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April 21, 2017




By Arye Oded

RIMA Historical Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 2 (April 2017)

Historical Background

It is worth touching upon several historical events, however briefly, as a background to the Omani Arab involvement in Zanzibar and East Africa:

  1. Arab traders from Arabia reached the East African coast several hundred years before the advent of Islam.  There is an ancient source dealing with Arab trade on the East African coast, written by an anonymous Greek merchant around the first century A.D.  It is a kind of guide for sailors and is called The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Periplus means “sailing around”;  Erythraean Sea referred, at that time to the sea of the Indian Ocean and the coast of East Africa).  (1)  The author describes the trading stations along the coast of East Africa and how Arab traders from the Arabian peninsula used to arrive with their dhows to trade with the local Africans.  The Arabs learned the local Bantu language and intermarried with the local women.  Thus the Swahili community came into being.  The Arab traders on the coast adopted Islam immediately after its appearance in the 7th century A.D. After the 9th century, there were a few Muslim historians and geographers who reported that several Muslim settlements existed on the coast of East Africa, which  they called Bilad al-Zanj (zanj means “black people”).
  1. From the 13th to 16th centuries, the Muslim trading settlements along the coast (sahil) flourished, reaching the peak of their economic and religious development. They became an integral part of the Islamic world and of Muslim trade in the Middle and Far East.  In 1331 A.D., the Arab historian Ibn Batuta visited the East African coast.  In his account, he praised the Muslims for their devotion to their religion.  He emphasized that their trade in ivory, gold and slaves brought economic prosperity to the coastal towns, at that time numbering about forty. (2)
  2. The Portuguese conquest of the coast of East Africa in the 16th century, which lasted about two hundred years, put an end to the prosperity of the coastal towns and hampered the spread of Islam. (3)

Omani Sultanate Rule on the Coast

In the mid-17th century, the Omanis drove the Portuguese out of the country and its important port of Muscat.  This occurred during the Ya’rubi dynasty which came into power in 1624 and succeeded in uniting the country and turning it into a strong maritime power.  The old, close historical connections between Oman and the East African coastal towns (4) were among the reasons that led the Omanis to fight the Portuguese, in order to drive them from the coast.  The slave trade, in which the Omanis were involved, was another reason.

Omani ships started to sail along the East African coast again and captured important towns, such as Pate, Malindi, Zanzibar and Pemba.  Long and bloody battles were fought against the Portuguese on Mombasa Island, where the Portuguese had built Fort Jesus in 1593. The fort, surrounded by huge walls made of heavy stones and with cannons, was built to defend Portugal’s possessions along the coast.  Only after a three-year siege were the Omanis able to capture the fort and Mombasa.  This was in 1698, the year that symbolizes the end of Portuguese rule on the coast up to the river Rovuma in the south.  (From there is the border with Mozambique, where Portugal continued to rule until 1975.)

At the beginning, Oman ruled the coast indirectly and the old Swahili families, mentioned above, who were Sunni Muslims,  ruled there once again.  Only on the fortified Mombasa Island did the Omani Sultan nominate an Omani governor from the influential Mazrui (plural Mazari’a) family.

In 1744, Ahmad Abu Said overthrew the Ya’rubi dynasty in Oman and the Abusaidi Sultanate began.  The Mazari’a in Mombasa immediately seized the opportunity of the change to renounce the overlordship of the Busaidi Sultan of Oman. For about a century, the Mazari’a were a thorn in the flesh of the Busaidi Sultanate.

Ahmad Abu Said died in 1792 and was succeeded by his son, Sultan ibn Ahmad, who ruled until 1804.  He was succeeded by Sultan ibn Seif, from his family.

In 1806, one of Sultan ibn Ahmad’s sons murdered ibn Seif, who was his cousin, and declared himself Sultan of Oman.  His name was Sayyid Said ibn Sultan.  This was not an unusual way to gain power in Oman, owing to widespread family intrigues.

The Sultanate in the time of Sayyid Said

Right from the beginning of his rule, Sayyid Said understood the importance of obtaining the support and assistance of the British Empire.  Britain was the strongest power in the Indian Ocean and the rulers of Oman needed her help in their struggle against their neighbours, the Wahabis, and also against pirates who were attacking Omani ships.  From the British side, Oman was strategically located on Britain’s route to India and as early as 1798 Britain entered into a cooperation treaty with Oman.  (5)  The British also considered Sayyid Said very able, wise, enterprising and farsighted, a man on whom they could rely.  This mutual appreciation proved very beneficial to both sides later on.

