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Reviewed by:
  • Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar, and: War of Words, War of Stones: racial thought and violence in colonial Zanzibar
  • Kjersti Larsen
William Cunningham Bissell, Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press (hb $70 – 9780253355430; pb $26 – 978 0 25322 255 8). 2011, 394 pp.
Jonathon Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones: racial thought and violence in colonial Zanzibar. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press (pb $30 – 978 0 25322 280 0). 2011, 414 pp.

Put together, these two books establish an original historiography of the Zanzibar islands and their capital city. Both are set within the period of British colonial [End Page 655] rule (1890–1963) and both are preoccupied with race and racial politics, although each in a different fashion. While Bissell focuses on the British and whether their notions of race and class left a clear impression on the organization of cultural, social and geographical space, Glassman investigates how race, as a Zanzibari category, has penetrated and shaped local politics. Bissell focuses on the earlier years of colonialism (1890–1940), Glassman concentrates on the later years and, in particular, on the ‘Times of Politics’ (1957–63). The authors privilege written sources and have carried out thorough and time-consuming archival work. Glassman even makes a methodological statement regarding historical research, claiming that while oral sources only communicate understandings of the past, written sources constitute ‘records’. Similarly, both books convey male-oriented discourses. Given the fact that they analyse significant political, social and cultural processes in a society where each of the various milieus – British, European, African, Arab or Indian – is in its own way sex-segregated and gendered, this might have given rise to further problematization. The authors seem to ignore the methodological limitations their use of source materials represents, considering that their arguments do not involve particular communities only, but ambition to access society and its values at large. The two analyses thus remain somewhat incomplete, acutely in need of complementary material that could only be provided through oral traditions and an ethnographic approach.

Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar explores the various British attempts to create a perfect city through what they perceived as scientific techniques and practices of urban planning. Bissell approaches planning as a social and cultural process and contextualizes this within the characteristic racial and moral notions of British colonial politics. By focusing on the socio-cultural production of space in Zanzibar city, Bissell argues that colonial spatial arrangements were shaped by fundamental and enduring contradictions and not, as often assumed, by coherence and consistency. The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters and a conclusion. The sequential chapters appear to follow a single argument: that the promise of colonialism to deliver progress and development across Africa resulted, in urban spaces like Zanzibar, in a continuous making and remaking of plans never implemented. The chapters are organized so as to show the development of different issues within the realm of urban planning that became more or less significant in successive historical periods.

From the outset Bissell states that urban Zanzibar has long been a cosmopolitan space, with a heterogeneous population drawn from widely diverse African, Arab and Indian backgrounds. Bissell, like Garth Myers before him, argues that heterogeneity in terms of what is here denoted as race and class characterized the city. We follow various plans through which the city was to be transformed and, according to a Eurocentric perception, modernized. The British conflation of race and space meant splitting the city in two: that is, segregation and separation. In ‘struggling to make sense of urban space’ the British sought to refashion the cultural and social landscape through geography. In their eagerness to engage in ‘clearing out and cleaning up the colonial city’, health policies understood as tropical medicine became a source of inspiration. An ‘interdisciplinary’ combination of sanitary practices and scientific administration became the motivation for urban planning. Notions of ‘development and the dilemmas of expertise’ thus found a common issue in human welfare – in particular, that of ‘the others’. The planning of urban space became almost an end in itself, resulting in a ‘legal confusion and bureaucratic chaos...


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pp. 655-659
Launched on MUSE
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