THE ISLAND OF ZANZIBAR, known for its spices and azure beaches, has been on the map of Indian, Persian and Arab sailors since first century CE. Zanzibar was a base for voyages between the Middle East, India and Africa. With its historic centre, Stone Town, Zanzibar is best described as an East African coastal trading town, influenced by an eclectic mix of disparate elements of African, Arab, Indian and European cultures. These have truly made it an Indo-Arab-African city that, while embracing the new, subtly mixed it with elements of the old. With its cobbled streets, chaotic traffic, an overhanging smell of spices and sights at every turn, this UNESCO heritage city has a soul of its own. Zanzibari doors are a typical example―decorated with knobs, each with their own style, whether Arab, African or Gujarati.
Originally inhabited by the Bantu speaking people, Zanzibar saw Swahili merchants starting operations as agents for traders from India and the Arab world from ninth century CE. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s visit in 1498 marked the arrival of European influence. Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese empire in 1503 and remained so for almost two centuries. The Portuguese presence was relatively limited, leaving administration in the hands of pre-existing local leaders and power structures. In 1698, Zanzibar came under the influence of the Sultanate of Oman. The sultans controlled a large portion of the Swahili coast known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam.
From 1886, European powers, especially Great Britain and Germany, started to move in. The control of Zanzibar passed into the hands of the British empire in 1890. This transfer was formalised by the 1890 Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany recognised the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba as a British protectorate, while Germany got the archipelago of Heligoland, situated in the North Sea. The protectorate was terminated by the United Kingdom in December 1963, making Zanzibar a constitutional monarchy within the commonwealth, under the sultan. Within a month came the Zanzibar Revolution that deposed the sultan. In April 1964, the republic merged with mainland Tanganyika, creating the United Republic of Tanzania, within which Zanzibar now remains an autonomous region.
Till the 19th century, Zanzibar was the last outpost of the known world before the vast ‘Terra Incognita’ of Africa started. It, therefore, continued to be the trading post for the riches of Africa–ivory, gold, and more infamously, slaves. The last permanent slave market of East Africa was in Zanzibar, until it was closed in 1873. At the centre of Stone Town stands a church, at the site of the biggest slave market of Zanzibar. The construction of the cathedral was, in fact, intended to mark the end of slavery. The altar is said to be at the exact place where the main “whipping post” of the market used to be. Outside the cathedral is an artwork: life-size statues of slaves bearing original chains―a reminder of the ignominious past.
Zanzibar is 99 per cent Islamic. Today, there are about 50 Hindu families living there, almost all from Gujarat. The island is home to three temples. The Ram temple established in 1959 is the main one. There is also the Arya Samaj temple established in 1906 and the Shree Kuttchi Swetamber Jain temple, which is said to be the first Jain temple outside India.
One of the main attractions of Zanzibar is the Freddie Mercury House. The parents of the British singer and songwriter―born Farrokh Bulsara in Stone Town in 1946―were Parsis from Bulsar (now Valsad) in Gujarat. The family had moved there for work; Zanzibar being a British protectorate, Farrokh was born a British Indian subject. When he was eight, Farrokh was sent to study at St. Peter’s School at Panchgani, Maharashtra. It was at St. Peter’s that he began to call himself “Freddie”. In February 1963, he returned to Zanzibar and the family fled to England after the revolution in 1964. In 1970, he formed the Rock band called “Queen” and the rest is history, with him delivering hits such as “We will Rock You”, and recording sales of over 300 million records.
The visit of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Zanzibar in July saw the signing of the MoU for setting up the first IIT outside India. It was signed in the presence of the president of Zanzibar and was welcomed by everyone. The nomination of Preeti Aghalayam, from IIT Madras, as the founding director of IIT Zanzibar also shattered a glass ceiling, as she would be the first ever female director of an IIT. Classes are likely to start by October, and the campus is expected to become the hub for higher education in critical streams of science, engineering and innovation, not just for Tanzania, but for the entire continent of Africa.
The institute, designed to be pan-African in nature, corresponds to the vision laid out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the Ugandan parliament in July 2018, where he outlined 10 principles for India’s engagement with Africa. “We will build as much local capacity and create as much local opportunities as possible,” said Modi. “We will harness India’s experience [to] extend education and health [and] spread digital literacy.” The National Education Policy 2020 facilitated the export of ‘Brand IIT’ outside India and it now offers the potential to extend Indian soft power across Africa, while providing the much-needed capacity building for African countries. Over 25,000 African students study in various universities across India, but this will be first time that an Indian institute will cater to the requirements of Africa on African soil itself, a strong reflection of India’s commitment to the Global South. The setting up of the IIT is truly an ode to the spirit of the sailors and traders who went across the Indian Ocean to trade and spread the warmth of Indian knowledge and culture in that part of the world.
The author is joint secretary, ministry of external affairs. Views are personal.