One of the problems that Sayyid Said had to face in his relations with the British was the slave trade, in which his ships were involved. At the beginning of the 19th century, Britain intensified her activities against the rapid expansion of the slave trade along the East African coast.  In 1822, Britain dispatched a naval officer, Captain Moresby, to conclude a treaty with Sayyid Said, in which he agreed to stop the trading of slaves between his subjects and the subjects of Christian countries.  Hence, the slave trade might still be carried on between Muslims.  With this, the treaty took into consideration the fact that abolishing slavery completely would probably cause a conflict between the Sultan and his Omani subjects, for whom the slaves working in their clove plantations and on the trade-caravans were the main source of income.  In return for Sayyid Said agreeing to sign the Moresby Treaty (6), Britain recognized the Sultan’s authority over most of the East African coast, from the Horn of Africa in the north to the Rovuma river in the south.

Backed by the British, Sayyid Said defeated the Mazari’a and conquered its Fort Jesus in 1837, after long wars and a siege.

In 1840, Sayyid said decided to move his capital from the arid soil of Oman and its endless intrigues to Zanzibar, a place with a better climate, fertile soil and a peaceful atmosphere.  Zanzibar also was in a strategic position, lying only a few miles from the East African coast, and could be developed as a main centre of trade.  Said nominated his eldest son, Thuwain, as the governor of Oman.

This transfer issued in a new era in the history of the Sultanate in Zanzibar and East Africa.

Sultan Sayyid’s Activities

  • In the political and commercial spheres. Said encouraged Britain, America, France, Germany, Italy and Austria to open consulates in Zanzibar.  In addition, commercial companies and businessmen from these countries and from India (benyans) received a friendly welcome from the Sultan.  They sold manufactured merchandise such as hardware, soap, beads and cloth.  One of the most popular items was the American white cotton cloth that became a form of currency in trade in the interior and was known as “Marikani.” The western merchants bought mainly ivory, cloves, copal, gum and skins.
  • Caravans and the slave trade. Sayyid Said developed trade with the interior of East Africa by encouraging the organization of large caravans that penetrated the mainland from the coast, paving new routes and building trade centres on the way.  The caravans, hundreds of people, included askaris (soldiers) carrying firearms, slaves to carry the goods and, on return, the heavy ivory as well as the Omani traders.  The traders usually received loans from the Indian businessmen (benyans) to buy the merchandise with which to pay the African tribal chiefs in return for slaves and ivory.  In general, the traders did not raid for slaves themselves and tried to negotiate peacefully with the African chiefs a price both for the slaves and for the hongo (Kiswahili – the transit dues for passing through territory).  The Sultan himself owned some of the caravans. Every year, the traders penetrated ever deeper into the interior in search of slaves and ivory, and eventually they reached Eastern Congo in the west and the kingdom of Buganda in the north. (7)

For hundreds of years Arabs, Swahilis and Portuguese had concentrated on the coast of East Africa.  Now, for the first time, during the reign of Sayyid Said, the hinterland was opened to foreigners. Explorers like John Speke and Henry Stanley and the Christian missionaries could use the same routes that the Omani traders had paved, to reach their destinations on the mainland. (8)

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that terrible damage, unimaginable suffering and severe depopulation were caused by the slave trade.

  • Development of cloves. In the agricultural field, Sultan Said developed the cultivation of cloves, for which the climate and soil of Zanzibar were suitable and which were in great demand.  This increased the income and wealth of Zanzibar.  For a long time, Zanzibar supplied about 80 percent of the world’s cloves.
  • Religious influence. The vast majority of the Omanis belonged to the Ibadiya (9)  The main interest of the Omani traders in the interior was profit and they did not try to propagate their religion among the Africans.  As long as foreigners on the mainland did not harm their commercial activities, they welcomed and helped them in their mission.  This is how they treated the European explorers and the Christian missionaries.  Sayyid Said and his successors even used to give letters of recommendation to these Europeans, in which they instructed their representatives in the trade centres to be kind to them and give them any help they needed.  Thus the missionaries could buy food and water in the Omani trade centres on their way to their destination and obtain advice on how to get there. In the archives of the London Missionary Society, this author found a manuscript written by an Anglican missionary, W. Hutley.(10) Hutley recounts that in one of the interior trade centres he was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality and willingness of the Omanis to help him.  They even admitted that they considered the Africans as “Gumu” (Kiswahili – “blockheads”) and not suitable for conversion to Islam.  It should be noted here that when, later on, in the wake of the traders, the Sunni-Swahili walimu (teachers) arrived from Comoro or the Hadramaut, the trade centres such as Tabora became the focus of Islamic diffusion.  This is why in Tanzania today, through which most of the trade routes passed, the percentage of Muslims is much higher than in Uganda or Kenya.

