Exotic and alluring Zanzibar, located just south of the equator off the coast of modern Tanzania, occupies a special place in both the imagination and in Africa’s long history. The two islands, Zanzibar itself (known as Unguja in Swahili) and Pemba, cover only 2,462 sq km, an area slightly smaller than the English county of Cornwall, but the “Spice Islands” have played an outsize role at the centre of regional trade routes, creating a unique blend of African and Arab cultures. Vestiges of Indian and European influences can also still be found.

Portugal was the first European power to explore Africa’s long eastern coastline, including Zanzibar, which was under Portuguese control for nearly 200 years from about 1503 to 1698. While they used Zanzibar as a trading base they never settled or established a colony, as they did in some of their other longer-held possessions, such as Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Portuguese Guinea and Saint Thomas & Prince. And of
course they were long gone from Zanzibar before paper money was first introduced in Africa. These five Portuguese colonies did issue paper money and were recently the subject of a detailed catalogue published by Spink and co-authored by Laurence Pope, Andrew Pattison and Parcidio Campos e Matos, entitled The Portuguese African Paper Money of Banco Nacional Ultramarino

Early History

 The earliest signs of human settlement in Zanzibar date back about 22,000 years but in recorded history the island seems to have become known to Assyrians, Egyptians, Hindus and Phoenicians, as well as Arabs, Persians, Chinese and Malays, not to mention Africans, from the 1st century AD onwards, all by virtue of seaborne trade and exploration. It is said that the first Chinese explorers reached the Gulf, and possibly the east African coast, as early as 97 AD. The earliest signs of Arab settlement date back to the 7th century, not only in Zanzibar but along the east African coast. From the 8th and 9th centuries onwards trade between east Africa and the Arab world increased, encouraged by the reliably seasonable trade winds – northeast winds from December to March and southeast winds from May to October. These winds enabled the classic Arab dhows to sail south to Zanzibar loaded with cotton cloth, dates and metal goods while on their return northwards they took ivory, copra, spices and – increasingly – African slaves from the mainland.

The Arab traders interacted mainly with Bantu-speaking merchants from both coastal Africa and the interior. Traders from Persia, India and Arabia arrived in Zanzibar and some began to settle year-round, not just while waiting for the trade winds to reverse direction. In the absence of safe harbours on the African coast Zanzibar became favoured as an entrepot centre for the region. Meanwhile, Muslim influence took root with the earliest mosque in Zanzibar believed to have been built in Kizimkazi in 1107 AD.

In the 10th century Hassan bin Ali, the Sultan of Shiraz (in present day Iran), moved his sons to East Africa with one settling in Zanzibar and another in Pemba. The Arabic name for the island was coined around this time – Zinj-el Bar (Land of the Blacks) while the inhabitants began to refer to themselves as Shirazis, whether of African, Arab or mixed descent (many Arabs had inter-married with local women). The Bantu language now known as Swahili was strongly influenced by Arabic expressions and loan words, indeed the name itself derives from the Arabic for “coast”.

It was also in the 10th century that Omani sultans first established a loose form of political control, to protect and expand these trade routes. Little changed until the early 15th century when the European Age of Discovery began. Portuguese explorers led the way as they ventured down the west coast of Africa. Soon, they rounded the Cape and headed up the east coast, searching for routes to India. Vasco da Gama visited the region, possibly including Zanzibar, in 1498 en route to India.


The Portuguese Era

 Other Portuguese explorers followed and in about 1503 Zanzibar was made part of the Portuguese Empire after Captain Captain Ruy Lourenço Ravasco Marques landed and demanded tribute from the Mwinyi Mkuu (the Great Lord or spiritual leader). A governorgeneral was appointed to administer the territory while leaving the local Muslim Arab and African elites in place. The Portuguese went on to conquer not only Mombasa (then by far the largest urban centre in east Africa) but also the Arabian sultanates of Muscat and Oman.

The Portuguese continued developing their trading activities until around 1650 when an uprising saw them ejected from Muscat and Oman. This led to the Sultan of Oman gradually asserting regional dominance, culminating in the ejection of the Portuguese from Zanzibar in 1698. According to the first English explorers to land on Zanzibar in 1591, the Portuguese occupation did not extend beyond a trading base. It appears that day to day control of Zanzibar and nearby islands remained with the Mwinyi Mkuu and other local sultans.

The Portuguese did, however, establish a fort on Pemba Island in about 1635. They belatedly began to assert more control through their governor but their trading activities never reached a scale that would have justified building a feitoria, or fortified trading centre, as they had regularly done elsewhere in their empire.


Omani Sultans Dominate

 In 1698 the Sultan of Oman was invited by local leaders to take control of Zanzibar and oust the Portuguese. The motivation was simply trade – the Portuguese had grabbed too much of what was once the preserve of Swahili and Arab traders. To consolidate his power the Sultan immediately started the construction of the Old Fort in what became Stone Town, the centre of the city of Zanzibar. By 1701 it was complete and still stands today, symbolically containing the ruins of an earlier Portuguese church within its walls. 

