Once the European merchants gained a toehold in the Indies, the home of the most valuable spices, they attempted to establish a monopoly, punishing by death anyone who attempted to smuggle seeds or plants off their remote island plantations. But even these desperate tactics were useless in the face of the demand for spices – daring international spice pirates stole the plants (nutmeg, cinnamon or cloves) and replanted them in far-off locations, breaking the monopoly and ensuring the freedom of the spice trade forever.
Spices in Zanzibar
Since ancient times, a flourishing sea-going trade has existed between the nations surrounding the Indian Ocean. Goods from Indonesia, Malaysia and India have been arriving on the coast of East Africa for centuries, borne on wooden dhows sailing the monsoon winds that blow across this region. It is certain that spices from Asia arrived in Zanzibar this way long before the dawn of the European spice merchants.
Early in the sixteenth century Portuguese traders established a base on Zanzibar as part of their plan to control East Africa. They imported various plants, including spices, from their colonies in South America and India. Land was cleared for plantations, but the Portuguese never really developed their presence on Zanzibar beyond a military one.
It was left to the Omani Arabs, who ruled Zanzibar from the early eighteenth century, to develop Zanzibar economically as a spice-producing entity. Sultan Seyyid Said, the first Omani sultan to govern Zanzibar, quickly realised the potential of his new dominion, with its hot climate and regular rainfall, as a location for spice farming.
He encouraged in particular the planting of clove trees on his own plantations, and issued a decree to other landowners that for each coconut tree on their farms, two clove trees must be planted. Soon Zanzibar had become a major producer of spices. With the demise of the slave trade in the late nineteenth century, spices became Zanzibar’s main source of income.
When the era of the Sultans ended and the long arm of the British Empire reached Zanzibar, the islands new colonial ‘protectors’ encouraged the farming of spices and other useful plants, bringing in European scientists to found experimental agricultural stations and government farms such as those at Kizimbani and Kindichi. Today these areas still contain spice plantations controlled by the modern, independent Tanzanian government.
But spices in Zanzibar today are by no means simply the preserve of governments keen to produce cash-rich export products or a useful tourist attraction. For the ordinary people of Zanzibar, spices and useful plants are a vital part of everyday life and a rich element in the island’s strong and vibrant culture.
The spices grown in village kitchen gardens give their flavour to the distinctive cuisine of Zanzibar, provide innumerable cures for everyday ailments, and yield the dyes and cosmetic products needed to celebrate weddings and festivals.
From the dark-red stain of henna on a bride’s hands, to the coconut-palm roof of a newly-constructed house, or the sweet aroma of cloves drying in the sun, spices and useful plants are woven into the fabric of life and culture of these fascinating islands. Touch, taste and smell the spices that grow here, and you’ll be on your way to understanding the true nature of Zanzibar.
A Spice Tour
Sooner or later every visitor to Zanzibar will be offered a ‘spice tour’ – a trip to the farmlands just outside Stone Town to see aromatic plants and herbs growing wild or cultivated in kitchen gardens.