The death of Sultan Sayyid Said ibn Sultan in 1856 marked the end of an era.  In his time the influence of the Omani Sultanate reached its peak.  This was reflected in the Arabic proverb of the time: “When in Zanzibar people play the flute, the inhabitants of the Great Lakes dance.”

Before he died, Sayyid Said divided the Sultanate into two.  His son Sayyid Majid ibn Said became the Sultan of Zanzibar and the mainland of East Africa and his eldest son, Sayyid Thuwain ibn Said, was given the Sultanate of Oman.

The Sultanate of Zanzibar after Sayyid Said

After Sayyid’s death, ten more Sultans ruled Zanzibar and its dominions for another 107 years, until the coup of 1964. All of them were from the Busaidi dynasty (see appendix).  The following deals only with the general characteristics of this period:

  • A gradual deterioration of the Sultanate. One of the main reasons for this was the endless struggles and intrigues among the Busaidi family.  Thus, when Sayyid Majid was declared Sultan of Zanzibar, his brother Thuwain ibn Said claimed the rights to succeed his father both in Oman and Zanzibar.  In 1859, he organized a fleet of ships to invade Zanzibar and topple his brother.  It was a British squadron that intercepted and turned Thuwain’s fleet back to Oman.
  • Throughout this period (1856-1964), the British decided who would be the Busaidi successor to the throne and intervened in all the internal and external affairs of Zanzibar. For example, after the death of the fourth Sultan, Khalifa ibn Said, one of the Abusaidi family, Khalid, declared himself Sultan against the wishes of the British Representative.  When Khalid seized the palace, with hundreds of supporters, a British warship bombed the palace and dozens were killed.  Khalid himself escaped and found refuge in German East Africa and the British appointed a new Busaidi successor.  In 1890, Zanzibar and Pemba were declared a British Protectorate.
  • The deterioration of the Sultanate was also reflected in the gradual loss of its dominions. According to the Anglo-German agreement of 1886, the Sultan’s effective authority was limited to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba and to a coastal strip ten-miles wide from the Horn of Africa in the north to the Rovuma river in the south.  Within this area the Sultan nominated the Liwalis (Governors), Mudirs (district officers) and the Kadhis (religious judges).  Most of them were Omani Arabs.  In 1895, an important treaty was signed between the British and the Sultan dealing with all the Sultanate’s possessions on the mainland and the coastal strip, exclusive of Zanzibar and Pemba.  According to the treaty, the administration of these areas would be entrusted to British officers who would have full powers of executive and judicial administration and control of public lands.  In return, Britain would pay the Sultan’s government an annual sum of money.  Another clause stipulated that the treaty “shall not affect the sovereignty of the Sultan in the above-mentioned territories” (11).

Nonetheless, eventually all the Omani Sultanate’s possessions on the mainland and coastal strip became part of Kenya when it got its independence from Britain on 12 December 1963.  The Sultan had to accept the termination of the 1895 treaty in return for monetary compensation.  Britain also promised that the religion, culture and way of life of the Sultan’s former Muslim subjects would be safeguarded. (12)

