The context

Stone Town Café in the old city of Zanzibar is located in the middle of the most stunning buildings with gorgeous lacy balconies made of Indian teakwood and carved wooden doors. It occupies an urban space dotted by narrow blinding alleys with elevated walkways—the baraza—where an ethnic mix of people sit and socialize. The Café was my home for several weeks in September 2018 as I wallowed in the Zanzibar National Archive tracking the Arab Omani Sultans who had shifted base to this East African island in the 1840s. This was the period when the Sultans made careers entangled with imperial powers—Britain, France, and Germany, in particular—that competed with each other for the lucrative trade in slaves and ivory. The Sultans leaned also on the Indian merchants for capital to finance both their commerce as well as the clove plantation economy.

The long breakfasts at the café porch offered far more historical insights into the island’s Omani past than the dusty files at the archive. I was struck by the continuous melody of Koran recitations from the madrasas around the Café, the busloads of Swahili children in their abayas and hijabs rushing to school, and the sound of the Islamic salutation, as-salam alai kum, streaming from the classrooms. This spurt of Islamic culture was even more intriguing when juxtaposed against the urban ‘“modernity” of Zanzibar: its palaces with European style portraiture of the Sultans, the imposing Western style clock tower, a very British majestic post office, an eye catching Indian merchant house that is now the very busy local hospital, and a music academy.

I was told that these iconic symbols alongside a now defunct railway line, the telegraph station, and the old powerhouses reflect the cosmopolitan, “modernizing” agenda of the island’s nineteenth-century Omani Arab rulers. And yet, the acknowledgment of this Arab past in the making of the island’s “cosmopolitan modernity” notwithstanding, the racial wedge and the distrust between the Arabs and the Swahilis was palpable even in the Café.

How do we historically make sense of this very exceptional cosmopolitan modernity? Who was its architect? Did the Sultans put it together in specific temporal and spatial contingencies as an act of translation as they balanced the island’s politics with imperial interests? What was the local, regional, and global canvas on which it mapped itself? When and how did the cosmopolitan modernity begin to tear apart?

The argument

This essay views the Muslim cosmopolitan modernity as being produced in the process of Zanzibar’s Sultan Syed Bargash (1871-1889), carving for himself a distinct political sovereignty. His sovereignty derived in significant ways from the multiple contexts he accessed as he moved around the British and Ottoman cities to protect his interestsin the face ofEuropean imperial rivalries to control the Western Indian Ocean. Indeed, the European intrusions, with an eye on the lucrative slave trade, also made it imperative for him to dig his heels deep into local society: connect to the Ibadi Muslim religious tradition and tighten his hold over the slave driven economy of the island. This essay disaggregates his sovereignty, tracks his mobility, and analyzes his negotiations with imperial powers in varied circumstances, to offer a complex understanding of the island’s modernity that was produced as an act of his purposeful translation. Iza Hussin, in her analysis of the Sultan of Johor offers a helpful comparison. Her sophisticated protagonist marshals a repertoire of legal and intellectual referents in multiple contexts to fashion his sovereignty.

Jeremy Prestholdt views the “modernity” and “cosmopolitan” bend of the Sultans in their “domesticating” of European material objects, like the American clock, British handkerchiefs, and the Indian umbrella, to local requirements. However, the unpacking of Bargash’s sovereignty reveals that its making was far more complex than mere “domestication of things imported.” It was produced as an act of translation in which he balanced Zanzibar politics with imperial interests by borrowing and interpreting a range of referents in multiple contexts. His interpretations of slavery and religion, in particular, were key to making him visible on the global canvas that was crowded by imperial powers. And his use of borrowed technology, like the printing press, to disseminate Ibadi Islam reflected the centrality of religion in his modernity project.

This modernity was “old” in the sense that it had the Islamic reformist and legal culture at its core, and a slave driven economy to boot. But it was also “new” as it experimented with ideas of urban development and public works, and depended on print technology that he picked up from Bombay and Damascus. Bargash saw no contradiction between his modernizing agenda characterized by Bombay style buildings, railways, water works, telegraph stations, and power houses, and his dependence on slavery, and the promotion of Islamic reform and culture in sync with similar trends in the Ottoman cities that he visited. Indeed, the printing presses brought from Bombay were put to use to circulate his religious ideas.

Mobility, borrowings, and the making of sovereignty

Bargash became the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1871 soon after the death of his brother Syed Majid. In the beginning of Bargash’s reign he came under the influence of the ulema of the Ibadi sect, the mutawwin, who had a base in the tribal interiors of Oman where they had established their Imamate. They had a very narrow exclusionist view of Islam. But his vision widened as he traveled to the British and Ottoman cities to balance his politics with imperial interests. He visited the Muslim reformist hubs of Ottoman controlled Mecca, Cairo, Syria, Jerusalem, and Palestine. He was deeply influenced by their intellectual and material cultures. He picked up their idea of establishing a consensus of rituals, beliefs, and forms of devotion to unify Muslims across sects to deal with the Western political challenge.

