November 16, 2008

From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925

I wish I had read this book (From Slaves to Squatters) when I was in Professor Tutino's Comparative History class , writing papers on peasants and revolution. Fred Cooper takes a 'Barrington Moore' approach to the Zanzibar Revolution by framing his post-abolition history of land and labor on the Swahili coast with a final insight into how the colonial policies of the period may have contributed to the turmoil of 1964. In The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore seeks to explain the variegated routes of political modernization through the framework of lord and peasant relationships. Moore contends that the socio-political character of the landed upper classes and the producers of agricultural surplus are decisive factors in determining whether a nation adopts democracy, fascism, or communism.

Cooper's story is by no means so teleological, and I am oversimplfiying Moore's very subtle argument anyway. One of the virtues of Cooper's work is that it is the other side to the narrative that sees that revolution as a vengeful and capricious strike by a band of barbarians. (ala Ali Muhsin) Spontaneous though it was--poorly executed as well as wantonly violent--nevertheless the revolution was due to the fact that the masses of Zanzibaris correctly traced their problems to a planter class who had been artificially propped up by the British, and whose continuing viability rested on maintaining the paternalistic ties of slavery.

In Zanzibar society at the time of the revolution, most of the planters were still Omani Arabs, descended from those who came to Zanzibar in the 1830s with Said bin Sultan Al Bu Saidi. By the early 19th century, Sultan Said already had an extensive economic base in Zanzibar, founded on trade in ivory, spices, textiles, and slaves. Moving his political base to Zanzibar was Said’s attempt to establish a greater degree of dominance over the trade routes of the East African coast and capitalize on potential profits from this strategically important island. He attempted to make cloves the foundation of a profitable plantation economy. The Omanis expropriated the most fertile land for clove production, and amplified an existing and profitable trade in enslaved Africans. Said created an Omani Arab landholding aristocracy and effectively marginalized the old Swahili elite. The high mortality of the clove plantations led to a constant influx of enslaved Africans from the mainland. Many indigenous residents migrated to the eastern areas of Unguja, where they continued to grow land on the kiambo (kinship based holdings) and the uwanda (common village land). The relative autonomy of this group, including their strong associations of kinship and landholding, created a cohesive intra-group identity and excluded outsiders. The self-distinction they made in referring to themselves as Shirazis would complicate later attempts at political unity.

The British were keen to develop their interests in export crops while maintaining existing relationships of ‘indirect rule’ through the Sultanate. Abdul Sheriff, describing Zanzibar, accurately sums up the dominant impulse behind abolition: “the ultimate reason for the abolition of slavery was rooted in the knowledge that free labour would be more efficient than slave labour.” The overriding interest of British authorities in Zanzibar was to guarantee a supply of cheap labor for the agricultural economy.

These new colonial labor needs eroded the relatively autonomous position many indigenes enjoyed in the eastern parts of Unguja. Many indigenes were pushed off their land and forced to work in a clove economy characterized by instability and depression for much of the early 20th century. As an instrument of coercion, the British imposed a hut tax, forcing the indigenes to work for wages to pay it. Many moved to the urban centers, or commuted on a regular basis to find wage labor. Others squatted in various arrangements of tenancy or sharecropping. The dislocation caused by colonial labor arrangements created a transistional class, or a ‘semi-proletariat’, with a foot in both subsistence agriculture and wage labor, as well as urban and rural contexts. Squatters combined wage labor with subsistence farming and tenancy, utilizing these strategies to simultaneously up their cash flow in a money economy, and position themselves outside of the vagaries of changes in the price of export crops which the British were encouraging them to grow. (On the Kenya coast, a similar situation prevailed, but with white settlement being encouraged in the highlands, increasing numbers of Kikuyu and Luo migrants came to Mombasa--at this time the center of coastal labor demand-- seeking cash to meet their subsistence needs. However, I felt that Cooper's section on Zanzibar made a more forceful point than the section on coastal Kenya, perhaps due to the more homogenous nature of Zanzibar's economy.)

It is obvious that a substantial degree of responsibility for the 1964 violence rests on the shoulders of the British. They remained largely unaware of the growing ethnic tensions of Zanzibar and generally contempous of African peasants in general. Of this obliviousness Moore writes, “The upper classes have to display a substantial degree of blindness, mainly the product of historical circumstances…before a revolutionary breakthrough becomes feasible.” The Arab plantation owners also bear responsibility—their racial arrogance and brutality are not debatable. The arrogance by which they pursued their policies toward the peasantry made the uprising of 1964, led by John Okello, seem more extemporaneous than it actually was. Like Nat Turner, Okello claimed to see visions which he interpreted as his appointment as an instrument of God for the liberation of Africa. He was of Ugandan origin, but had moved around East Africa and eventually settled in Zanzibar, beginning work on a Pemba plantation in the late 1950s. His anti-Arab, pro-African statements called for the overthrow of imperialism, but he insisted on the peaceful treatment of British citizens. His takeover of the radio station and broadcast during the early hours of the revolution proved crucial to winning the masses over to the idea of a fundamental social transformation, while his rhetoric helped stoke an outbreak of violence against Arabs and Asians. The Zanzibar revolution reinforces Moore’s observation that “in any violent conflict the social composition of the victims will not by itself reveal much about the social and political character of the struggle.” The violence was not about ethnic cleansing per se. It was the culmination of a building frustration with the power structure and its most visible element: the planter class, made up largely of Arabs.

