On the morning of the 6th January, 1871, we were sailing through the channel that separates the fruitful island of Zanzibar from Africa. The high lands of the continent loomed like a lengthening shadow in the grey of dawn. The island lay on our left, distant but a mile, coming out of its shroud of foggy folds bit by bit as the day advanced, until it finally rose clearly into view, as fair in appearance as the fairest of the gems of creation. It appeared low, but not flat; there were gentle elevations cropping hither and yon above the languid but graceful tops of the cocoa-trees that lined the margin of the island, and there were depressions visible at agreeable intervals, to indicate where a cool gloom might be found by those who sought relief from a hot sun. With the exception of the thin line of sand, over which the sap-green water rolled itself with a constant murmur and moan, the island seemed buried under one deep stratum of verdure.
The noble bosom of the strait bore several dhows speeding in and out of the bay of Zanzibar with bellying sails. Towards the south, above the sea line of the horizon, there appeared the naked masts of several large ships, and to the east of these a dense mass of white, flat-topped houses. This was Zanzibar, the capital of the island; — which soon resolved itself into a pretty large and compact city, with all the characteristics of Arab architecture. Above some of the largest houses lining the bay front of the city streamed the blood-red banner of the Sultan, Seyd Burghash, and the flags of the American, English, North German Confederation, and French Consulates. In the harbor were thirteen large ships, four Zanzibar men-of-war, one English man-of-war — the ‘Nymphe,’ two American, one French, one Portuguese, two English, and two German merchantmen, besides numerous dhows hailing from Johanna and Mayotte of the Comoro Islands, dhows from Muscat and Cutch — traders between India, the Persian Gulf, and Zanzibar.
It was with the spirit of true hospitality and courtesy that Capt. Francis R. Webb, United States Consul, (formerly of the United States Navy), received me. Had this gentleman not rendered me such needful service, I must have condescended to take board and lodging at a house known as “Charley’s,” called after the proprietor, a Frenchman, who has won considerable local notoriety for harboring penniless itinerants, and manifesting a kindly spirit always, though hidden under such a rugged front; or I should have been obliged to pitch my double-clothed American drill tent on the sandbeach of this tropical island, which was by no means a desirable thing.
But Capt. Webb’s opportune proposal to make his commodious and comfortable house my own; to enjoy myself, with the request that I would call for whatever I might require, obviated all unpleasant alternatives.
One day’s life at Zanzibar made me thoroughly conscious of my ignorance respecting African people and things in general. I imagined I had read Burton and Speke through, fairly well, and that consequently I had penetrated the meaning, the full importance and grandeur, of the work I was about to be engaged upon. But my estimates, for instance, based upon book information, were simply ridiculous, fanciful images of African attractions were soon dissipated, anticipated pleasures vanished, and all crude ideas began to resolve themselves into shape.
I strolled through the city. My general impressions are of crooked, narrow lanes, white-washed houses, mortar-plastered streets, in the clean quarter; — of seeing alcoves on each side, with deep recesses, with a fore-ground of red-turbaned Banyans, and a back-ground of flimsy cottons, prints, calicoes, domestics and what not; or of floors crowded with ivory tusks; or of dark corners with a pile of unginned and loose cotton; or of stores of crockery, nails, cheap Brummagem ware, tools, &c., in what I call the Banyan quarter; — of streets smelling very strong — in fact, exceedingly, malodorous, with steaming yellow and black bodies, and woolly heads, sitting at the doors of miserable huts, chatting, laughing, bargaining, scolding, with a compound smell of hides, tar, filth, and vegetable refuse, in the negro quarter; — of streets lined with tall, solid-looking houses, flat roofed, of great carved doors with large brass knockers, with baabs sitting cross-legged watching the dark entrance to their masters’ houses; of a shallow sea-inlet, with some dhows, canoes, boats, an odd steam-tub or two, leaning over on their sides in a sea of mud which the tide has just left behind it; of a place called “M’nazi-Moya,” “One Cocoa-tree,” whither Europeans wend on evenings with most languid steps, to inhale the sweet air that glides over the sea, while the day is dying and the red sun is sinking westward; of a few graves of dead sailors, who paid the forfeit of their lives upon arrival in this land; of a tall house wherein lives Dr. Tozer, “Missionary Bishop of Central Africa,” and his school of little Africans; and of many other things, which got together into such a tangle, that I had to go to sleep, lest I should never be able to separate the moving images, the Arab from the African; the African from the Banyan; the Banyan from the Hindi; the Hindi from the European, &c.
