did not last long it left huge scars on the interior of Africa. One legacy that the clove trade left, is similar to what the slave trade in West Africa left, a scarred and depopulated Africa.

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