Back home in Zanzibar these influences were put to local use to firm his sovereignty. They were evident in his remarkably liberal interpretation of Ibadi Islam when compared to his personal dedication to its exclusivist tenets. He was welcoming of many religious scholars of the Shafi’i sect from Arabia and of the Hadhramaut Alawiya Sufi order whom he tried to politically embrace. Predictably, and as Anne Bang has shown, they were not allowed to step out of his political ambit and influence fellow Ibadis to convert to their faith. While in Zanzibar he kept his links with Ottoman cities intact. He facilitated easy pilgrimage and travel for his subjects to these Islamicate centers, where they could interact with Muslims from other empires. And he kept a foothold in the Islamic heartland of Mecca by getting his companion, Syed Hamud, to establish a rabat (guest house) in Mecca for fellow Ibadis.

Bargash stabilized his sovereign status drawing from multiple contexts as he traveled around a world that was still very imperial. If the Ibadi religious orientation and the reformist thinking of Ottoman cities made him project himself as a “just” Sultan who was tolerant of sectarian plurality, his stint in Bombay attracted him to the benefits of being viewed also as the “modernizing” Sultan. He was exiled to Bombay very early in his career during the succession struggle with his rival brother, Syed Majid. It was here that he was exposed to English material and political culture. His architectural hallmark—the Bait al Ajaib, or the House of Wonders—reflects British Indian influences, as do his infrastructure projects like roads, water works, and the railway line. He brought the printing press and printers to Zanzibar on his return from Bombay. However, he had his own special usage for this modern technology. He undertook the printing of the Kitab Qamus al Sharia on Ibadi theology and law by the Omani scholar Jumayyil b. Khamis b. Lafi al Sa’di. The printers from Bombay and Damascus that he brought to Zanzibar helped him consolidate his religious constituency even as he opened the doors to other sects to settle on the island.

But most importantly, he learnt from the British the art of negotiation and diplomacy that he used during the abolition debate with Sir Bartle Frere, the British negotiator. He opposed the 1873 slave treaty that banned the export of slaves from the island, and warned Frere of an insurrection like the one that had “happened to the Americans.” Indeed, his participation in the slavery discussion reflects the perfect case of translation where he used this emotive issue to articulate what the slave, his labor, and his trade meant to him and his people. Indeed his understanding of slavery heeled his sovereign status locally even as it launched him in the imperial club as an active, if not equal, investor.

The year 1873 marked the conjunctional moment when the British Abolition campaign was at its peak and the island’s clove plantations, run on slave labor, were devastated by a hurricane. This exceptional coincidence made Bargash assert his sovereign status to defend slavery, which was critical to resurrect his economy. It gave him the perfect opportunity to participate in the ongoing global discussions on abolition where he registered his presence by underlining the significance of slavery to him and his people. Indeed his defense of the island’s slave driven economy underpinned his political sovereignty.

In his discussions with Frere he put forward a sophisticated argument based on the exceptional character of Zanzibar’s political culture and economy to justify slave labor on the island even as he pledged his support for the ban on slave export. He drew a sharp contrast between the Western and the Zanzibar political economy and justified the use of slave labor, arguing that it was the lifeline of the island’s clove plantations. He argued that slave labor was integral to his political economy as, unlike the European entrepreneurs, no individual on his island was wealthy enough to set up sugar presses, earn money, and pay wages to labor. He said that he was opposed to the treaty because the end of slave labor would trigger an insurrection in the ranks of agriculturists whose lands would perish if slaves were withdrawn.

The treaty was passed by the British despite his reservations. But his participation in the discussion on slavery projected him instantly as a sovereign in his own right on the world stage. He became visible as an important figure in this wider canvas, crowded by imperial powers, as he articulated his views on what slavery meant on the island. He worked around the treaty provisions in his self-interest, emboldened with this boost to his status. He maintained a fine balance of continuing with slave labor in his territory and turning a blind eye to slave trafficking, even as on paper he pledged support to the British efforts to ban slave exports.

Bargash the Omani bridgehead?

Bargash’s interesting career makes the cosmopolitan modernity of the island as viewed from the Stone Town Café less intriguing. By the end of the nineteenth century he was very much the Omani bridgehead who brought together African slavery, Islam, and imperial politics to consolidate his rule and define his sovereignty. This sovereignty that derived from multiple contexts lent a very specific modernity to the island, one that was dependent on slavery, was religiously heeled, and was imperially entangled.

The Afro-Arab racial tensions that run through contemporary Zanzibar are a reminder that Bargash in his balancing act between the local predicaments and the imperial compulsions clearly lost out on something important. He is remembered in contemporary Zanzibar, now an autonomous island in the Republic of Tanzania, as a modernizing Sultan, but his name also ignites the old wounds of slavery. The most recent outrage over the crumbling of a part of his palace—the Bait al Ajaib—allegedly due to official neglect is a reminder of how bridgeheads like him are remembered on the island at a time when slavery is being rehabilitated in the history of its erstwhile rulers—Oman. His acts of translation have left an indelible imprint on the urban landscape of the island. The most lingering of these remain his enduring legacy in the formation of Afro-Arab racial tensions.