Seyyid Said

Seyyid Said (1790-1856) was the energetic and resourceful sultan of Oman who transferred his capital from Arabia to Zanzibar, where he initiated clove production and greatly expanded the East African slave trade.

Seyyid Said became sultan of the Persian Gulf state of Oman in 1806. Although the area was neither rich nor easy to govern, Omani fortunes rose during the Napoleonic Wars, when European merchants relied heavily on Arab shipping throughout the northern and western Indian Ocean. This prosperity proved short-lived after Britain gained control of Indian Ocean ports, thereby enabling British companies to monopolize shipping in that "English lake"; simultaneously the British navy worked to eliminate piracy in the Persian Gulf. Said's prolonged struggles with the fierce Wahhabis from the desert marshes of Oman finally convinced him of the futility of attempting any expansion of his power within the Arabian peninsula. Oman quickly descended to the depths of poverty as unemployment rose and discontent spread.

A flexible and ambitious man, Said sought alternatives to improve the lot of his countrymen and agreed to a treaty with Britain in 1823 that forbade slave trading between his Moslem subjects and any Christian power, at least in the Persian Gulf. The British in return offered friendship and support for Said's commercial interests elsewhere, especially on the East African coast, where he tried to reassert dynastic claims to govern that region of long-standing Omani trading activity.


Move to Zanzibar

Devoting more energy to his African dominions in the 1830s, Said eventually relocated his capital from the city of Masqat to Zanzibar in 1840 and thus became an East African ruler with possessions in Arabia. Although Said never entirely abandoned Oman, it thereafter ranked as an unruly distant province rather than as the heart and soul of his realm. Said used military and naval expeditions, diplomatic scheming, and the personal appointment of governors to exploit local dynastic disputes among the East African Mazrui rulers; thus by 1841 the establishment of his authority over all main coastal towns made him the first ruler ever to control the coast from Mogadishu (Somalia) to southern Tanzania.

A merchant prince rather than a soldier, Said depended on mercantile and maritime resources for his power in both Oman and Zanzibar. Recognizing the suitability of Zanzibar climate and soil, he initiated large-scale cultivation of cloves—an essential meat preservative in Europe prior to the advent of refrigeration—and soon after sought slaves as cheap labor to plant and harvest the biennial crop. In order to reach potential slaving areas in the African interior, it was necessary to finance and equip caravans for this egregious activity; resident Indians long active in Indian Ocean business ventures were attracted by possible high returns on labor investments and not only extended credit to Arab-led caravans but henceforth supplied most loans for slave purchases at Zanzibar.

Said functioned as a skillful liaison, bringing together the available Indian capital for use by his Arab adventurers. He stood between these two disparate groups, preventing wasteful arguments and quarrels, protecting Arabs from arbitrary exactions by Indians, and requiring the moneylenders to make loans only to caravans and plantations controlled by men who had Said's personal approval. Despite Arab prestige and commercial power in the interior, Said never actually ruled over any sizable number of Africans there; and in fact, wherever Arabs offended powerful tribes such as the Nyamwezi and Shambaa of Tanzania, they were often expelled.

Said's creation of the Zanzibar sultanate brought renewed prosperity to his Omani followers, and by 1850 he reported an annual income exceeding £100,000. Zanzibar Town developed into an important international entrepôt exporting slaves and ivory from regions of present-day Mozambique and Tanzania, and the mainland north of the island witnessed the major development of grain and coconut plantations. This entire pattern of economic growth was continually underwritten by Indian capitalists at Zanzibar and coordinated largely by Said's government at the coast. Seyyid Said ruled the East African coast in this way until his death in 1856; afterward the Arab-Indian alliance slowly collapsed because of British interference, succession disputes, and political squabbles.

What was Seyyid Said's contribution to East Africa? If the answer is based on what he left behind, then undoubtedly the increase in the Islamic faith and the spread of Swahili as the lingua franca of the coast and interior are the most enduring monuments of his rule. Although his economic revival helped launch the first sustained contact between the East African coast and interior, the Sultan must also be remembered for his part in at least a century-long pattern of domination and exploitation established, maintained, and encouraged by him and his successors.


Further Reading on Seyyid Said

Said's years in Oman and Masqat are thoroughly examined in J. B. Kelly, Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795-1880 (1968). Reginald Coupland, East Africa and Its Invaders: From the Earliest Times to the Death of Seyyid Said in 1856 (1938), is an exhaustive historical survey of the East African coast, but many of its assumptions have been questioned and revised in Roland Oliver and others, eds., History of East Africa, vol. 1 (1963), and B. A. Ogot and J. A. Kieran, Zamani: A Survey of East African History (1968). A succinct statement on the slave trade is Edward A. Alpers, The East African Slave Trade (1967); and J. Spencer Trimingham, Islam in East Africa (1964), serves as a useful introduction to Moslem activity throughout the region.