By Christiane Bird
Publisher Random House 2010
Price $ 28.00
Reviewed by R.T. Bush
Most people read non fiction with the hope of being better informed on a subject, or to learn something new. This book that I borrowed from the League City Library amply fulfilled those hopes.
The principle characters are Seyyed Said bin Sultan Al Busaid of Oman, his daughter Salme, and his son Seyyid Barghash. The men were strict Muslims and remained so, but Salme who eloped with a German trader and went live in Germany became a Christian. She was a tragic character who was treated badly in Hamburg by her husband’s relatives. After he died in an accident a kindly German Baroness befriended her; but she was swindled of her inheritance and had to earn a living for her self and her three children by teaching Arabic.
The Muslim religion for Omanis was Ibadhism. Ms Bird explains that this sect was tolerant of other religions, unlike sects such as the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni sect, who both tried to over throw the Ibadists. Ibadhism is still the religion of Oman today reinforcing the county’s isolation from the rest of Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world.
Omanis at one time ruled over Bandar Abbas in today’s Iran, Gwador in today’s Baluchistan, a province of Pakistan, and as far west in the Arabian Gulf as Bahrain. Their seafarers and traders on sailing vessels regularly sailed to and from East Africa, Pemba and Zanzibar, islands off the East African coast during the N. East and S. West monsoons. They established thriving settlements in those places. The Al Busaidi Sultans became wealthy through trading in African slaves, ivory and from the clove plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba. In Oman, where Muscat became their capital and main port, dates were their main crop. A large part of Oman is arid dessert, but Zanzibar and Pemba are fertile with lush vegetation. The Sultans built palaces and lived much of their lives there.
Princess Salme was born in Zanzibar in 1844 the daughter of Sultan Sayyed Sultan Al Busaid and a Circassian slave. She became homesick for the
island during her exile in Germany, but was denied permission to return by her brother who became Sultan after the death of their father. This was partly due to her conversion to Christianity.
Ms. Bird devotes a whole chapter to the Arab slave trade, and goes into details about the abolitionists including David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley. The African expeditions of explorers Richard Burton, John Speke, and Stanley who were all helped in Zanzibar by the Omanis are also covered in detail.
We learn of the cruelties suffered by the African slaves, sold by their chieftains in the interior and driven mercilessly to the coast. Many died before arriving in the slave markets of Zanzibar. Portuguese traders took some to Brazil but most went north to Arabia or Egypt, or worked on the labour intensive clove plantations in Zanzibar.
Of the abolitionists we learn that Livingstone was born in a tenement in Blantyre near Glasgow. He was a medical missionary and an ardent Christian. Stanley was born a Welshman named John Rowlands in 1841. At the age of 16 he went to the US changed is name to Henry Morton Stanley, and after fighting for the Confederate Army ended up in New York.
Although I had walked back and forth across Herald Square five days a week on my commute to work from the Pennsylvania Rail Road Station to the Rockefeller Center, and knew it was named after James Gordon Bennett’s once famous New York Herald newspaper, I did not know that Stanley had worked there.
In fact it was Bennett’s son who sent Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone.
Stanley was not a missionary; he was a brave explorer and found the source of the Nile on Lake Victoria. He tracked the river Lualaba into the Congo and went down that mighty river to the sea passing round the torrential falls named after him. Later he became King Leopold 11of Belgium’s envoy in the Congo. Ms Bird tells us that he was one of the least racist of the African explorers.
Cruelty and gender inequality were endemic world wide in the 17th and 18th centuries, and especially so in the Arab and African countries mentioned in this book, where tribal divisions were often extreme. Male sexual prowess or excesses were considered a matter of pride and having many wives and concubines was common among the rulers and the wealthy of the world, including the Omanis. King Henry VIII and Tiger Woods are saintly when compared with powerful and rich in this book.
Sexism was as prevalent then among Muslims as it is today in most religions, so the only Omani woman Ms Bird finds as a heroine, besides Princess
Salme, was a shadowy character, Bibi Mouza. To learn more about her you must read the book.
Pemba and Zanzibar became independent of Oman and now with the former Tanganyika form part of Tanzania. The coastal part of Tanzania and Kenya its neighbour to the north was also settled by Arabs who converted the local Africans known as Swahili to Mohammedanism. These coastal strips were a part of the Busaidi Sultan’s domains.
Today Mombassa in Kenya, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania are major ports and cities.
A coup or rebellion in 1963 ended the British Protectorate that had been established over Zanzibar in 1890, and the island lost its independence to the mainland.
In Oman in another coup Sultan Qaboos al Busaidi, the 14th of this dynasty, replaced his tyrannical father in 1970 and brought Oman into the modern world with some help from the British army, the Iranians, the Jordanians, and the Shell Oil Co..
This book is a must read for understanding the seething unrest in Arabia and East Africa.
990 words R.T. Bush November, 7 2010