from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Slavery, shells, Zanzibar and genocide

June 21. with thoughts of Juneteenth

East African guide to shells. 1950s. Single Cyprae moneta on the right

My mother and I had a special hobby in Zanzibar during the 8 years that I lived there: we collected cowries. My mother would select the days and times of the low spring tides and we would venture onto the exposed coral reefs in search of the cowries under the rocks. We tried to be conservative in our collecting. We left shells that were on eggs; only collected ones that we did not have and always turned the rocks back over so that the myriad creatures thereunder were protected. I learnt all the Latin names of these Indian Ocean cowries. When I was back in boarding school, my mother would write and tell me of her special finds. The rare tiny golden Cypraea globulus was one of these: it is found in coral clumps on the reef edge.

A drawer from my disorganised, well-travelled, shell collection

While in Zanzibar, my father had a shell cabinet made for us. I arranged the shells by size and name, mimicking some museum presentation. I still have that cabinet: for 60 odd years it has travelled with me, from Zanzibar to Durban to Sydney, to Melbourne and to Adelaide. The cabinet is not particularly beautiful and the shells no longer shine as once they did. Their scientific labels are in disarray: I plan to resort the shells during this lockdown.

One of the commonest shells on Zanzibar reefs was the money cowry, Cypraea moneta, a thumb-sized creamy-yellow shell with a slight hump. Nowadays, it has no specific value but this shell is famous, or maybe I should say, infamous.

I only discovered the fascinating background to the international trade in the money cowry when I met Marion Johnson in Windhoek, Namibia. It’s a long story, but the short version is that Marion and her colleague, Jan Hogendorn, became interested in the role of this specific cowry played in West Africa as the regular market currency. Their determined research led to them writing a book: The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. (African Studies Series 49. 1986). Marion said what had intrigued her first was her find of isolated cowries in the old middens of the Bushmen people of Namibia. How had these shells come there – thousands of kms from the coral reefs ringing the islands of the Maldives?

Money cowries on the book that tells of their trade

Cowries do not inhabit the reefs along Africa’s west coast. These beautiful china-like shells travelled from the Indian Ocean to West Africa with Arab traders through the Sahara long before the arrival of the Portuguese.

Then came the European rush to find a way around Africa to purchase the spices of the ‘Indies’. In the process, Portuguese sailors ‘discovered’ West Africa. The old wooden sailing ships needed ballast and one thing led to another. Starting in 1515 these ships were filling their hulls with vats of shells – money cowries. Traders had discovered the value placed on the money cowry in the lands soon called the ‘Gold’ or ‘Slave’ coast. They discovered how easy it was to trade a ‘head’ of cowries for the ‘head’ of a captive man or woman.

Due to the prevailing winds along the West African coast, the ships from the Maldives sailed via the western Atlantic Ocean to returned to Europe with their spice cargoes and ballast of shells. The shells were washed and cleaned – the word is ‘garbled’ and auctioned in great trading halls to the merchants on their way to deal in slaves. The volumes grew to a peak in the 1800s. The trading halls of Amsterdam (the VoC) and London became the centres of this business. The British soon gained ascendancy.

The numbers are staggering. From 1800 to 1825 the annual average of British cowry exports to West Africa was 123 tonnes or 271,163 lbs. Astounding! Almost all were used for purchasing slaves to ship to the West Indies. Bear in mind how little a single shell weighs!

wedding garment from Chad

As time went on, more and more shells were needed to buy a ‘head’. Inflation had set in, and it became inconvenient to manage such volumes. Other currencies began to be used: copper and gold. What happened to the vast quantities of shells in the community – now virtually valueless.? Many were simply buried in heaps, but some found their way into ornaments and clothing. If you examine West Africa tribal art you will often see money cowries incorporated into the fabric.

Zanzibar: the demand for ivory and the slave trade went hand in hand.

Let me turn to Zanzibar. The money cowry is found there as well as the similar ring cowry, Cypraea annulus. Merchants tried to export these shells to West Africa but the Zanzibari shells were unpopular as they were too big. The Maldives cowries had grown smaller over centuries due to dwarfism or the ‘island rule’. Smaller cowries weigh less and if you are carrying thousands around, that is an issue to consider.

But what the mainland of Africa close to Zanzibar did provide was slaves and copious ivory from the once extensive elephant herds. And so, Zanzibar has the infamous history of being the centre of the East African slave trade. The slave trade was finally outlawed in 1876 with an agreement between the British and the Sultan of Zanzibar – although owning a slave was not illegal until 1897.

When the slave market was closed, the Anglican Christian Mission was given the site by a local Hindu. A cathedral was built. Sultan Barghash donated the tower’s clock. There is more symbolism in that the cathedral’s altar is the reputed site of the slave whipping post and the wooden crucifix in the nave is made from the tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.

Nowadays, there is a statue outside the Cathedral, a memorial to those thousands of slaves that were traded through Zanzibar. You will be asked, when you arrive, to pay a few US dollars to a guide and he will explain the horrors of slavery. Such tourism is providing many jobs for locals. The stories have become a drawcard to add extra spice to one’s visit to Zanzibar. What the guides do not tell you is the involvement of the Americans in the East African Slave trade, nor the approx. 12.5 million Africans shipped from West Africa by the European slave trade.

A dedication to Livingstone inside the Anglican Cathedral, Zanzibar

When I lived in Zanzibar, before the 1964 revolution, we attended this Anglican Cathedral. I understood little of the symbolism surrounding me, nor did I realise how the dungeon-like basement floor of our old Arab house was once used. I should have used a little imagination: large iron rings remained there, imbedded in the coralline walls.