  • Another characteristic – the British continued to preserve the Omani Sultanate as a ceremonial institution without any real executive power. This policy persisted until the British left Zanzibar when it got its independence in 1964.
  • The influence of the slave-trade issue on Britain-Sultanate relations. From the beginning of the 19th century, the pressure of British public opinion on the government to abolish slavery in Zanzibar increased.  However, most of the British Representatives in the Omani Sultanate advised their government to adopt a practical rather than an ideological attitude to this issue.  They warned that, to abolish the slave trade at one swoop, might endanger the stability of the Sultanate because it would cause a conflict between the influential Omani owners of the clove plantations and the Sultan, owing to the heavy financial loss to Zanzibar.  This was because the export of slaves was one of the main sources of income for the government of Zanzibar.  Yet steps against slavery were taken gradually and, eventually, in 1897, the formal abolition of the legal status of slavery in Zanzibar and the sultan’s dominions was proclaimed without causing any political upheaval. (13)
  • The Omani Sultanate between the British and the Germans. This article does not deal with German rule in East Africa and the many rebellions against it. (14)  It will only touch upon some characteristic features of German-British relations and their impact on the Omani Sultanate.  In 1844, Carl Peters, chairman of the Society for German Colonization, arrived on the coast of East Africa.  He signed the first treaties with African tribal chiefs living on the coast opposite Zanzibar, without the permission of the Sultan.  According to these treaties, the German Society would administer the chiefs’ territories in return for some material benefits.  The Sultan protested to Germany and also to the British and American governments.  Britain, however, reacted by ordering her representative in Zanzibar to cooperate with the Germans in promoting their ambitions. (15)

It is worth noting here that, until the First World War, although there were some misunderstandings in East Africa between Britain and Germany, they both avoided military confrontation.  Britain had problems with France in connection with safeguarding her route to the Indian Ocean and she was also busy with Egyptian affairs, so she wanted to retain the friendship of Germany.

In the Anglo-German agreement of 1886, the Sultan’s dominions in the hinterland were divided into British and German spheres of influence and the Sultan was limited to a narrow coastal strip, extending ten miles inland.

In 1888, when Chief Bushiri of Pangani headed a rebellion against the Germans, a British warship helped the Germans by blockading the coast to supplies of arms reaching the rebels, until the rebellion was suppressed.  In May 1889, the German government took over from Peters’ Society the responsibility for the administration of German East Africa, that became a German protectorate.

Another important agreement was signed between Britain and Germany, at the expense of the Sultanate, in 1890. Like the 1886 agreement, it was determined by the politics of Europe.  The relations between the two countries became closer because of their mutual fear that France was trying to push them out of some of their colonies.  France was still pressing for the British evacuation of Egypt. Among the articles of the 1890 agreement, Germany recognized the British protectorate over Zanzibar and accepted the extension of the line dividing the two “spheres of influence” westwards across Lake Victoria up to the border of the Congo Free State,  including Uganda within the British possessions.  In return, Britain ceded Heligoland to Germany and used her influence with the Sultan to turn Germany’s “sphere of influence” on the mainland into a German Protectorate.

Thus, yet again the cooperation between Britain and Germany further weakened the Omani Sultanate. Although German rule contributed to economic development, their rigid and sometimes ruthless administrative system alienated the majority of the African population.  This caused many rebellions.  The most devastating and widespread was the Maji Maji rebellion (1905-1907).

German rule in East Africa came to an end after the First World War and the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate over German East Africa, that was named Tanganyika.

  • The end of the Omani Sultanate in Zanzibar. From the 1950s onward, the British accelerated the process of integrating Africans in the administration of Zanzibar.  Their number in the Legislative and Executive Councils was gradually increased.  Two main political parties were formed:  The Zanzibar National Party (ZNP) that was led by the Omani Arabs, and the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) led by Africans. (16)  In the general elections of 1963, on the eve of independence, the ZNP won a majority after succeeding in forming a coalition with other smaller parties.  On 10th December 1963, Zanzibar received its independence with the Sultan as Head of State.  But, one month later, in January 1964, after the British had left, the ASP staged a bloody coup with the military assistance of Tanganyika (which had received its independence from Britain on 9th December 1961). (17)  The government was overthrown and hundreds of Omanis were killed.  Many others managed to escape to Oman.  The Sultan himself escaped with the help of some British officials who still remained in Zanzibar, and was taken to England. (17)  Three months’ later, in April 1964, a union was formed between Zanzibar and Tanganyika, which was called Tanzania.

So it was that the Omani Sultanate in Zanzibar, which had lasted 124 years (1840-1964) came to an ignominious end.


