The lost library of Zanzibar
Since the revolution of 1964 the coral-stone houses of Zanzibarhave fallen into decay; but a colonial-era library remains intactBy John Ryle • 1985 • The Times Literary Supplement • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 3,298 words
Here in Zanzibar, two decades on, the revolution has preserved some things; others have been irrevocably destroyed. When the Arab elites fled in 1964 they left their coral-stone houses to the mercy of the new rulers; the new rulers left them to the mercy of the tropical rain. The rain was not kind. Twenty years later the narrowest alleys of the stone town are blocked with crumbling masonry, the nesting place of rats and spiders. Nothing is left of some old buildings except massive, intricately carved wooden doors, now thresholds of vacancy; many similar doors have been illegally exported.
But as of the mid-1980s Zanzibar has been saved by its nominally socialist regime from the depredations of tourism; civic life survives; its streets are clean. The island even has a television station, while the mainland has none. The TV was turned up high in the Africa House Hotel the night I arrived, broadcasting the shimmering cross-rhythms of Zairean guitars into the darkness. The manager of the hotel was closeted in his office with a spiky-haired fille de joie. In the bar two government employees were drinking a toast to the television. One was a translator, he told me, working in the Foreign Ministry; the other had something to do with fisheries. There was a Chinese doctor from the V.I.Lenin Memorial Hospital out cold in a wicker chair alongside them. Kittens played round his splayed feet; their mother was pregnant again. Out on the reef the lamps of the fishermen came and went like fireflies.
Archival research was not on my agenda in Zanzibar. And I was relieved not to be attempting it; the difficulties of obtaining access to government records are all too vividly described in the last book about the island, Esmond Bradley Martin’s Zanzibar: Tradition and Revolution (1978). His description of the Africa House, formerly the English Club, still holds: the billiard-table swathed in a dust-sheet like an enormous coffin, photographs from the colonial era forming a sepia cordon in the corridor—a clove-picker, a rope-maker, a medicine-man from Pemba—culminating, with admirable lèse-majesté, in a colour photograph of the president of Tanzania mounted opposite the bar, faded pale blue by sunlight.
Forty years ago the English Club—as it was then—was described at length in Evelyn Waugh’s Remote People. Waugh’s sojourn over Christmas 1930 was a grumpy one. He found it excessively hot; drops of sweat blurred the notes he took on local history in the library. He had no appetite, and sought relief from the heat of the day by covering his head with eau de quinine and putting it under an electric fan. Half a century later Esmond Bradley Martin’s complaints were more substantial: he reported that the food in the hotel was tasteless, the bar poorly stocked and the library non-existent. On the first two counts he was right enough. But when it came to the library he was mistaken.
The Effect of Tropical Light on White Men
Above the entrance to each room in the Africa House there was a superannuated ivory plaque, yellowed by age, indicating “Bath”, “Dining”, “Bar” or “Billiard Room”. Beyond the Billiard Room, over a pair of bolted and padlocked swing doors, another of these plaques spelled out the word “Library”. There are not many libraries in Zanzibar, and the contents of this one, unprotected by any government ministry or institution of learning, did not seem likely to have survived. But the desire to touch old books—to open them and sniff and riffle through their pages—waxes strong. So I lingered in the bar, with the slow waves of the bay, the Zairean guitars, and the gush of a broken tap merging in my ears. Towards midnight, when the manager emerged uncertainly from his office, I was waiting for him.
“Key?” he said when I enquired about access to the library. “There is no key. Key is lost. Go sleep now.”
Either he meant that I should go and sleep, or that he was about to do so himself. Or both. In any case he turned off the lights in the bar, though he omitted to switch off the television, leaving it broadcasting snow and white noise.
“Sleep,” he murmured once again, like an impatient hypnotist. “Sleep. Sleep.”
Evelyn Waugh sought relief from the heat of the day by covering his head with eau de quinine and putting it under an electric fan.
I gave him five minutes, then sidled up to the library door with my Swiss Army knife, the one with a gadget that can be used when needed, among other purposes, for forcing locks. The padlock on the library door was the low-spec Chinese kind that you can buy in markets and bazaars across the developing world. It was no match for Swiss steel. The bolt was stiff and cracked as it gave. The doors swung open into must and darkness.
I pulled them to behind me, A faint bluish light from a street lamp outside filtered through louvred windows, deep-set in the Arab style. It gave off dark reflections from glass-fronted bookcases. Fumbling for the light switch, I managed to turn on the ceiling fan. Something rustled in the draught. When I found the light, I saw there was a set of index cards from the library catalogue, inscribed in copperplate and fanned out across a green baize table as though from a hurriedly abandoned game of vingt-et-un. Also on the table was a disconnected bakelite telephone and a single china egg-cup, and notices instructing users to replace borrowed books in alphabetical order, ordaining a five-rupee fine for those overdue.
