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HOME > Short Stories > The Last Frontier > CHAPTER VI IN ZANZIBAR
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THERE is no name between the covers of the atlas more redolent of romance and adventure. Ever since Livingstone entered the African jungle on his mission of proselytism; ever since Stanley entered the same jungle on his quest of Livingstone; and ever since the railway-builders began to run their levels and lay their rails along the trail blazed by them both, Zanzibar has been the chief gateway through which Christianity, civilisation, and commerce have entered the Dark Continent. Though its area has been steadily lessened by spoliation, treaty, and purchase, until the sultanate, which once extended from Cape Guardafui to Delagoa Bay and inland to the Great Lakes, has dwindled to two coastwise islands in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar the capital is still the most important place, politically and commercially, in all East Africa, and one of the most picturesque and interesting cities in the world.

It bears the impress of the many kinds of men of many nationalities—Arab sultans, slave-traders and pirates, Portuguese merchants, European explorers, and ivory-hunters—who have swaggered across the pages of its history. Four hundred years ago Vasco da Gama's exploring caravels dropped anchor in its harbour, and the architecture of the city is still Portuguese; [Pg 144] a century later the dhows of the piratical sultans of Muskat swooped down, giving to Zanzibar an Arab dynasty, a lucrative slave trade and the Arabic tongue; then a British war-ship came, bringing with it British law and order and decency, and, under the mask of a “protectorate,” British rule. Though its golden age ended with the extermination of the trade in “black ivory,” it is still a place of considerable importance: the end of several submarine cables, a port of call for many steamship lines, a naval base within easy striking distance of the German and Portuguese colonies on the East Coast and guarding the lines of communication between the Cape and the Canal, and the place of export for the major portion of the world's supply of copra, cloves, and ivory.

Seen from the harbour, Zanzibar has little to commend it. So uninviting, indeed, is the face that it turns seaward, that the story is told of an American politician sent there as consul, who, after taking one look from the steamer's deck at the sun-baked town, with its treeless, yellow beach and its flat-roofed, whitewashed houses, refused to go ashore at all, from the next port at which the steamer called cabling his resignation to Washington. Though a city of something over one hundred thousand people, with the major portion of the trade of East Africa in its hands, Zanzibar has neither dock, jetty, nor wharf, passengers and packages alike being disembarked in small boats and carried through the surf on the shoulders of Swahili boatmen. There are no words in the language adequate to describe the scene [Pg 145] which takes place on the beach bordering the harbour when a mail steamer comes in. The passengers—white-helmeted tourists; pompous, drill-clad officials; sallow-faced Parsee merchants; chattering Hindoo artisans; haughty, hawk-nosed Arabs; and cotton-clad Swahilis from the mainland—are unceremoniously dumped with their belongings on the sand, where they instantly become the centres of shouting, pleading, cursing, struggling, gesticulating, perspiring mobs of porters and hotel-runners, from whose rough importunities they are rescued only by the efforts of a dozen askaris, who lay their rhinoceros-hide whips about them indiscriminately.

When a poor imitation of order has been restored and the luggage has been rescued and sorted, you start for the hotel—there is only one deserving of the name—with a voluble hotel-runner clinging to your arm as though afraid you would break away, and followed by a miniature safari of porters balancing trunks, hat-boxes, kit-bags, gun-cases, bath-tubs, and the other impedimenta of an African traveller on their turbaned heads. Returning the ostentatious salute of the tan-coloured sentry at the head of the water-stairs, you follow your guide through a series of tortuous and narrow alleys, plunge into the darkness of an ill-smelling tunnel, and suddenly emerge, blinded with the sun-glare, into a thoroughfare lined on either side with tiny, fascinating, hole-in-the-wall shops, whose owners rush out and offer you their silver, ivory, and ostrich-feather wares vociferously.

Quite unexpectedly the procession halts under a swinging sign bearing the legend “Afrika Hotel.” The proprietor, a rotund, red-cheeked German who looks as if he had stepped straight out of a Munich beer-garden, escorts you pantingly up two—three—four flights of stone stairs, lined on either side with strange native weapons and East Coast curios, to a brick-floored cell under the roof, there being more likelihood of catching an occasional breeze, he explains, near the top. Wind in any form is as scarce in Zanzibar as rain is in the Sahara, and when they do get a breath of air strong enough to stir the window curtains it is as much of an event as a cyclone is in Kansas. The furniture of the room, monastic in its simplicity, consists of an iron bed, an iron table, an iron chair, and an iron washstand supporting a tin bowl and pitcher, for anything which is not of metal stands an excellent chance of destruction by the devastating swarms of red ants. The bed is draped with a double thickness of mosquito netting of so fine a mesh that the air within feels strained and unnourishing, like milk that has been skimmed and watered, and the heavy shutters are closed in a fruitless attempt to keep out some of the stifling mid-day heat, though the proprietor, after glancing at the thermometer, remarks that it isn't so hot after all, being only 120 in the shade.
“Zanzibar has neither dock, jetty, nor wharf, passengers and packages alike being disembarked in small boats and carried through the surf on the shoulders of Swahili boatmen.”
The business portion of Zanzibar is a wilderness of narrow streets and dim bazaars, hemmed in with tiny shops and wretched dwellings, with here and there an ancient house dating from the Portuguese occupation.
Photograph by DeLord, Zanzibar.

