Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar

Author: Judy Aldrick
: Old Africa Books
: 978-9966-7572-0-3

ReviewerRamnik Shah

`Spymaster` or not, Peera Dewjee was an important aide to successive Sultans of Zanzibar during the latter half of the 19th century and a book about him was long overdue. Judy Aldrick has done an impressive job of documenting his life and achievements, despite a paucity of material about his origins and precise role in the service of the Sultans.

She begins with this disarming disclaimer: `Very little is known for certain about the early life of Peera Dewjee, except that he was born in 1841 and came from Kera, a farming village in central Kutch`, but then builds up a plausible picture of his family and background as a member of the Ismaili Khoja community with roots in Kutch and their migration to East Africa via a spell in Bombay.  She struggles really to chart a more detailed course of Peera`a trajectory.  Even as regards the general profile of Indians in Zanzibar at that time, and how he fitted in there, she has to make do with assumptions and conjecture in the absence of concrete data, based in part on the writings of Burton, Stanley, et al.

What we learn is that Peera had somehow managed to read, write and speak English during his time as a pubescent boy in Bombay before arriving in Zanzibar, aged around 12.  At any rate, he was a precocious and enterprising young lad who quickly mastered the ropes of business as he grew into adulthood and became the family`s breadwinner after his father`s early death.  From these beginnings he was to progress into bigger and varied ventures over time.

But the book is really about how in the process he became an invaluable functionary of Barghash and his successors.  Barghash, aged 33, had succeeded his brother Majid as Sultan in 1870.  Their father, Seyyid Said, as Sultan of Oman and Muscat, had in 1832 established Zanzibar as the capital of his East African possessions which, on his death in October 1856, were carved out to Majid, who thus became the first Sultan of Zanzibar proper.

It was under Barghash`s rule that Peera rose to prominence and importance -  from a `humble lamp cleaner` to `close friend and confidant`!   He could speak Swahili, various Indian languages, English and quite possibly some French also.  These linguistic skills and a sharp native intelligence clearly were valuable assets which he was able to deploy to further both his and his employers` interests. It is little wonder then that he was often regarded as a `mover and fixer behind the scenes` and a `representative of the Sultan` and even described as `the Prime Minister of Zanzibar` in an 1885 article about Sir John Kirk, the distinguished British consul.

Peera`s story however is intimately tied up with that of Zanzibar as it got sucked into the European power game and ended up as a British protectorate in 1890. Not surprisingly therefore a great deal of the book is devoted to the dynastic Sultans themselves – including their extended family networks, palace intrigues, attempted coups, and relations with outsiders.  We thus get a most interesting overview of a changing Zanzibar through the reign of six Sultans: Majid (1856-1870); Barghash (1870-1888); Khalifa (1888-1890); Ali (1890-1893); Hamed (1893-1896) and Hamoud bin Mohammed (1896-1902).

But of course no history of Zanzibar during this period can be complete without a mention of slavery and its geographical position as an entrepôt and starting point for exploration into the interior, and as the gateway for all mainland traffic along the East African coast, at a time of aggressive European involvement in the region.

All this is cleverly, if unevenly, woven into the whole narrative. Aldrick has drawn character and outline sketches of the six Sultans and of the many British and European officials and other parties whose interactions and activities were to play a crucial part in the governance and development of Zanzibar. Then there are in-depth accounts of the travails of Princess Salme, who eloped with and married a German merchant, and of various naval blockades, internal rebellions and the so-called `shortest war` of a 45 minute bombardment by British warships which restored the Sultan`s throne to its rightful claimant. 

But what stands out most is undoubtedly Barghash`s incredible five week tour of England in 1875 as an honoured guest of the imperial government during which he was fêted at the highest levels of the British establishment.  This was to reward him for the 1873 treaty for the abolition of the slave trade and closure of the slave markets in his dominions.  Peera accompanied him as his (lowly) personal valet. Aldrick gives a vivid and detailed account of the whole trip, with a fascinating insight into what the Sultan and his entourage saw of Victorian society.  It was followed by a 10-day official visit to Paris.

Following Barghash`s return from Europe, there was a noticeable change, as `the balance of power had shifted decisively and [he] listened to the advice of his Indian merchants and the British Consul, more than his Arab chiefs and holy men`.  For his part, Peera began to emerge as an important figure in the Sultan`s circle.  From this point onwards, Aldrick`s task as a biographer becomes much easier because of numerous documented references to him, one of the earliest of which was in an 1878 letter by an American merchant.

There are numerous other archival citations scattered throughout the book.  We are told that by October 1879 Peera Dewjee had replaced Nassir bin Said bin Abdullah as the Sultan`s chief minister`, proof of which `appeared in a newspaper report of the visit of the Portuguese Governor of Mozambique to Zanzibar`.  From here on, there is an overwhelming mass of correspondence, newspaper reports, official memos, files and the like with Peera`s name in context.  He is more than a general factotum: he handles the Sultan`s business dealings, runs his shipping line, acts as his representative, officiates for him and becomes the chief organiser of palace events and much more.