Zanzibar is the Bagdad, the Ispahan, the Stamboul, if you like, of East Africa. It is the great mart which invites the ivory traders from the African interior. To this market come the gum-copal, the hides, the orchilla weed, the timber, and the black slaves from Africa. Bagdad had great silk bazaars, Zanzibar has her ivory bazaars; Bagdad once traded in jewels, Zanzibar trades in gum-copal; Stamboul imported Circassian and Georgian slaves; Zanzibar imports black beauties from Uhiyow, Ugindo, Ugogo, Unyamwezi and Galla.
The same mode of commerce obtains here as in all Mohammedan countries — nay, the mode was in vogue long before Moses was born. The Arab never changes. He brought the custom of his forefathers with him when he came to live on this island. He is as much of an Arab here as at Muscat or Bagdad; wherever he goes to live he carries with him his harem, his religion, his long robe, his shirt, his slippers, and his dagger. If he penetrates Africa, not all the ridicule of the negroes can make him change his modes of life. Yet the land has not become Oriental; the Arab has not been able to change the atmosphere. The land is semi-African in aspect; the city is but semi-Arabian.
To a new-comer into Africa, the Muscat Arabs of Zanzibar are studies. There is a certain empressement about them which we must admire. They are mostly all travellers. There are but few of them who have not been in many dangerous positions, as they penetrated Central Africa in search of the precious ivory; and their various experiences have given their features a certain unmistakable air of-self-reliance, or of self-sufficiency; there is a calm, resolute, defiant, independent air about them, which wins unconsciously one’s respect. The stories that some of these men could tell, I have often thought, would fill many a book of thrilling adventures.
For the half-castes I have great contempt. They are neither black nor white, neither good nor bad, neither to be admired nor hated. They are all things, at all times; they are always fawning on the great Arabs, and always cruel to those unfortunates brought under their yoke. If I saw a miserable, half-starved negro, I was always sure to be told he belonged to a half-caste. Cringing and hypocritical, cowardly and debased, treacherous and mean, I have always found him. He seems to be for ever ready to fall down and worship a rich Arab, but is relentless to a poor black slave. When he swears most, you may be sure he lies most, and yet this is the breed which is multiplied most at Zanzibar.
The Banyan is a born trader, the beau-ideal of a sharp money-making man. Money flows to his pockets as naturally as water down a steep. No pang of conscience will prevent him from cheating his fellow man. He excels a Jew, and his only rival in a market is a Parsee; an Arab is a babe to him. It is worth money to see him labor with all his energy, soul and body, to get advantage by the smallest fraction of a coin over a native. Possibly the native has a tusk, and it may weigh a couple of frasilahs, but, though the scales indicate the weight, and the native declares solemnly that it must be more than two frasilahs, yet our Banyan will asseverate and vow that the native knows nothing whatever about it, and that the scales are wrong; he musters up courage to lift it — it is a mere song, not much more than a frasilah. “Come,” he will say, “close, man, take the money and go thy way. Art thou mad?” If the native hesitates, he will scream in a fury; he pushes him about, spurns the ivory with contemptuous indifference, — never was such ado about nothing; but though he tells the astounded native to be up and going, he never intends the ivory shall leave his shop.
The Banyans exercise, of all other classes, most influence on the trade of Central Africa. With the exception of a very few rich Arabs, almost all other traders are subject to the pains and penalties which usury imposes. A trader desirous to make a journey into the interior, whether for slaves or ivory, gum-copal, or orchilla weed, proposes to a Banyan to advance him $5,000, at 50, 60, or 70 per cent. interest. The Banyan is safe enough not to lose, whether the speculation the trader is engaged upon pays or not. An experienced trader seldom loses, or if he has been unfortunate, through no deed of his own, he does not lose credit; with the help of the Banyan, he is easily set on his feet again.