The question of slavery and culpability led, in part, to that 1964 revolution and genocide. The Zanzibari African party (ASP) narrowly lost the 1963 elections, organised by the British Colonial government, to the Zanzibari Arab party. It’s hard to designate one as ‘Arab’ and the other as ‘African’ as there was much intermarriage on the island and there were other ethnic groups and religions. However, the island people were 99% Muslim. Slavery had been one of the arguments the ASP had used during the campaign and they repeated horrific stories of abuse.

Nothing is simple in history, but when the revolution occurred, a month after independence, a deranged man called John Okello took charge. Using the radio, he incited mobs to attack Zanzibaris Arabs and anyone who got in the way. Thousands were killed and dumped in mass graves. And even now, 56 years after the revolution, historic slavery is used to explain, to justify, the overthrow of that legitimate government and the years of despotic rule that ensued.

Slavery is not forgotten with the passage of time. It was and is a blight on our world.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: the writing of letters and the answering of emails …

1956 On the way to boarding school in Tanganyika

April 23. I am a boarding school survivor, sent far away at the age of 8, my brother, Mike, with me. The school was Mbeya Primary School in the eponymous town in southern Tanganyika. The year was 1956. My father had taken a posting in Zanzibar as a political officer in the colonial administration. After a week of dormitory living with weeping at night; being called to strange meals by an African beating a drum and the realisation of the ‘wet takkie’ sanction for minor misdemeanours, I told my brother, ‘I’ve had enough, I want to go home.’ He explained to me that that was not how it worked.

In those days we had 3 term years. It was a long term for me. Every week we had to sit down and write a letter home. And every week, I received a letter from my mother.

This was the future for a few memorable years. To attend high school, Mike and I flew down to Natal, South Africa. It took a two-day flight by Dakota down the eastern coast of Africa and a train journey to get to school. And note that from the age of 12 and my brother aged 14, we were unaccompanied.

At boarding school I was the only child from East Africa, let alone Zanzibar, and was soon called a ‘zanzibar-barbarian’ because that is what kids do to strangers. But still the letters came and went. Every week my mother typed a duplicate letter to Mike and me. Every Monday for 5 years, the blue airmail envelope arrived bearing stamps with Sultan Seyyid Khalifa’s face and then Sutlan Abdullah’s. At rest period after lunch, these letters would take me home, a tangible and mental solace. Every Saturday we had letter-writing and I wrote to my parents about the happenings in my school life. I still have many of these letters, now a precious window into the past.

Forward to the present, 60 years on, and we have the miracle of emails. There are fundamental differences with emails: the way we write them; the way we read them; the way we reply. It’s fairly obvious that we do not take the same care over an email that we would with a hand-written or typed letter. There is just NOT that same kind of mental space. There is instead an imperative to be quick and to get it done – since there are so many to deal with. Parallel with emails, we now have phones that can access family and friends over the world without charge; we share personal time that way.

Since the lockdown, I have noticed that people are writing longer emails, more descriptive, more thoughtful. Some are calling these emails, ‘postcards’, delivered with photos and a promise to keep in touch with more extensive reflections during social distancing.

This brings us to another quirk with emails. You are expected to reply promptly. Whereas my letter home and my mother’s reply took a turnaround time of 2-3 weeks, I am able to reply to emails sent seconds ago. I feel that I should not leave days to reply or the sender might feel neglected. And what about the content? In my experience you told more of a story of your life, your situation, in letter writing. You were more reflective. Not quite so in emails.

And where do they go? I still have a swathe of letters from long ago, from my year living in the UK in 1971-1972 but as for emails? They disappear: left behind in old computers or not filed, not printed, not regarded as of any value.

the past is a forgotten country …

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: The Spice Rack

Today, April 7, I tidied the spice racks in my grocery cupboard. They were a mess: duplicates, dusty and out of date. I remember from Durban, where I lived for 23 years, we used to go down to the ‘Indian’ market where the spices were displayed in open bucket-topped piles: the golden turmeric; the burnt-orange paprika; the curls of hot chillies and a huge range of ready mixed curry powders from mild to heart-stompingly hot. No self-respecting cook of Indian food would keep spices as long as I do. They must be fresh. Mine are not fresh, but today they were sorted and some discarded. Order restored. Coming from Africa, we hate throwing things out: even old spices.

In 2017, we travelled on the Ombak Putih pinisi to the eastern Indonesian spice islands where the green cloves, nutmegs and mace are spread out in the sun to dry. The locals, in beach-side villages, receive little for their harvest. Poverty is everywhere, but they live in a paradise, as I did once.

The spice I love most is cloves. The rich smell of cloves pervaded the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. When we lived there, 80% of the world’s production came from these islands. Their smell takes me back to my childhood – a remembrance of things past – of riding my red bicycle through the winding streets of Stonetown where every little duka (shop) had something exotic for sale and the old mzee (man) would sit cross-legged on the baraza (concrete step lining the streets) and greet his friends.

And when the muezzin called the faithful to prayer, the mzee would lean his chair against the door frame and walk to the mosque. There was no need to lock up.

zanzibar street scene – 1963

I have been known to open the tops of clove spice bottles in supermarkets in foreign lands, just to reach that smell. It’s easy to describe: rich, fecund, mind-clearing, healing. I can breathe in and go back home.