Subscribe to Mambo Magazine
The stunning blue waters that lap Zanzibar’s white beaches are part of the Indian Ocean. They are there for today’s swimmers, divers, dolphin watchers and kite surfers and for those wonderful photographs that make everyone who has visited Zanzibar wish they were back there again.
For Zanzibaris, the sea supports fishing, boat building, tourism and seaweed production. Maybe in future oil and gas production will feature too – the Indian Ocean as a whole accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s offshore oil production.
More than that, the Indian Ocean made Zanzibar what it is. Land travel was hard and perilous until well into the twentieth century. Ships were the way to go. Seasonal trade winds blew sailing ships across from Africa and the Arabian Gulf to India and Indonesia and back again. Zanzibar - standing offshore, easily occupied and protected - made an ideal entrepot for East Africa’s exports – ivory, gold, and later slaves.
Greeks and Romans had sailed the Indian Ocean to South India and back. They and those following them in their wooden ships faced dangers. Many cargos were lost. When the Portuguese arrived on the Swahili coast in the 16th century, none of the local pilots wanted to help them run the trade routes east to India. But from small beginnings the Portuguese came to dominate the trade and destroy local competition. Their boats were stronger, partly because they used metal rivets which were considered unlucky by local boat builders, and their trading methods were more ruthless.
The Portuguese almost met the Chinese coming the other way. During the Ming era, China expanded its trade through the South China Sea and out into the Indian Ocean, following merchant routes to East Africa developed 200 years earlier under the Song dynasty. The Ming ships were large and heavily armed, with as many as four storeys. They contained luxury suites with toilets. There was even a supply of vegetables - grown on the boats - to keep travellers healthy on long voyages.
Two large Chinese fleets reached Africa’s East Coast in the early 1400s. Their commander, Admiral Zheng He, left his account of what the journeys were like. “We have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night continued their course as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.”
But after 1430 there was a dramatic change in policy at home, the boats were recalled, and it was to be well over 500 years before China became the important trading force in Zanzibar it is today.
Later, under its Omani rulers, large dhows sailed from Zanzibar across the Indian Ocean, north to the Arabian Gulf and east to India. In the 19th century boats brought the spice seedlings from Indonesia that started Zanzibar’s trademark production of cloves, cardamom and cumin. And during the period of British rule – ‘the rupee time’ – Zanzibar was administered from India, across the Indian Ocean. Arabian and Indian trade and peoples have helped form Zanzibar’s melting-pot culture.
Today, the wealth of countries surrounding the Indian Ocean – measured in trade and tourism - is growing. Cargo boats, oil tankers, cruise ships and airplanes criss-cross the ocean. Dhows now sail mostly close to shore.
The Indian Ocean is the world’s warmest ocean. Its gifts to Zanzibar visitors are sandy atolls covered in turquoise sea at low tide, coral reefs teeming with tropical fish, passing whales, sharks and dolphins, and big game fish like barracuda and marlin. When you relax on its shores, wave a hand to those ghost junks, galleons and dhows that made the journey the hard way.