Migration history of Omanis to Zanzibar

Migration history of Omanis to Zanzibar

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Migration history of Omanis to Zanzibar

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Migration history of Omanis to Zanzibar

Table of Content

  1. Introduction
    1. Meaning of the name Zanzibar and interconnectedness with Oman
    1. Zanzibar’s constant contact with the rest of the world
  2. Zanzibar and Oman under Portugal
    1. Vasco da Gama arrival and 200 years of Portuguese rule
    1. Liberated by Omani Arabs
  3. Growth through trade
  4. Region became the headquarter of slave and ivory trade
  5. Clove plantations for global spice trade
  6. Omani Sultanate governs from Zanzibar
  7. Relationship with France, Britain, and America
  8. The Sultan balanced the interests of naval powers without hurting the interests of Zanzibar
  9. Even in decline, they worked closely with Britain to retain power
  10. Britain Influence
  11. Britain influenced the abolishment of slavery in 1876
  12. Zanzibar became a British protectorate and not a colony in 1896
  13. Sultan retained power until in 1964 revolution
  14. Conclusion
    1. History of Zanzibar and Oman is interconnected
    1. Interactions led to the emergence of the Swahili people and language

Migration history of Omanis to Zanzibar

The histories of the Island Zanzibar and Omani are interconnected. Even the meaning of the name Zanzibar comes from two Persian words, namely “Zangh,” meaning a Negro and “bar,” which means coast. The two regions have maintained contact for an extended period, and at one time, they were all under the colonial authority of Portugal. Later on, the Sultan of Oman governed the two areas from Muscat and Zanzibar. The leadership of Omani chose Zanzibar as their home because it was a critical station for traders operating between the African Great Lakes region and the Arabian Peninsula. Also, it was a defensible and protective harbor. Initially, it was a transit base for the Omanis, Yemenis, and other traders on the Indian Ocean. It later became a source of business goods, such as slaves, cloves, elephant tusks, and other items from the hinterland. Thus, Zanzibar and Oman are interconnected through a collective history, colonization, sharing Oman leadership and trade with naval powers of the 19th century, such as France and Britain.

Zanzibar and the rest of East Africa have had constant contact with the rest of the world. Historical documents on the region, such as the Geography by the Greek scholar Ptolemy, indicate the presence of regular commercial interaction with outsiders (Bennet 2016, 15). By the 16th century, Arab and Persian Gulf visitors always visited the East African coast for commerce, but some of them had no interest in interacting with the local communities. However, some Arabs freely intermarried with the Bantu communities in the region, which led to the emergence of Swahili people and language (Prins 2017, 20). Thus, the constant interactions with the rest of the world created a unique culture for the region and an everlasting relationship with Oman.

Zanzibar and Oman under Portugal

The arrival of Vasco Da Gama on the East Coast of African in 1498 signaled a change in the dynamics of the region. Portugal conquered all the coastal towns and demanded tributes to the king of Portugal, and they remained in charge for almost 200 years. Thus, the arrival of the Portuguese disrupted the interactions between the Arabs and the coastal cities of East Africa temporarily. In 1507, Portugal seized Omani’s capital city of Muscat from the rulers, and together with their other possessions in East Africa, made it into colonies. In 1650, Sultan Bin Saif of the Yarubi dynasty repossessed Muscat from the hands of the Portuguese. After that, he waged a consisted war against Portugal and their supporters on the East African coast. In 1652, it supported the people of Pemba in an expedition against the Portuguese in Zanzibar, but they were defeated (Bhacker 2002, 22). Although the region was quiet for a while, the Omanis successfully dislodged the Portuguese from the area after holding a successful siege at Fort Jesus in Mombasa from 1696 to 1698. Consequently, the Omanis returned to the helm in Zanzibar.

The Omanis were reluctant to administer Zanzibar and the rest of East Africa because there was political instability in Muscat. Therefore, they only managed to maintain a garrison in Zanzibar to protect it from external attacks. Zanzibar was administered from Muscat from the day the Omanis expelled the Portuguese from the region and throughout the remaining reign of the Yarubi dynasty (1624-1741). The Busaidi dynasty that took over in Muscat maintained the system. However, lack of a strong political presence in Zanzibar and by extension, East Africa did not stop commerce between Arabs and citizens of the region.

Growth through trade

Zanzibar became a wealthy and influential city during the 19th century under the leadership of Seyyid Said (Sayyid Said Bin Sultan Al Bu Said), who gained power in Muscat in 1806. During his reign, the Arabs of Omani descent established garrisons to guarantee the safety of Kilwa, Pemba, and Zanzibar (Ingrams 2012, 22). The Sultanate of Oman developed the economy of the coastal zone through trade and plantation farming. The governance of the region was predominantly in the hands of the Arab elites, governing a predominantly Bantu population. The business on the Island comprised three main products: Ivory tusks, slaves, and spices. These products, supported by the plantation in the area, made the port city one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the coast of East Africa (Ingrams 2012, 23). Therefore, Zanzibar became wealthy through trade and the plantation farming of spices.