You are advised to go to bed in the dark, as a light would attract the mosquitoes, and never, never, under any circumstances, to get into bed until you have assured yourself that there are no mosquitoes inside the [Pg 147] curtains, though the proprietor cheerfully adds: “But you can only get fever from the black-and-white-striped ones.” Likewise, you are solemnly warned never to go out of doors during the day without a topée lest you die from sunstroke (I knew one man who took off his helmet long enough to wave good-bye to a departing friend and was dead in an hour in consequence); never to drink other than bottled water (at two rupees the bottle) lest you die from typhoid; never to stay out of doors after nightfall lest you contract malaria; never to put on your boots without first shaking them out lest a snake or scorpion have chosen them to spend the night in; never to return late at night from the club without getting a policeman to escort you, lest a native thug run a knife between your shoulder-blades; and never to put your revolver under your pillow, where it cannot be reached without attracting attention, but to keep it beside you in the bed, so that you can shoot through the bedclothes without warning if you should wake up to find an intruder in your room.

The best and most interesting thing about the Afrika Hotel is its bath, a forbidding, stone-floored room, totally devoid of furniture or tub. It is separated from the sleeping-room by the hotel parlour, so that lady callers unaccustomed to Zanzibar ways are sometimes a trifle startled to see a gentleman whose only garment is a bath-towel pass through the parlour with a hop-skip-and-jump on his way to the bath. You clap your hands, which is the East Coast equivalent for pressing a button, and in prompt response appears an [Pg 148] ebony-skinned domestic bearing on his head a Standard Oil can filled with water. Running through a staple in the ceiling is a rope, and to the end of this rope he attaches the can, hoisting it until it swings a dozen feet above your head. Hanging from a hole in the side of the can is a cord. When you are ready for your bath you stand underneath the can, jerk the cord sharply, and the can empties itself over you like a cloudburst. Then you clap your hands and wait until the Swahili brings more water, when you do it all over again.

The first thing the new arrival in Zanzibar does is to bathe and put on a fresh suit of white linen, for to appear presentable in the terrible humidity of the East Coast requires at least four white suits a day; and the second thing he does is to call upon the consul, a very homesick young gentleman, who is so glad to see any one from “God's country” that he is only too eager to spend his meagre salary in entertaining him. If it is drawing toward sunset you will probably find him just starting for the golf club, which is the rendezvous at nightfall for Zanzibar's European society, whose chief recreations, so far as I could see, are golf, gambling, and gossip. With a sturdy, khaki-clad Swahili, a brass American eagle on the front of his fez, trotting between the shafts of the consular 'rickshaw (the Department of State refuses to appropriate enough money to provide our representative with a carriage), and another pushing behind, you whirl down the bright red highway which leads to the suburb of Bububu; past the white residency from which the British consul-general gives [Pg 149] his orders to the little brown man who is permitted to play at ruling Zanzibar; past the police barracks, where, at sight of the eagle on the 'rickshaw coolies' fezes, the sentry on duty shouts some unintelligible jargon, a bugle blares, and a group of native constables spring into line and bring their hands smartly to the salute as you pass; past the Marconi station on the cliff, where the wireless chatters ceaselessly with Bagamoyo and Kilindini and Dar-es-Salam; until you come to a sudden halt before a bungalow, almost hidden in a wonderful tropic garden, whose broad verandas overlook an emerald velvet golf course which stretches from the highway to the sea.

Playing golf in Zanzibar always struck me as one of the most incongruous things I ever did. It seems as though one ought to devote his energies to pirating or pearl-fishing or slave-trading in a place with such a name. Moreover, there is such a continuous circus procession passing along the highway—natives in kangas of every pattern and colour; Masai and Swahili warriors from the mainland; Parsee bankers in victorias and Hindoo merchants in 'rickshaws; giant privates of the King's African Rifles in bottle-green tunics and blue puttees; veiled women of the Sultan's zenana out for an airing in cumbersome, gaudily painted barouches, preceded and followed by red-jacketed lancers on white horses; perhaps his Highness himself, a dapper, discontented-looking young mulatto, whirling by in a big gray racing-car—that it is quite out of the question to keep your eye on the ball, and you play very bad golf [Pg 150] in consequence. Another trouble is that the caddies are all natives, and golf is discouraging enough in itself without having to shout “Fore!” or ask for a mashie or a putter in Swahili.