The islands were to remain under Omani control for nearly 200 years although European influence began to grow in the early 19th century. In 1784 there had been a brief revolt by local Shirazis against their Omani overlords but dominance was soon reasserted. In 1832 the Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said ibn Sultan alBusaidi (1791-1856) made Zanzibar, by then the most prosperous part of his dominions, his capital and main place of residence. He built several palaces and harems and improved Zanzibar’s economy, consolidating its position as the principal trading centre in east Africa and the western Indian Ocean. This heralded a golden age of Arab power in the region and the sultan’s authority extended well into the interior of Africa until European powers such as Britain and Germany founded their colonies in Tanganyika and Kenya.

In 1828 the Sultan brought the first clove seedlings from Mauritius (the tree originated in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) and ordered Arab and Swahili landowners to use them to replace coconut palms. Cloves quickly became the main cash crop, almost all of which was exported first to Europe and later India. By 1900 Zanzibar dominated world supply with over 80% of the market. Measured in frasilas (1 frasila = 35lbs) cloves production reached 799,000 frasilas in 1911-12 and peaked in the 1920s. Cloves remain a key product even today, though the industry is much diminished.


Growing European Influence 

As the 19th century progressed, European influence became felt in two ways – through various European nations muscling in on local trade and through pressure from those same nations, especially Britain, to abolish the slave trade.

This pressure was first seen in 1822 when the British consul in Muscat put pressure on Said ibn Sultan to sign the first of a series of antislavery treaties with Britain. This prohibited the transport of slaves to southern Africa and eastwards to India. To make up for the loss of revenue the Sultan turned to developing the slave trade in Zanzibar itself though he remained under pressure to abolish slavery altogether.

This did not stop Britain and Zanzibar concluding their first commercial treaty in 1839 and the opening in 1841 of the British Consulate. France, Germany and America followed. In 1842 Britain announced that it wished to abolish the slave trade to Arabia, Oman, Persia and the Red Sea region, and would use the Royal Navy to enforce this. Unfortunately, the four gunboats they deployed were not enough as ships from France, Spain, Portugal, and America continued to transport slaves. Zanzibar was at this time the largest slave trading centre in east Africa trading between 20,000 and 40,000 African slaves a year to Arab, European and American buyers. In addition, well over 100,000 African slaves worked on the mainly Arab-owned plantations on Zanzibar.

Thanks to the increasing power of the British Empire, trading links to India intensified and in 1856 the Indian silver rupee was introduced and made the official currency. The rupee joined the traditionally popular silver Maria Theresa thalers and Spanish milled dollars in circulation. When Sultan Said died in 1856 his sons
quarrelled over the succession. As a result, in 1861 his domains were divided into two separate sultanates: Zanzibar with its east Africa dependencies and Muscat and Oman on the Arabian peninsular.


Barghash ibn Said became sultan in 1870 and, under the threat of a naval blockade, signed the 1873 Anglo-Zanzibari treaty which abolished the slave trade in his territories, closed all slave markets and protected liberated slaves (although on Zanzibar itself plantation slavery was allowed to continue until 1897). 1873 was also the year the Scottish explorer David Livingstone died in central Africa. His body was brought back to Zanzibar before being returned to Britain for burial. A reminder of his connections with east Africa and Zanzibar can be seen on the reverse of the 1972 Clydesdale Bank £10 note featuring three manacled slaves with an Arab overseer on a camel in the background.


Zanzibar as British Protectorate

 Zanzibar formally became a British protectorate in 1890 as a consequence of a bizarre AngloGerman land swap. Germany, then establishing its own east African colony in what is today’s Tanzania, agreed to recognise the British protectorate over the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. In exchange the British ceded to Germany the North Sea island of Heligoland, plus certain previously Zanzibar-controlled east African coastal territories, for which the Sultan received a compensation payment of £200,000.

As a British protectorate, sovereignty technically remained with the Sultan of Zanzibar while ultimate political and military control rested with Britain. On a day-to-day basis, the Sultan exercised power through British-appointed officials supervised by the Colonial Office.  

Growth in trade was fostered through tariff reductions allowing both entrepot trade and exports to flourish. Zanzibar became Africa’s main port for the export of ivory, much of it ending up in Britain, America and India. India’s share grew rapidly until it reached nearly half the total and numerous Indian traders moved to Zanzibar to exploit the growing opportunities.

The Shortest War in History

 On 25th August 1896 the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died. He was succeeded by Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, who was not approved of by the British. They issued an ultimatum for him to stand down but he refused. The ensuing Anglo-Zanzibar War started at 9am on 27th August 1896 and lasted between 38 and 45 minutes before Sultan Khalid capitulated following a bombardment of his palace by Royal Navy gunboats. A ceasefire was declared and this still stands as the shortest war in history. He was deposed and went into exile, to be replaced by Sultan Hamood bin Mohammed, who finally abolished slavery on the islands in 1897. Ironically this led to labour shortages on the mostly Arab-owned plantations but the sultan was knighted by Queen Victoria in recognition of his decisive act.

