Thursday, September 5, 2013


Fig.1: The greatest contribution 
Zanzibar has ever given the world, 
suspenders and all.
If you're looking for a beautiful island with a rich history, colorful personalities, and one-of-a-kind wildlife, look no further than good ol' Zanzibar (even though it might be far from where you are, since it's on the east coast of Africa). While it is merely an autonomous region of the African nation of Tanzania today, Zanzibar boasts it's own unique independent history, and it even became the seat of power for monarchies as far away as the Arabian peninsula. While the mix of cultures present in Zanzibar have caused some conflict over the years, its blend of African, Arabian, and Indian peoples and customs have only added to the allure and flavor that make up the island. Most importantly, Zanzibar is the birthplace of a gentleman named Farrokh Bulsara, later known as Freddie Mercury (fig.1), lead singer and songwriter for the legendary rock group, Queen. Even though Mercury only lived on the island for a short period of his life, it had such a profound effect on him that nearly every Queen hit song was about the history of Zanzibar. Don't believe me? Well, let's go through and find out, shall we?

Archaeologists believe that Zanzibar has been inhabited for at least 20,000 years; since it is an island about twenty miles off the coast of the mainland, it must have been pretty difficult to "Keep Yourself Alive" with food and a fresh-water supply if you were an Ancient Zanzibarian. But they succeeded, and Zanzibar Town on the west side of the island is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Africa, which is one of the few accolades with "oldest" and "Africa" in it that the Egyptians haven't snagged up. A first century Greek text on ports in the Indian Ocean refers to an island named Menuthias in the location of Zanzibar, and praises its booming trade of tortoise shells, as well as even cryptically refers to "Fat Bottomed Girls" putting on a "Bicycle Race." Zanzibar was certainly one-of-a-kind even back then!

Fig.2: Zanzibar's Stone Town, where all the buildings,
monuments, and streets are constructed from stone.
As such, its town motto is the quite literal:  "It's a 
Hard Life."
At some point during the Middle Ages, Zanzibar became an attractive stopping point for several seafaring peoples, such as the Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chinese, and some blokes named the "Princes of the Universe." Sailors would arrive from all over the seas and trade commodities, such as grain, in return for ivory or spices; because of this, natives would always say that these naval merchants came from "The Seven Seas of Rhye." Eventually Persian settlers would establish a their own port near Zanzibar Town which came to be known as Stone Town (fig.2), and nicknamed "Stone Cold Crazy" Town on Friday night when chilled beer was on tap. Would it be too much of a stretch if I said that Stone Town's motto was "We Will Rock You?" Yes? Okay, nevermind then. Forget I even tried that joke.

History would begin to change for Zanzibar upon Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama's visit in 1498, as it became under the influence of seafaring Europeans proclaiming, "I Want it All!" While technically a part of the Portuguese Empire from the early 16th century, Zanzibar continued to rule itself, and only had to deal with those annoying Europeans when they came by for trade, taxes, or drunken doorbell ditching. This ended in the 1630s when the Sultan, under the influence of his wife later nicknamed the "Killer Queen," ordered the slaughter of all European inhabitants on the island, as well as the destruction of all of the albums of band named Europe (especially since they're not nearly as good as Queen). From that point, Portugal took a more hands-on approach to treating Zanzibar as poorly as every other colony they possessed. With cries of "Save Me," Zanzibar invited Saif bin Sultan, ruler of an Arabian kingdom called Oman who was looking to expand into Africa, to come down and get rid of those pesky Portuguese. He succeeded in 1698 (with "We Are the Champions" in the background), and helped to solidify Islam as the dominant religion on the island.

Fig.3: The Anglo-Zanzibar War took 39 minutes, which 
is "Bohemian Rhapsody" played six-and-a-half times. 
Coincidence? I think not!
Zanzibar was ruled from Oman until the 1830s, when the Sultan decided to have a "Seaside Rendezvous" and move his capital all the way down to Stone Town. As such, Zanzibar became the center of a trading empire that dominated the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea...until a brotherly feud and the British messed it all up (as usual). A succession dispute in 1856 caused two sons to split the empire, with one returning to Oman, and another creating the new Sultanate of Zanzibar. It unfortunately wouldn't have very much time to get off the ground and start kicking some butt, as the British were keeping them "Under Pressure" by taking vital seaports on the East African coast. The ascension of a sultan hostile to the Brits in 1896 gave them the excuse to declare war on Zanzibar; the subsequent bombardment lasted about 40 minutes until the Sultan's precious harem was destroyed (fig.3), and a truce was called. It is still considered the record for the shortest war in all of history, which Zanzibarians refer to as "My Melancholy Blues." (I didn't say every Queen song written for Zanzibar was a good one.)

Zanzibar remained under British control until the 1960s. This was around the time that African nations were crying out, "I Want to Break Free" and declaring independence, with most European powers just shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Oh well, 'Another One Bites the Dust.'" Zanzibar achieved their independence in 1963, and celebrated their freedom in the wrong manner by overthrowing the Sultan and killing up to 20,000 people of Arab and Indian decent. A 17-year-old Farrokh Bulsara and his family decided to flee to England during this time (since he was Parsi Indian), and luckily fell in with the right crowd, eventually forming Queen with some school chums. Zanzibar eventually settled down as well, as they decided to say "You're My Best Friend" to their eastward neighbor of Tanganyika. In 1964, the two nations merged governments, names, and shelf-space in the fridge to become the present-day county of Tanzania.

Fig.4: It's nice that Zanzibar had "Somebody to Love" in order to help create the nation of Tanzania.
As you can see, not only does Zanzibar have a rich and unique history, it is also the focus of nearly every great song produced by one of the most versatile and resilient rock bands of the 70s and 80s. Sure, you can call me a "Liar" and say that I really made a stretch to include all these Queen references just so I can do a post on Freddie Mercury's home island for his birthday or something, but how silly would that be? Anyway, turn in next week when we will celebrate the birthday of Second City comedian Marty Adams by composing a history on his hometown of Parry Sound, Ontario!

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