It’s nearly half a century since the rupee has been the currency of Zanzibar. The period ambience of the room was immaculate, as though expensively recreated for a feature film set in the colonial era. And there were the books, nailed-up in teak bookcases and classified on ivory plaques—like the plaques that marked the functional divisions of the Africa House—into seven bibliographical categories: Biography, Fine and Recreative Arts, Philosophy, Natural Science, Religion, Literature and—last and clearly least—Poetry.
There were three-decker biographies of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington and Chateaubriand. There was Daisy, Princess of Pless By Herself; there were novels by A. C. Benson, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Hope. There was Joseph Conrad’s Victory, Eugenics and Other Evils, a collection of essays by G. K. Chesterton, and the complete works of the Belgian poet and dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck. There were travel books: On Horseback Through Asia Minor—and others, on foot, through various places. There was a nod to the dominant religion of the island in the form of an English translation of the Koran. Finally, there was that indispensable bedside book for newly appointed Assistant District Officers, The Effect of Tropical Light On White Men. It’s a book that offers no simple answer to the enigma of its title: some can take it, it would seem; some can’t. The moral, though, is clear: be sure to wear your sola topi at all times in the day.
The effect of tropical light on books, by contrast, is unambiguous: it darkens pages and fades bindings. Some of the more popular titles in the library bore signs of having been left too long out on the verandah a decade or two earlier. On the shelves, meanwhile, the dust of decades had gathered. The smell of old books—that hurtles the habitual reader back to childhood and the first, heady steps on the path of bibliomania—surged forth and lingered in the room, as ubiquitous as the sweet reek of cloves in the town outside. Some books showed evidence of wear; most were intact, pristine, pre-war. There were no paperbacks—no perfect binding to impugn the subtle curves of sewn canvas and leather lined up on the shelves. The books here had been selected for recreation rather than study. They formed a period piece, a transplanted circulating library, innocent both of the classics and of the modern book with its short shelf-life.
The Chinese had come to the Swahili coast before the Portuguese, before the Americans, before Britain. They had taken sea-slugs and left crockery behind. Was that not a fair exchange?
More than a movie set, perhaps, being in the library was like wandering into a diorama, into a display at a museum. On exhibit: the modestly-furnished late imperial mind, circa 1935. These solid volumes, ready to be signed out, evoked the spectral presence of a restless middle-brow colonial offcial in search of diversion for the long afternoons on an uneventful island, one of the imperial caste of just, well-informed, soap-loving young men, as they were mockingly characterised by Waugh in Remote People.
In this sense Waugh had written himself into the library. But none of his own books had made it there, despite his sweat-ridden days under the fan. Or perhaps they had been purloined. There was hardly anything of local interest left in the collection. Examination of the catalogue revealed that all the books about Zanzibar had vanished. They could have strayed on board a passing Union Castle liner, or into some private house in town. Many rupees in fines must now be owing on Richard Burton’s First Steps in East Africa and Major Pearce’s Zanzibar: The Island Metropolis of East Africa (1920), not to speak of Captain Sullivan’s racy memoir of the suppression of the slave trade, Dhow Chasing in Zanzibar Waters (1873). All that remained of local interest was a carefully rolled-up portrait of the last sultan, Sir Jamshid bin Abdullah Al Said—deposed in the violent revolution of 1964 and living, to this day, quietly in England, in Portsmouth. It is a portrait that it would nevertheless still be tactless to display publicly in Zanzibar.
Sharks’ fins, birds’ nests and bêches-de-mer
There were a few works of relevance to tropical islands remaining in the Natural History section. One such was Frank T. Bullen’s Creatures of the Sea (1904), published, curiously, by the Religious Tract Society. Earlier in the day I had been talking to Mr Wong, a courteous Chinese trader, and long-time resident of the island, about such animals as these. Mr Wong was the last sea-slug merchant in Zanzibar, exporting bêches-de-mer back to China—obese, black, banana-like creatures that he laid out to dry for export on the seafront, along with his home-made noodles.
Zanzibar was once famous for sea-slugs, and for sharks’ fins. In Frank T. Bullen’s maritime tract, between meditations on the foolishness of dugongs and the fecundity of turtles, there occurs this reflection on English culinary fashion of the time.
In the cult of turtle soup we are following . . . the example set by the Chinese, who love gelatinous soups and pay fabulous prices for the nest of the sea swallow, the holothuria or sea slug, and sharks’ fins, simply because of their gelatinous qualities.