Peera was the driving force behind the Sultan`s decision to start his shipping line.  In 1880, he was one of the Sultan`s closest advisers sent to England to acquire the steamship Nyanza. `The negotiations were successful  ... and the ship was bought for … the princely sum of 400,000 Rupees`.  There were numerous further trips that Peera Dewjee was to make to England and Europe `bearing gifts and messages from the Sultan and purchasing items on his behalf`.  His last was in 1902, as we shall see.

By the mid-1880s, the European machinations to divest the Sultan of his mainland territories were reaching a climax and both the Brits and the Germans were to gain concessions from him which paved the way for what became the ten mile wide strip along the whole length of the East African coast that was placed under their protection.  Barghash died in March 1888 and, according to Aldrick, Peera was part of a pre-arranged plan, under British and German Consuls, for a smooth transition to the next Sultan, Khalifa.

Khalifa was aged about 36 but unlike Barghash he had `little previous exposure to Europeans nor did his Arab mentors have a thorough understanding of western politics and they quickly foundered`.  With his knowledge of the European mindset and languages, Peera quickly `became the new Sultan`s chief diplomatic advisor`.  He was a strong character who brooked no nonsense and stood his ground, but his increasingly influential position did not endear him to the new British Consul, Colonel Euan-Smith.  The two fell out and Euan-Smith engineered Peera`s expulsion from Zanzibar despite Khalifa`s vigorous efforts to prevent it. So Peera left for Bombay on 9 April 1889, while Euan-Smith went to England on home leave.  Peera  however enlisted the help of Sir William Mackinnon to make representations on his behalf direct to London, the upshot of which was that `December 1889 saw the return of both Peera Dewjee and the British Consul General Euan-Smith` to Zanzibar!.

Then Khalifa died unexpectedly in February 1889 and was succeeded by Ali, the last surviving son of Seyyid Said.  Peera did not have a close relationship with Ali and so Peera`s focus shifted to his family and businesses.  He sent his eldest son, Abdulhussein, `to boarding school in England, the first Zanzibari to receive an education in England {who] set a precedent for others to follow`.  From around this time, Peera`s name began to appear regularly and frequently in the Zanzibar Gazette, a `marvellous source of information about life in Zanzibar at the end of the nineteenth century`.  As a prominent Indian grandee and citizen of Zanzibar, Peera Dewjee was often mentioned in the newspaper which provided a wealth of documentary evidence about later life.  One particular such occasion was the wedding of his third son Abdulrub in December 1900, which was celebrated with pomp and ceremony, attended by a wide cross section of Zanzibar`s high society, including `practically the entire English community [who] honoured it with their presence`.  The whole extended event was graphically described in the Zanzibar Gazette of December 19 and 25, 1890.   

Sultan Ali died on 5 March 1893 at the age of 38 and was followed by Hamed, under whose brief rule Peera regained his former status and position, which continued after his death in 1896 when he was succeeded by Hamoud bin Mohammed in 1896.  By this time, a lot had changed and the British were firmly in control of the administration.  In 1897, they organised `a series of elaborate festivities to mark the occasion of Queen Victoria`s Diamond Jubilee`,  and Peera was put in charge of a grand Arab banquet held at the British Agency, for which he was given special thanks by the British Consul, Arthur Hardinge.

Two further events may be noted:  in 1899 the Aga Khan came on a three-month tour of Zanzibar and mainland East Africa.  As a leading member of the Ismaili community, Peera made many arrangements for this visit and was given the ultimate honour of personally pulling the Aga Khan`s rickshaw through the narrow streets of the town.   And in 1902 Peera accompanied Ali, Sultan Hamoud`s son, to England to attend Edward VII`s  coronation. Ali however had to leave prematurely because of his father`s illness. Hamoud died on 18 July 1902, just nine days before Ali returned, to be proclaimed Sultan at the age of 18.  All this is described in the last chapter, `A Zanzibar Merchant and Grandee: Business to the Bitter End`, summing up the life and accomplishments of Peera, who died on 28 August 1904.

There is in fact a great deal more, not just about Peera, but also about Zanzibar, that is packed into the book  though quite a lot of it is, alas, somewhat haphazardly structured.  An appendix with a family tree and a time-line of the Sultans with a sequential overview of the major historical highlights of their rule would have been useful.  The Index is also inadequate in many respects.  But this is undoubtedly a work of immense scholarship, with a mass of footnotes and quotations, which clearly shows the depth and extent of research that has gone into the writing

Judy Aldrick has indeed produced a remarkable study of someone whose name had mostly featured in folk memory and references in other people`s (ie. European) literature or official records and newspaper reports.  Something else: she has also managed to collate and reproduce a varied collection of contemporary illustrations and photographs which together convey the flavour and imagery of the places and people at the centre of this reconstruction of an extraordinary man. In short, despite its technical flaws, this is an extremely readable and informative book which should appeal to all who have an interest in Zanzibar`s history.

© Ramnik Shah

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.