- Dhows and the Colonial Economy of Zanzibar, 1860–1970
It took a tsunami at the end of 2004 to alert the world to what Erik Gilbert could have told us well in advance—that the Indian Ocean's edge and the people on it are intimately intertwined. Building from a rich grounding in one particular place, Gilbert tells the story of the intersections between the world of dhows and British colonial economic policies in the Zanzibar islands. Zanzibar today is a semi-autonomous if cantankerous partner with the former Tanganyika in the United Republic of Tanzania, in an archipelago consisting of two main islands, Unguja and Pemba. From around 1860, the British steadily gained a guiding role over the then Omani sultanate of Zanzibar, through to their formal declaration of a protectorate in 1890. Independence in December 1963 was followed by a bloody revolution a month later that claimed thousands of lives and the controversial union with Tanganyika in April 1964. Gilbert's endpoint, 1970, is a general moment of decline in the dhow economy that makes for a convenient date for stocktaking. But, as Gilbert's epilogue makes plain, it was hardly the year the dhow trade died out entirely. [End Page 504]
The term 'dhow,' Gilbert tells us, came into use during British colonialism as a catchall category for "native" boats that were not steamships. Gilbert's key argument goes like this: what is today called the "informal sector" was very much alive during colonialism in eastern Africa, and the colonial regime's efforts to strangle the informal dhow economy continually ran aground. This legacy of failure appears to exist chiefly because of the adaptive strategies of dhow traders and the successive niches they occupied in the regional trade network of the Indian Ocean rim.
Gilbert's slim book unfolds in six chapters and a short epilogue. Chapter 1 deftly introduces the debates within the economic historiography of the Swahili coast. Gilbert achieves a good balance between locating Zanzibar's history as a part of Africa and its powerful regional reach and connectivity along the Indian Ocean littoral. Chapter 2 lays out the crucial history of the nineteenth century, which in many ways served as the peak period of importance both for Zanzibar and for its dhow trade (no coincidence!). Chapters 3 through 5 are the real meat of the book, zeroing in on particular commodities, time periods, and scales. I found chapter 5 particularly novel and fascinating for its discussion of the seldom noted yet important—–and continuing—long-distance trade in mangrove poles via Zanzibar's dhows. Chapter 6 is a summation of Gilbert's arguments, and the epilogue targets contemporary echoes of the dhow trade.
The economy of prose here is matched by a lively, opinionated, and occasionally even funny narrative. Though succinct and crisp, the book is thoughtful, well researched, and full of interest for economic historians. Gilbert based the book on interviews and—to a greater extent—on archival research that he conducted on three continents over a decade. The reader can sense the author's evident love of the sea and of these boats. Gilbert provides a wealth of interesting detail on the character of the different styles of boats, their means of construction and maintenance, and the technological adjustments that occur over time to keep them sailing. His admiration for the inventive ways of the traders and sailors who made the whole business work is apparent (albeit with the caveat that one can be left wishing for even more of the feel of their struggles). The moments when Gilbert's own experiences enter in make for enjoyable illustrations of central points, such as his unfortunate first encounter with shark oil and dried shark. These are substances whose vile smell made Gilbert quite sympathetic to the colonial officer he cites as remarking that "until one has happened to find oneself close to leeward of a dhow laden with dried shark one has...