We will suppose, for the sake of illustrating how trade with the interior is managed, that the Arab conveys by his caravan $5,000’s worth of goods into the interior. At Unyanyembe the goods are worth $10,000; at Ujiji, they are worth $15,000: they have trebled in price. Five doti, or $7.50, will purchase a slave in the markets of Ujiji that will fetch in Zanzibar $30. Ordinary menslaves may be purchased for $6 which would sell for $25 on the coast. We will say he purchases slaves to the full extent of his means — after deducting $1,500 expenses of carriage to Ujiji and back — viz. $3,500, the slaves — 464 in number, at $7–50 per head — would realize $13,920 at Zanzibar! Again, let us illustrate trade in ivory. A merchant takes $5,000 to Ujiji, and after deducting $1,500 for expenses to Ujiji, and back to Zanzibar, has still remaining $3,500 in cloth and beads, with which he purchases ivory. At Ujiji ivory is bought at $20 the frasilah, or 35 lbs., by which he is enabled with $3,500 to collect 175 frasilahs, which, if good ivory, is worth about $60 per frasilah at Zanzibar. The merchant thus finds that he has realized $10,500 net profit! Arab traders have often done better than this, but they almost always have come back with an enormous margin of profit.
The next people to the Banyans in power in Zanzibar are the Mohammedan Hindis. Really it has been a debateable subject in my mind whether the Hindis are not as wickedly determined to cheat in trade as the Banyans. But, if I have conceded the palm to the latter, it has been done very reluctantly. This tribe of Indians can produce scores of unconscionable rascals where they can show but one honest merchant. One of the honestest among men, white or black, red or yellow, is a Mohammedan Hindi called Tarya Topan. Among the Europeans at Zanzibar, he has become a proverb for honesty, and strict business integrity. He is enormously wealthy, owns several ships and dhows, and is a prominent man in the councils of Seyd Burghash. Tarya has many children, two or three of whom are grown-up sons, whom he has reared up even as he is himself. But Tarya is but a representative of an exceedingly small minority.
The Arabs, the Banyans, and the Mohammedan Hindis, represent the higher and the middle classes. These classes own the estates, the ships, and the trade. To these classes bow the half-caste and the negro.
The next most important people who go to make up the mixed population of this island are the negroes. They consist of the aborigines, Wasawahili, Somalis, Comorines, Wanyamwezi, and a host of tribal representatives of Inner Africa.
To a white stranger about penetrating Africa, it is a most interesting walk through the negro quarters of the Wanyamwezi and the Wasawahili. For here he begins to learn the necessity of admitting that negroes are men, like himself, though of a different colour; that they have passions and prejudices, likes and dislikes, sympathies and antipathies, tastes and feelings, in common with all human nature. The sooner he perceives this fact, and adapts himself accordingly, the easier will be his journey among the several races of the interior. The more plastic his nature, the more prosperous will be his travels.
Though I had lived some time among the negroes of our Southern States, my education was Northern, and I had met in the United States black men whom I was proud to call friends. I was thus prepared to admit any black man, possessing the attributes of true manhood or any good qualities, to my friendship, even to a brotherhood with myself; and to respect him for such, as much as if he were of my own colour and race. Neither his colour, nor any peculiarities of physiognomy should debar him with me from any rights he could fairly claim as a man. “Have these men — these black savages from pagan Africa,” I asked myself, “the qualities which make man loveable among his fellows? Can these men — these barbarians — appreciate kindness or feel resentment like myself?” was my mental question as I travelled through their quarters and observed their actions. Need I say, that I was much comforted in observing that they were as ready to be influenced by passions, by loves and hates, as I was myself; that the keenest observation failed to detect any great difference between their nature and my own?
The negroes of the island probably number two-thirds of the entire population. They compose the working-class, whether enslaved or free. Those enslaved perform the work required on the plantations, the estates, and gardens of the landed proprietors, or perform the work of carriers, whether in the country or in the city. Outside the city they may be seen carrying huge loads on their heads, as happy as possible, not because they are kindly treated or that their work is light, but because it is their nature to be gay and light-hearted, because they, have conceived neither joys nor hopes which may not be gratified at will, nor cherished any ambition beyond their reach, and therefore have not been baffled in their hopes nor known disappointment.
Within the city, negro carriers may be heard at all hours, in couples, engaged in the transportation of clove-bags, boxes of merchandise, &c., from store to “godown” and from “go-down” to the beach, singing a kind of monotone chant for the encouragement of each other, and for the guiding of their pace as they shuffle through the streets with bare feet. You may recognise these men readily, before long, as old acquaintances, by the consistency with which they sing the tunes they have adopted. Several times during a day have I heard the same couple pass beneath the windows of the Consulate, delivering themselves of the same invariable tune and words. Some might possibly deem the songs foolish and silly, but they had a certain attraction for me, and I considered that they were as useful as anything else for the purposes they were intended.
