A complicated, ambitious survey of the Zanzibar dynasty and the scourge of the Arab slave trade in Africa.
In this teeming cultural history, former New York Daily News travel writer Bird (A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan, 2004, etc.) focuses on two narrative threads: the Sultanate of Oman’s pursuit of the lucrative, slave-heavy clove trade in the 19th century, and the extraordinary life of Zanzibari ruler Seyyid Said bin Al Busaid’s daughter Salme, who left her harem home and eloped with a German businessman in 1866. Oman became an independent dynasty practicing a breakaway form of Islam that called for a return to its original values. Enriched by mercantile trading with the East, its port of Muscat thrived as a hub of the slave trade from Zanzibar and East Africa. The Arabs had been dealing in slaves 1,000 years before the European transatlantic trade, although the author argues that the Arab trade was much smaller—7,200 slaves transported per year until the number “jumped exponentially” by the mid-1700s—and more humane, due to the Koran’s more egalitarian tenets. The Sultanate of Oman managed to expel invasions by the Persians, Portuguese, Napoleon and the Wahhabi. Eventually Said settled permanently on the clove-rich island of Zanzibar, where his spirited, self-educated daughter Salme grew up in perfumed luxury. Bird is fascinated by the sparks and misunderstandings that flew from occasional East-West encounters, dwelling in particular on visits to Zanzibar by such 19th-century explorers as Richard Francis Burton, Henry Morton Stanley and anti-slave trade crusader David Livingstone. Consequently, there are many narratives that do not intersect, and each chapter could serve as a jumping-off point for a fascinating work of its own.
A compelling but scattered study that requires a patient, highly engaged reader.