When the Portuguese first established a settlement on the present site around 1500AD, the land was a triangular peninsular surrounded on two sides by the ocean and on the third separated from the main island by a sea-water creek. Although there was probably a native fishing village located at the tip of the peninsula at Shangani, there would have been no stone buildings, just simple coconut thatch huts. Arab traders had long since established trade routes and settlements in the area, but it’s not thought that they built an outpost here, preferring instead locations at Unguja Ukuu and Kizimkazi.
The primary reason for the Portuguese to create a settlement in the region was to provide a staging post for their galleons en route to India. Zanzibar was selected because the island had fresh water, fertile soils and indigenous game with which to restock the ships and, being an island, was relatively easy to fortify and defend.
“… a closely-packed, reeking suffocation of dirt-caked stone and coral-lime houses, divided into a crossword puzzle of dark, fetid alleys, whose open drains, abundant night-soil and busy vermin help erase any image of oriental glamour. The beaches were filthy and often exposed bloated corpses of slaves or the victims of nightly muggings. The city was decidedly unsafe at night and the ground floors of the old stone houses were well protected by heavy teak doors and barred windows.”
Dr Christie, 1869
There is little remaining of the two hundred year Portuguese occupation. A small stone chapel was built (now inside the Old Fort) and probably some other minor buildings (similar to those found at Fukachani – see chapter 7), none of which now survive.
Noteworthy artefacts in the town that date from this period include a stone gateway opposite the Old Court House and the canons which sit outside the House of Wonders, some of which were manufactured in Portugal in the sixteenth century.
Following their defeat of the Portuguese in 1698, the Omani Arabs saw the urgent need to create a fortified stronghold on Unguja if they were to successfully defend it. They immediately set about building the Old Fort. Development of the surrounding town was slow and it was to be another hundred years before further buildings of any significance were constructed. By the beginning of the 19th century, a town of some size had grown up around the fort, mainly comprising rows of traditional palm thatch huts, with a number of early stone houses being built by Arab merchants.
The development of the town was greatly accelerated around 1840 with the transfer of the Omani capital to Zanzibar. Arabs poured in from their homeland, inspired by their Sultan and lured by tales of great fortunes being made not only by slave and ivory traders but also now by plantation owners, since the introduction of cloves and spices. The building boom, which was to last for almost sixty years, is responsible for most of the Stone Town that we now see. Merchants built great mansions for themselves and their families, with fabulous carved doors to proclaim their stature and ornate balconies from which they could conduct their business with traders in the street below. Many such houses remain, both along the seafront, like the Tembo and Tippu Tib Houses and throughout the central areas of Stone Town.
As the town expanded and tax revenues multiplied, Sultan Seyyid took to building lavish palaces (which unfortunately have not survived) and undertaking the responsibility for providing civic buildings such as mosques and markets. In the second half of the 19th century, it was Sultan Barghash who was the driving force behind a spate of great civic building, including the Royal Palaces on the seafront, the House of Wonders and the Hammamni Baths. By this time, the ‘island’ was becoming increasingly congested and Swahili and Bantu locals were forced to relocate their pise huts across Darajani Creek. The mainland quarter soon became a ramshackle slum, reached originally by crossing the sea creek by canoe and later by two bridges. It was disparagingly known as ‘Ngambo’ meaning ‘the other side’.
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The British colonial period from 1880 to 1963 left very little mark on Stone Town itself since buildings in the central quarter were already so tightly packed. Around the edges of the town, however, the ‘island’ was to be transformed. The most significant development took place along the landward side, where the tidal waters of Darajani Creek separated the town from the remainder of Unguja by up to three hundred metres of saltwater and stinking mudflats. At the Southern end a causeway was constructed through the swamp (along the line of Nyerere Road) and the area was transformed into a grand area of majestic parks, residences, consulates, hospitals, schools and museums. Half-way down, a large bridge was constructed to provide the main crossing point between Ngambo and the market areas at Darajani and at the Northern end, another causeway was constructed to carry a light railway into the town over English Bridge. But as time went by, the creek became more and more filthy and finally, the whole of the area was reclaimed from the sea in 1957. Creek Road was created along the line of the old Creek and parks and gardens were laid out along its length.
To the front of the town, the main mark left by the British occupation was the creation in 1925 of the deepwater harbour. The whole of the area on the seaward side of Mizingani Road was reclaimed and converted into the port area that we see today. The wharf, customs sheds and railway terminus, which had previously been located in front of the Old Fort, were later relocated and the Jamituri Gardens created in their place.
Of major influence during this period was an architect and British Resident, J.H.Sinclair, who was responsible for the designs of most of the larger buildings of the period including State House, the Old Post Office, the Old Court House, the Museum and the Bharmal Building.
Later in the British period, some fine modern buildings were constructed, including the art nouveau Cine Afrique.
A spirit of optimism filled the nation after independence and, intent on sweeping away the memories of foreign rule, the new Government sought ties with Eastern Bloc countries. Unfortunately, many of the building projects arising from these relationships failed to pay due respect to Zanzibar’s cultural inheritance and consequently were desperately ill-conceived. Now, in decay, they have lost the ‘brave new world’ spirit that they stood for and now simply serve as reminders of the new nation’s naivety.
The complex of flats at Kilimani and Michenzani, with its huge multi-storey blocks and regimented dual carriageway, would have looked more at home in East Germany from which they were imported. Not only has this type of building now been widely discredited, but here the incongruity with the Zanzibar scale and culture is almost unforgivable. Similarly, some of the out-of-town hotel and residential developments are equally desperate.
All in all, there has been little development of note in the period since independence. In contrast, however, and perhaps as a consequence, there has been an increasing realisation in recent years of the value of the existing building stock. At last, thirty years after independence, the people of Zanzibar are now willing and able to feel proud of their inheritance and Stone Town is beginning to enjoy a renaissance.