The town of Zanzibar, situate on the south-western shore of the island, contains a population of nearly one hundred thousand inhabitants; that of the island altogether I would estimate at not more than two hundred thousand inhabitants, including all races.
The greatest number of foreign vessels trading with this port are American, principally from New York and Salem. After the American come the German, then come the French and English. They arrive loaded with American sheeting, brandy, gunpowder, muskets, beads, English cottons, brass-wire, china-ware, and other notions, and depart with ivory, gum-copal, cloves, hides, cowries, sesamum, pepper, and cocoa-nut oil.
The value of the exports from this port is estimated at $3,000,000, and the imports from all countries at $3,500,000.
The Europeans and Americans residing in the town of Zanzibar are either Government officials, independent merchants, or agents for a few great mercantile houses in Europe and America.
The climate of Zanzibar is not the most agreeable in the world. I have heard Americans and Europeans condemn it most heartily. I have also seen nearly one-half of the white colony laid up in one day from sickness. A noxious malaria is exhaled from the shallow inlet of Malagash, and the undrained filth, the garbage, offal, dead mollusks, dead pariah dogs, dead cats, all species of carrion, remains of men and beasts unburied, assist to make Zanzibar a most unhealthy city; and considering that it it ought to be most healthy, nature having pointed out to man the means, and having assisted him so far, it is most wonderful that the ruling prince does not obey the dictates of reason.
The bay of Zanzibar is in the form of a crescent, and on the south-western horn of it is built the city. On the east Zanzibar is bounded almost entirely by the Malagash Lagoon, an inlet of the sea. It penetrates to at least two hundred and fifty yards of the sea behind or south of Shangani Point. Were these two hundred and fifty yards cut through by a ten foot ditch, and the inlet deepened slightly, Zanzibar would become an island of itself, and what wonders would it not effect as to health and salubrity! I have never heard this suggestion made, but it struck me that the foreign consuls resident at Zanzibar might suggest this work to the Sultan, and so get the credit of having made it as healthy a place to live in as any near the equator. But apropos of this, I remember what Capt. Webb, the American Consul, told me on my first arrival, when I expressed to him my wonder at the apathy and inertness of men born with the indomitable energy which characterises Europeans and Americans, of men imbued with the progressive and stirring instincts of the white people, who yet allow themselves to dwindle into pallid phantoms of their kind, into hypochondriacal invalids, into hopeless believers in the deadliness of the climate, with hardly a trace of that daring and invincible spirit which rules the world.
“Oh,” said Capt. Webb, “it is all very well for you to talk about energy and all that kind of thing, but I assure you that a residence of four or five years on this island, among such people as are here, would make you feel that it was a hopeless task to resist the influence of the example by which the most energetic spirits are subdued, and to which they must submit in time, sooner or later. We were all terribly energetic when we first came here, and struggled bravely to make things go on as we were accustomed to have them at home, but we have found that we were knocking our heads against granite walls to no purpose whatever. These fellows — the Arabs, the Banyans, and the Hindis — you can’t make them go faster by ever so much scolding and praying, and in a very short time you see the folly of fighting against the unconquerable. Be patient, and don’t fret, that is my advice, or you won’t live long here.”
There were three or four intensely busy men, though, at Zanzibar, who were out at all hours of the day. I know one, an American; I fancy I hear the quick pit-pat of his feet on the pavement beneath the Consulate, his cheery voice ringing the salutation, “Yambo!” to every one he met; and he had lived at Zanzibar twelve years.
I know another, one of the sturdiest of Scotchmen, a most pleasant-mannered and unaffected man, sincere in whatever he did or said, who has lived at Zanzibar several years, subject to the infructuosities of the business he has been engaged in, as well as to the calor and ennui of the climate, who yet presents as formidable a front as ever to the apathetic native of Zanzibar. No man can charge Capt. H. C. Fraser, formerly of the Indian Navy, with being apathetic.
I might with ease give evidence of the industry of others, but they are all my friends, and they are all good. The American, English, German, and French residents have ever treated me with a courtesy and kindness I am not disposed to forget. Taken as a body, it would be hard to find a more generous or hospitable colony of white men in any part of the world.
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