                                                                                  Currency Complexities

 During the 19th century the Indian silver rupee became increasingly important in east Africa as well as Zanzibar. Its rate against the British pound sterling, still on the gold standard, fluctuated as the prices of the two precious metals rose and fell. The rate ranged from 15-20 rupees to the pound until it was fixed at 15 to 1 in 1906 and then 10 to 1 in 1920 (after a rise in the price of silver). An Indian rupee was worth 16 annas and an anna worth 4 pice. From 1882 to 1908, the Zanzibar ryal, subdivided into 136 pysa, also circulated locally alongside the Indian rupee. The sultan had arranged for the Belgian Royal Mint to produce coins from 1 pysa to 5 ryals but only the 1 pysa coin seems to have circulated to any extent. In 1908 the ryal was replaced by the Zanzibar rupee at the rate of 2⅛ rupees to the ryal. The Zanzibar rupee was fixed at par to the Indian rupee but sub-divided differently into 100 cents per rupee. Coins for 1, 10 and 20 cents (sants) were prepared but survivors are rare.

Paper currency made its first appearance in the region in 1905 when the British authorities in the East African Protectorate (comprising Kenya and Uganda) decided to issue notes, a process managed by the Crown Agents (whose surviving archives can be found in the British Library). The notes were denominated in East African rupees, also fixed at par to the Indian rupee. The same year, the German Ostafrikanische Bank issued rupee notes in what later became Tanganyika.

In 1908 the Zanzibar government followed suit and the first of their iconic notes were issued. Currency changes continued when the East African rupee was replaced first by the florin in 1920 and then the shilling a year later. During the 1920s, currency fluctuations gave the merchants of Zanzibar ample opportunity to smuggle Indian rupee coins either to or from the mainland, whenever the East African shilling (tied to British sterling and thus the gold price) and the Zanzibar rupee (tied to the silver Indian rupee) moved out of line with each other. In 1936 the Zanzibar rupee was abolished and the East African shilling became the legal currency, with the conversion rate set at 1½ shillings to the rupee. Zanzibar’s notes were withdrawn and demonetised. 


                                                              Independence and Merger with Tanzania

 Zanzibar was granted its independence in 1963 when the economically and politically dominant Arab population constituted less than 20% of the total. In 1964 the Sultan was overthrown by the populist Afro-Shirazi Party in a violent and bloody revolution which resulted in most Arabs (and other foreign communities) fleeing the country. Zanzibar became a People’s Republic but within months it merged with Tanganyika to create the United Republic of Tanzania, led by President Julius Nyerere. Economic decline followed but tourism started to become an important part of the economy, especially after Stone Town was designated a World Heritage Site in 2000, with UNESCO citing it as “an outstanding material manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonisation”.

Zanzibar is today a self-governing region of Tanzania with a population estimated at 1.7 million (compared to 198,914 in the 1910 census, of whom only a few hundred were British). The multicultural character of Zanzibar has endured in the island’s music, religious tolerance, food, dress and of course the architecture of Stone Town.


                                                                                         The Last Word

 The last word on this beautiful and exotic island should go to an official of the Standard Bank reminiscing about his visit to Zanzibar in 1912: “The dignity of Zanzibar in those days was something to remember. Officials, clad in spotless white, went to their offices in rickshaws drawn by uniformed Natives. Dignified Arabs with long whiskers rode on the after-end of small, almost white, donkeys, whilst pedestrians strolled gently along the shady side of the narrow streets … There was a charm about it which never failed, even on closer acquaintance”.

                                                                                       The Note Issues

 In 1907, the Zanzibar Government decided to issue its own notes. Designs were commissioned from Waterlow & Sons Limited with each denomination the same size (180x110mm) and differentiated only by colour. The first notes, for 5, 10, 20 and 100 rupees and dated January 1st 1908, were issued under the Zanzibar Currency Decree of 11th March 1908 and fully backed by Indian and British government securities. After a year, notes in circulation totaled 1.5m rupees and issuance peaked at 4.8m in 1924, declining gently thereafter until the notes were recalled in 1936. In 1916 notes for 50 and 500 rupees were added and in 1920 a smaller (122x70mm) note for 1 rupee was issued, this being printed by Thomas De La Rue & Company Limited using Waterlow’s design.

The two vignettes on the notes appear to have been taken from old photographs. To the left is an image of a two-masted dhow, sailing by moonlight and symbolic of Zanzibar’s trading history and historic connections with Arabia. On the right is a traditional tripod ladder used to pick the cloves harvest. The decorative effects on the note have been drawn from classical Islamic patterns. 


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