Cooper writes, "Yet ideologies that underplay the importance of power and overplay the importance of the force of law or the legitimacy of authority can deceive the rulers far more than the ruled. Ex-slaves proved to be unawed by planters or the state and quite unwilling to regard the amelioration of the conditions of slavery as the limits of their aspirations. Mobility and flexibility were precisely what the ex-slaves wanted..." This statement perhaps sums up the aspirations of peasants worldwide--the right to organize life on their own terms, without interference of any kind. It put me in the mind of Leon Litwack's classic Been In the Storm So Long, which talked about the choices and ideologies of the freedmen in the immediate postbellum South. Litwack shows us the ordinary but moving aspirations of a formerly subject people and their attempts at reclaiming economic and social dignity. It also ought to remind us as would-be revolutionaries that the masses are motivated not by any pet ideology, liberalism communism, nationalism, anarchism, anti-(or is it pro?) syndicalist Maoism, etc. but by the need for dignified work and the ability to feed one's family.


nautilus October 12, 2009 at 2:15 AM  

Can you explain to me on what evidence you base this comment about the British Government?

"They remained largely unaware of the growing ethnic tensions of Zanzibar and generally contempous of African peasants in general."

Regards Anne

nautilus October 12, 2009 at 2:19 AM  

You say: "(Okello's)His takeover of the radio station and broadcast during the early hours of the revolution proved crucial to winning the masses over to the idea of a fundamental social transformation"
There is no evidence for this? Is it not more likely that the "masses" were terrified and the violent few that made up the mobs went beserk as mobs do - often led by even fewer leaders.

Nathaniel Mathews October 12, 2009 at 11:39 AM  

Anne, thanks for visiting. Do appreciate your comments. Your first comment I feel I can confidently say is based on a reading of historical sources in which the British regarded African smallholders as essentially contributing nothing productive to Zanzibar society. This is brought out clearly in Cooper's book.

On your second question: Time and a deeper reading of historical sources would lead me to concur with your conclusions. In fact, there was very little in the way of a fundamental social transformation, and mob terror did in fact play a very large role. My larger point was that the violence did not happen in a historical vacuum, but in the context of a climate of marginalization and oppression. That does not justify the violence, but it does help to show its historical roots. Of course there is a long debate about this in the historiography of the revolution. Some day I hope to write an article that addresses it. Thank you for raising this point.

nautilus October 12, 2009 at 6:19 PM  

Thank you for your quick response. I appreciate that you recognise that the violence of the revolution cannot be justified in any terms of an analysis of ethnic tensions that were exacerbated by the various Zanzibar elections prior to Independence in late 1963. In my study of the situation, the British were aware of the ethnic tensions but their model for rolling out independence was rushed by other pressures (home issues and the USA's influence).
Of underlying interest to me is, how could it have been done better? what went wrong? - and the other issue is the price that the Zanzibar society paid for that revolution.

Nathaniel Mathews October 12, 2009 at 6:47 PM  

just to be clear Anne, I think I mis-wrote my first entry. I meant to say that my first comment about the British remaining largely unaware of ethnic tensions (or ignorant of their depth perhaps) is a generally accurate picture if a general one. I base this evidence on Cooper's book.

As for the second point you made, I don't agree that "the violence of the revolution cannot be justified in any terms of an analysis of ethnic tensions that were exacerbated by the various Zanzibar elections prior to Independence in late 1963."

I mean its true that it can't be 'justified.' However justifying it is not my goal, as if the justification will render it somehow less morally reprehensible. My point is that the violence had historical antecedents not only in the colonial encounter, but in migration processes of non-Muslim migrants to Zanzibar and yes, the polarization leading up to the election. In that sense the violence can be 'understood.' as a product of distinct historical processes, not merely an atavistic spurt. The point of understanding (to me at least) is to show that poverty and marginalization is dangerous when perpetuated, as is unqualified and unthinking attachment to an essentializing identity. Zanzibar paid a heavy price for the revolution, you are correct. I need to do a more in depth reading of the history before I offer suggestions as to 'how it could have been done better.' Thanks for your comments. Best regards,

nautilus October 12, 2009 at 9:21 PM  

Thanks for your comments. You have thought deeply on these matters and write well.
Have you read Ali Bakari's phd thesis that is on Google books? It is unpublished unfortunately. I would like to get a copy. Its hard to read online, but I am trying. The other is Hamad & Sultan Issa's book of memoirs edited by Burgess, pub. Ohio University. That i have and have found very interesting.

idgi March 25, 2019 at 8:12 PM  

why would you describe yourself as a ‘would-be revolutionary’ then describe the violence of oppressed people against their oppressors ‘morally reprehensible’ in the comments? what am i missing about either the author or the meaning of ‘revolutionary’?

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