The Omani Sultans in Zanzibar

  1. Sayyid Said ibn Sultan: 1840-1856
  2. Sayyid Majid ibn Said ibn Sultan: 1856-1870
  3. Sayyid Barghash ibn Said : 1870-1888
  4. Sayyid Khalifa ibn Said : 1888-1890
  5. Sayyid Ali ibn Said : 1890-1893
  6. Sayyid Hamed ibn Thuwain : 1893-1896
  7. Sayyid Hamoud ibn Mohamed :1896-1902
  8. Sayyid Ali ibn Hamoud : 1902-1911
  9. Sayyid Khalifa ibn Haroub : 1911-1960
  10. Sayyid Abdulla ibn Khalifa : 1960-1963
  11. Sayyid Jamashid ibn Abdulla ibn Khalifa :1963-1964

From Ahmed al-Maamiry’s book, Omani Sultans in Zanzibar 


  1. Zoe Marsh, East Africa Through Contemporary Records, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1961), pp.3-6
  2. S.P.Freeman-Grenville (ed.), The East African Coast, Rex Collings (London, 1975), pp.27-32
  3. Justus Strandes, The Portuguese Period in East Africa, East African Literature Bureau (Nairobi, 1961)
  4. For Omani rule on Kilwa Island in the 9th century, see J.C.Wilkinson, “Oman and East Africa: New Light on Early Kilwan History from the Omani Sources” in the International Journal of African Historical Studies, 14, no.2 (1981), pp.272-305
  5. On Britain-Oman relations, see Kenneth Ingham, A History of East Africa, Frederick A.Praeger (New York, Washington,1967),pp.22-35
  6. For a detailed description of the Moresby Treaty, see R.Coupland, East Africa and its Invaders, The Clarendon Press (Oxford, 1938), pp.211-216
  7. For the caravan routes and the trade centres, see Arye Oded, Islam in Uganda:Islamization through a Centralized State in Pre-Colonial Africa, John Wiley & Sons (New York, Toronto and Israel Universities Press, Jerusalem, 1974), pp.24-36
  8. , pp.143-151
  9. The Ibadis, named after their founder, ibn Ibad, who lived in the 7th century A.D., are not Sunnis nor Shiites. They observe the Qur’an strictly and object to Sufi principles and customs.
  10. Hutley, Muhommedanism in Central Africa and its Influence. A report written in Urembo in August 1881, London Missionary Society Archives, File D2.4
  11. For the full text of the agreement, see A.I.Salim, Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Kenya’s Coast, East African Publishing House (Nairobi, 1973), p.247
  12. For the conflicts on the Coastal Strip between the Omani Arabs and the Swahilis, and for the groups that demanded the autonomy of the Coast within Kenya (in Swahili, Mwambao, which means the Coastal Strip), see the detailed description of Hyder Kindy, Life and politics in Mombasa, East African Publishing House (Nairobi, 1972). Kindy was a moderate Swahili leader who supported the integration of the Coast with Kenya
  13. Kenneth Ingham, A History of East Africa, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers (New York, Washington, 1967), pp.171-176
  14. Several books have been written about German rule in East Africa, among them: John Iliffe, Tanganyika under German Rule 1905-1912, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1969)
  15. Ingham, cit.,p.136
  16. For more than half a century, scholars have been discussing the question of “Who are the Shirazis?” Here is not the place to elaborate on this. Suffice to say that an ancient Muslim tradition, put into writing in the 16th century, tells the history of Kilwa, an old city and trading centre on the East African coast.  According to this source, a Shirazi dynasty of Sultans ruled there.  Scholars think that this occurred in the 10th  Their descendants are at present scattered among Zanzibar and the coast of East Africa, and they have mixed with the local African population.  See, for example, G.S.P.Freeman-Grenville, The Medieval History of the Coast of Tanganyika (London, 1962) and H.N.C. Chittic, “The Shirazi Colonization of East Africa,” Journal of African History, VI (1965)
  17. In 1980, the author interviewed A.Finezilber in Dar-es-Salaam about the Zanzibar coup. Finezilber was a businessman who had lived in Tanganyika for a long time and ran a crab-fishing company in Zanzibar, exporting crabs to the U.S.A.  He told me that, on the eve of the coup, Tanganyika President Nyerere, with whom he had friendly relations, borrowed his large fishing boat.  Later on, he came to know that his boat joined a flotilla of vessels that carried Tanganyikan soldiers to join the coup against the Omanis.  The military involvement of Nyerere is scarcely mentioned in the sources.  Even the Omani writer, in his book on Zanzibar’s coup, only just hinted that “the coup was imported into Zanzibar from outside.”  See Ahmad al-Maamiri, Omani Sultans in Zanzibar, Lahia Composing Agency (New Delhi, 1988)















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