After a perfunctory round or two you go back to the club-house veranda, where the European society of Zanzibar is seated in cane chairs, with the English illustrated weeklies, and tall glasses with ice tinkling in them. The talk is the talk of exiled white folk everywhere: the news contained in the Reuter's despatches which are posted each evening on the club bulletin-board; the condition of the ivory market; the prospects for big game-shooting under the new German game laws; the favourites for the next day's cricket match, the next week's polo game, or the next month's race meet; the latest books, the newest plays—as gathered from the illustrated weeklies; what is going to become of Smyth-Cunninghame's widow, whose husband has just died of fever; is it true that Major Buffington has been transferred from the “K. A. R.” to a line regiment; and is Germany really looking for war?

That night the consul gives a dinner for you at the Zanzibar Club, where you are served by bare-footed servants immaculate in crimson turbans and white linen, and eat with solid silver from irreproachable china, in a room made almost comfortable by many swinging punkahs. After dinner you sit on the terrace in the dark, somewhere between the ocean and the stars, and over the coffee and cigars you listen to strange stories of “the Coast,” told by men who themselves played a [Pg 151] part in them. One man tells you what Stanley really said when, after months in the jungle without seeing a white man's face, he finally stumbled on the camp of Livingstone, and how, instead of rushing up and throwing his arms around him and crying, “Saved at last, old fellow; saved at last!” he lifted his helmet at sight of the gaunt, fever-stricken man sitting in front of the tent, and said very politely, just as he would if accosting a stranger on Fifth Avenue or Piccadilly, “Doctor Livingstone, I believe?” Another, a wiry, bright-eyed Frenchman, with a face tanned to the colour of mahogany, tells of the days when the route from Tanganyika to the coast was marked by the bleaching skeletons of slaves, and he points out to you, across the house-tops, the squalid dwelling in which Tippoo Tib, the greatest of all the slave-traders, died. A British commissioner, the glow of his cigar lighting up his ruddy face, his scarlet cummerbund, and his white mess jacket, relates in strictest confidence a chapter of secret diplomatic history, and you learn how the German Foreign Office shattered the British dream of an all-red Cape-to-Cairo railway, and why England is so desirous of the Congo being placed under international control. A captain of the King's African Rifles holds you spellbound with a recital of the amazing exploits of the American elephant poacher, Rogers, who, jeering at the attempts of three governments to capture him, made himself, single-handed, the uncrowned king of Equatoria. Then a Danish ivory-hunter breaks in, and you hear all sorts of wild tales of life on safari, of ivory-trading in the [Pg 152] Lado Enclave, of brushes with the Uganda police south of Gondokoro, and of strange tribal customs practised in the hinterland. When the dawn begins to creep up out of the east, the Englishmen tell the drowsy steward to bring them Scotch and sodas and the Frenchmen order absinthes; then every one shakes hands with every one else and you make your way back to your hotel through the narrow, silent streets, returning the salute of the night constable sleepily.

No visitor leaves Zanzibar without going to the cemetery. Like the palace, and the stone ship built by a former sultan, it is one of the show places of the city. I saw it under the guidance of a gloomy English resident, who said that he always walked there every evening “so as to get accustomed to the place before staying in it permanently.” Leading me across the well-kept grass to two newly dug graves, he waved his hand in a “take-your-choice; they're-both-ready” gesture. “Two deaths to-day?” I queried. “Not yet,” said he, “but we always keep a couple of graves ready-dug for Europeans. In this climate, you know, we have to bury very quickly.” For in Zanzibar, as all along the East Coast, the white man's hardest fight is with a foe he can feel only as a poison in his burning veins, and can see only in the dreams of his delirium—the deadly black-water fever.

Though the streets in the outskirts of Zanzibar are wide, well shaded, and excellently macadamised with some kind of bright-red soil which recalls the roads outside of Colombo, in Ceylon, the business portion of the [Pg 153] town, where the natives chiefly live, is a labyrinth of narrow streets and dim bazaars, hemmed in with tiny shops and wretched dwellings, with here and there an ancient house dating from the Portuguese occupation, impregnable as a feudal castle, its massive doorways of exquisitely carved teakwood in sharp contrast to the surrounding squalor. Every shop is open to the street, and half of them, it seemed to me, are devoted to the sale of ivory carvings, ostrich feathers, brassware, and silver-work, though the Arab workmanship is in all cases poorly executed and crude in design. The most typical things to be bought in Zanzibar are the quaint images of African animals which the natives carve from the coarser grades of ivory and which make charming, though costly, souvenirs. Nothing is cheap in Zanzibar, or, for that matter, anywhere else in Africa, and every purchase is a matter of prolonged and wearisome negotiation, the seller fixing a fantastic price and lowering it gradually, as he thinks discreet, his rock-bottom figure depending upon the behaviour and appearance of the customer.

Zanzibar is still the chief ivory market of the world, the supplies of both elephant and rhino ivory, so I was assured by British officials, steadily increasing rather than diminishing. A few years ago it was feared that the supply of ivory would soon run out, but the indiscriminate slaughter of elephants has been checked, at least in British territory, by strict game laws rigidly enforced. Whether from the laxity of its laws or the indifference of its officials, German East Africa is still [Pg 154] the ivory-hunter's paradise, the extermination of elephants in that colony proceeding almost unchecke............
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