Back to Main Entry

Reviews of First Sultan of Zanzibar: Scrambling for Power in the Nineteenth-Century Indian Ocean

“The Middle East, India, and China all call the Indian Ocean their port, and with some European imperialism, you have an intriguing stage of history. The First Sultan of Zanzibar: Scrambling for Power and Trade in the Nineteenth-Century Indian Ocean discusses the meeting of these many powers in their pursuit of power and wealth in the region. From slave trade to pirates to the emergence of America, The First Sultan of Zanzibar provides a fascinating read of [the international world] in the early nineteenth century.” — Midwest Book Review

“This very readable account of the Sultanate of Oman’s first contact with, and later annexation of, Zanzibar, valuable both for its clove trade and its sheer beauty, is a welcome addition to what heretofore has been a highly specialized literature.

“Nicolini helpfully puts the sultanate’s historical sea links connecting East Africa [and] the [Arabian] Sea into the context of French and British competition for the Indian subcontinent, which only added to the complexity  of the Omani rulers’ ethnic and military  balancing acts. The mixing of peoples—Asian traders and mercenaries, Arabs fleeing the torrid shores of Southern Arabia, African spice workers and local grandees—and how they combined to make East African Swahili culture into a strong polity important enough to be respected by European imperialists is at the heart [of this book].” — Lou Werner, Saudi Aramco World

“For Africanists, the innovation in The First Sultan of Zanzibar is that it is an ‘Oman-centric’ account of the political relationships established in Zanzibar at that time. This is different than more traditional accounts, which place the European colonial powers, be they Britain, Portugal, or France, at the center of the colonial story. When Nicolini puts Oman at the center of her narrative hub, the relationships between Zanzibar, Oman, and Makran in Baluchistan are highlighted, rather than the European capitals. Ironically, Nicolini does this by using the familiar sources of the British English-language colonial archives. Thus, although the story is indeed, as she intended, about the Oman-centric trade-based ‘thalassocracy,’ it is still told through the eyes of the British colonial servants who directed The Great Colonial Game.

“As is well known, when the Europeans arrived in East Africa in the nineteenth century, they encountered merchant-based trading networks based in Zanzibar that reached deep into the Tanzanian interior. Merchants had by that time established interior trading posts in Tabora, Ujiji, and eventually on into what is now the eastern Congo using the trade organizations of Oman-based Arabs. These Arabs operated from fortresses staffed by their Baluchi soldiers, African allies, and slaves. From these stations the merchants not only received British explorers like Burton and Livingstone, they also exported slaves and ivory to their plantations on the Indian Ocean islands. Indeed, this trade proved so lucrative that Sultan Saiyid Sai’di (1797–1856), the Sultan of Oman, in 1840 moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar, from whence he continued to rule enterprises extending into central Africa, Zanzibar, the Persian Gulf, and into Baluchistan.

“The strength of Nicolini’s book is in the first half, where she emphasizes the Oman-Zanzibar-Mekara relationship and its role in the Indian Ocean world of the nineteenth century. Her use of the obscure term ‘thalassocracy’ highlights that these were trade-based relationships, rather than Westphalian-style sovereignty. Particularly intriguing is Nicolini’s argument that European concepts of sovereignty, with [their] emphasis on formal boundaries, citizenship-based loyalties, and non-interference, are a poor fit for the Oman-centric world relationship she describes. Sultan Saiyid Sa’id, she points out, was the master of a web of far-flung relationships, not a sovereign maintaining a monopoly over the use of military force in a particular territory. She explores this thesis well in the first half of the book.

“The book’s second half focuses on the British and French struggles for influence in the Indian Ocean world with each other and in the context of later British opposition to the slave trade. This half will be of interest to historians studying more traditional colonial relationships, and it is quite different from the first half, which is about relationships between Makran, Oman, and the east African coast.

“After reading Nicolini’s book, I found myself wanting to know more, which is a sign of an intriguing book. In particular, I want to know more about the role of the Baluchi military who supported the Arab Sultans of Oman and Zanzibar. As Nicolini describes, they made their way into the Tanzanian interior, probably in the 1830s and 1840s, extending Omani thalassocratic-style sovereignty into unexpected places. I also was curious about what Arab sources, including those in Omani archives, have to say about these events. Indeed, Nicolini cites interviews with the descendants of the Arab trader Tippu Tib, who lived in Muscat as recently as 1993. What else might be available in Oman for linguistically-sophisticated historians interested in nineteenth-century east African exploration? Finally, I wanted to know more about the relationships within the Zanzibar court; despite the title of the book, this is not a biography of Sultan Saiyid Sa’idi. But, there is enough here to indicate that a full-scale biography of a man who ruled over such an intriguing socio-political arrangement is needed.” — African Studies Quaterly