restricted access Seven. Racial Violence, Universal History, and Echoes of Abolition in Twentieth-Century Zanzibar
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175 s e v e n Racial Violence, Universal History, and Echoes of Abolition in Twentieth-Century Zanzibar J o n at h o n Glass m a n T h e i d e a s anddiscoursesofabolitionismcontinuedtoexertanimpact on Africa long after the end of slavery.Their most obvious legacy lay in the colonial project that dominated the continent’s political life throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Colonial rulers imagined the suppression of slavery as but the first of a series of steps undertaken in the name of a moral obligation to free Africans from barbarism and bring them into the age of civilization and modernity.1 This civilizing mission , and the historicist vision in which it was embedded, continued to shape governing policies right into the postwar years, which Frederick Cooper has characterized as the era of “developmental” colonialism.2 Developmentalism, of course, remains a dominant discourse today. So one might argue that in a general sense the legacy of abolitionism continues to shape how Western governments and aid agencies deal with Africa (and, not infrequently, how the African governments with which they partner deal with their citizens), insofar as they act from a perceived obligation to impose modernity and progress on a backward part of the world. Yet although such connections to the historicist discourses of latterday rulers are relatively easy to trace, the same cannot be said for the tangled threads that tie abolitionism to twentieth-century popular political thought. But the connections are plainly there, and reconstructing 176 Jonathon Glassman them provides an opportunity for confronting the complex nature of intellectual discourse in the colonial world, in particular for examining how historical memories of slavery were constructed and the role those constructed memories played in shaping popular subjectivities, sometimes in profound ways. A Monument to Abolition There is perhaps no better place to listen for the echoes of abolitionism than Zanzibar, a pair of islands just off the East African coast, which since the 1870s has been emblematic of the African slave trade and Britain ’s civilizing mission to end it. Early in the nineteenth century Arab princes from Oman established a sultanate in Zanzibar, which subsequently became a hub of international trade linking the Swahili coast to markets and ideas from deep in the continental interior and across the western Indian Ocean, Islamic Middle East, and North Atlantic. Zanzibar Town soon became a bustling metropolis, hosting merchants and visitors from throughout the world. Among them were American and European merchants and a steady stream of Western visitors, many of the latter passing on their way to or from India or (after the opening of the Suez Canal) southern Africa. Westerners found the sultanate an exotic anachronism, an oriental despotism that managed to linger even while engaged directly with the forces of Western-influenced commercial progress. For many, those backward qualities were best represented by the ruling elite’s continuing addiction to slavery, after even the retrograde plantocrats of the U.S. South had been wrenched from it.3 The most famous Western visitors were missionaries and abolitionist travelers like David Livingstone who used Zanzibar as a staging post for expeditions to the mainland and for campaigns against the so-called Arab slave trade that gripped the region long after the transatlantic trade had been suppressed. Although in the middle decades of the century British diplomats and naval officers had persuaded the sultans to ban the export of slaves out of East Africa, savvy entrepreneurs at the coast purchased slaves that were still brought from the interior, putting them to work on their own plantations of clove and coconut. (That this expansion of plantation slavery was largely driven by demands for the commodities of “legitimate commerce” was an irony fully understood by British consuls, though rarely mentioned openly.)4 Zanzibar Town’s slave market, one of the last places on earth where slaves were openly bought and sold, 177 Echoes of Abolition in Twentieth-Century Zanzibar became a favored destination for Western visitors, who were titillated by coming face to face with what they liked to think of as the barbarism they themselves had left behind. Lurid descriptions of the market by journalists and missionaries made Zanzibar a byword for Arab slavery. In 1873, Britain finally pressured the sultan to close the market, and a quarter century later, after his successors had come under full British “protection,” slavery itself was abolished. Today, Zanzibar is known in the West largely for its pristine beaches...


Subject Headings

  • Slave trade -- Great Britain -- Colonies -- America -- History.
  • Imperialism -- Social aspects -- Great Britain.
  • Slave trade -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Slave trade -- Africa -- History.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- History.
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