In 1840, Said Bin Sultan transferred the headquarters of the Omani rule from Muscat to Zanzibar. He had visited the area in 1828 and was impressed by the city and its potential as a source of raw materials for trade. Sayyid Said Bin Sultan Al Bu Said encouraged the Arab elite to grow as large plantations and maximize the slave labor. He also encouraged traders from the Indian subcontinent to settle on the Island and participate in the plantation trade. Said also developed a working relationship between the coastal region and the hinterland to acquire as much ivory tusks as possible for the international market (Bennett 2016, 16). Thus, Sayyid Said Bin Sultan Al Bu Said became the first Sultan of Zanzibar, governing the imperial region under his command from the area.

Relationship with France, Britain, and America

The Omani-controlled Zanzibar was the conduit for the lucrative trade for raw materials and other goods from the section of the East Africa region. According to Gilbert (2011, 9), the Swahili coast was the place where the Persian, the Arab, and the East Asian merchant and settlers traded. They also interacted in matters of culture and religion. The people who made Zanzibar stand out in the 19th century were non-national and non-religious. A geographic identity did not identify these people, but on the participation in a system with rules, customs, and etiquette.

Throughout, Said bin Sultan had to navigate a delicate balance between powerful forces that had commercial interests in the Indian Ocean. After overcoming the Portuguese, he had to deal with the United States as it sought to emerge from the shadows of the United Kingdom, Britain, and France as they struggled for naval supremacy. The Sultan made agreements with these countries to facilitate their trade with Muscat and Zanzibar, without hurting the interests of the regions under his command (Gilbert 2011, 15). As a result, the Sultan maintained a working relationship with the British while at the same time working with the French. It made it possible for him to retain power in East Africa and Muscat after it began to decline towards the end of the 19th century.

British Influence

Of all the economic activities in the Island of Zanzibar and its environs, slavery was the most profitable. The majority of the black people living on the Island were slaves from the interior of the East African coast or their descendants. The majority of the slaves were workers in the clove plantations. The harsh working conditions led to the death of many of them every year, forcing their owners to purchase more from the interior. Thus, there was a regular market for slaves in Zanzibar for the domestic and external markets. Most visitors to Zanzibar wrote about the cruelty of the slave owners. As a result, Britain frequently engaged with the Sultan encouraging him to outlaw slavery. The Sultan stopped it in 1876, but slavery was still legal until 1897. The cruelty of the slave and plantations owners developed a culture of hate that caused the 1964 revolution, in which thousands of Arabs and Indians were murdered (Bhacker 2002, 175). The 1964 revolution broke the culture of Arab ruling Zanzibar that they held for close to 200 years and left power to the majority.

In 1896, Britain gained control of the Island as a protectorate, with the Sultan in charge. However, the rest of the region was split between the colonial powers, such as Britain and Germany. Therefore, the Island was always governed by Sultans from the family of Said bin Sultan. The region was granted independence from Britain in 1963, with the Arab minority gaining control of parliament, which led to a revolution by Africans in 1964 (Bhacker 2002, 193). The changes led to the formation of the modern state of Zanzibar, which joined hands with the Republic of Tanganyika to form the Republic of Tanzania.


The histories of Zanzibar in Tanzania and Oman in the Arabic Peninsula interconnect in numerous ways. The East African region began to interact with the rest of the world through trade along the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar and other coastal towns were the outlets of slaves from the interior of East Africa and other goods such as ivory. Thus, before the Omani Sultanate became influential in the 19th century, its citizens were frequent visitors to East Africa for trade in slaves, ivory, and cloves. Oman Arabs gained the political power in Zanzibar after defeating Portugal in 1698, which was a significant naval power by that time. After that, the Sultan of Oman became the automatic leader in Zanzibar and Oman. With the help of the Sultan, Zanzibar maintained its position as a commercial center in the East Africa region. It became famous for its spices and trade in slaves. It increased its influence by working together with dominant naval powers of the 19th century, such as Britain and France. Thus, the Arabs of Omani have interacted with the Zanzibar for more than the 200 years they governed the Island and influenced its culture significantly.


Bhacker, M. R. (2002). Trade and Empire in Muscat and Zanzibar: The Roots of British domination. New York, NY: Routledge.  Bennett, N. R. (2016). A history of the Arab state of Zanzibar. New York, NY: Routledge. Ingrams, W. H. (2012). Zanzibar: its history and its people. Abingdon, Oxon: Franc Cass and Company Ltd. 

Gilbert, W. J. (2011). Our Man in Zanzibar: Richard Waters, American Consul (1837-1845).

Prins, A. H. J. (2017). The Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African coast (Arabs, Shirazi, and Swahili): East Central Africa Part XII. Routledge.


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