That it should be the pursuit of gelatinousness that brought the Chinese across the Indian Ocean—rather than lust for territorial dominion, or slaves, or ivory—seemed touchingly heroic, the stuff of mock epic. My heart warmed to Mr Wong, and to the Chinese doctor in the bar. The Chinese, after all, had come to the Swahili coast before the Portuguese, before the slavers, before the American whalers, before Britain did the deal that gave her hegemony over Zanzibar in exchange for ceding Heligoland to Germany and the Sahara to France. The Chinese had taken only sea-slugs and left crockery behind. And, later, padlocks. Was that not a fair exchange?
The British may have halted the slave-trade in Zanzibar, but they perpetuated the historical power of the Arabs over the soi-disant Shirazis, the black descendants of the earlier inhabitants of island, who comprise the great majority of its population. In 1964, a month after independence, these indigenous—or comparatively indigenous—inhabitants ousted their Arab rulers in a bloody uprising. Following this, Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika, becoming part of a new, independent country, Tanzania. Since then the Shirazi Zanzibaris have been, more or less, in charge of their own destiny. The sultan’s palaces have been taken over by the Army or by the Party. At this point the government also owns all the hotels in Zanzibar, including the Africa House. It cannot be said that the spirit of enterprise has thrived. But it is slow decay rather than wilful destruction that has made Zanzibar what it is today. For outsiders of a certain sensibility, this gives it a subtle charm.
The translator’s outburst
As I was browsing the scattered books in the library I heard a sound outside. I turned toward the door with a flash of guilt. But it was not, as I had feared, the manager of the hotel, woken by the noise of the breaking lock and coming to rebuke me for my transgression. Before me, rather, stood one of the government officials from the bar. It was the translator. He had emerged from his slumber on the verandah and—deliberately or not—fallen against the door of the library on his way out. His eyes were red; but his hands were neatly manicured. He wore a western-style suit, and spoke in fits and starts. His English had traces of an American accent.
“Ah,” he said, collecting himself. “Good evening. I wanted to speak to you. You are from the States?”
“No”, I said. “I’m English.”
“I can tell that”, said the translator swiftly. “You are from London. I think you are of the lower class.”
“Really?” I said, in as dry a tone as I could muster. “That is so obvious?”
“I know your type. You are a cockney. Ill-educated. Not like they used to send here. You are from the Far East.”
“Really?” I said blankly. “Me? From the Far East?”
“The Far East End. That is where you come from . I can tell at a glance. You are a poor person.”
He glanced at the portrait of the old sultan.
“My father was important. He was dubbed, I tell you. Zanzibar is just like England. We are an offshore island. But who are you? You have no class, that’s what. But I have first class. First class.”
So the translator was giving me to understand that his father had been granted a knighthood by the colonial government. It was possible, though I wondered if it was any more accurate than his insights into my own social origins.
“Ndugu—Comrade—” I said, in what I intended as an ironically self-righteous tone of voice, “Is Tanzania not a classless society now?”
“Now?”, said the translator, gazing at me with indignation. “Now? What do you know of now?”
“Now everything is spoilt,” he said. “All beautiful things are destroyed.”
“In the old days you could eat off the streets here. Now they are full of vermin. You could buy anything before. Now the shops are empty.”
“Learning was rife, I tell you,” said the translator. “Illitricity was unknown.”
“And now?” he continued. “Illitricity, brother, it is everywhere. Even the teachers cannot read. Holy Koran is forgotten by them. Men wear hats and call themselves Muslims and they do not know how to say their prayers.”
“This is now. This is all there is. There is nothing left, nothing at all. Look at it. Look.”
He gestured towards the bar and the billiard room outside.
“This was the most exclusive club in the whole of Zanzibar. And now?—”
“Now,” said the translator, “it is filled with trash.”
The light of dawn gilded the shelved books, like honey sealed in the comb, miraculously preserved from the trashing of history and the slow rot of the town
He could only mean us. Me, in particular. There was no one else remaining. The man from the Fisheries Department had left. The Chinese doctor had long gone to bed. There were no other guests. Outside, the first light of dawn was filtering down into the alley, revealing black mould on the cracked walls, a crest of jungle greenery on collapsed rafters. The translator and I, as though after a fight, sat silent and still, mesmerized by it. The sunlight gilded the shelved books, like honey sealed in the comb, enchanted, miraculously preserved from the trashing of history and the slow rot of the town.
My companion emerged from his trance.
“Don’t write what I say”, he said, as though surprised by his own outburst, “I am just a translator.”
Remnants of empire
In tropical countries like Zanzibar remnants of empire are everywhere: Omani mosques, Chinese crockery, European libraries. After three centuries of foreign domination, these are the materials that are left to rebuild with. The translator’s account of universal cultural decay required qualification in the light of day. On the question of literacy, for example. The city is filled with the babble of schoolchildren. Rather than English or Arabic, however, the medium of instruction is Kiswahili, the language of the coast, which is also the national language of Tanzania and the lingua franca of most of East Africa.There is a Linguistic Institute in Zanzibar, where local students can study European languages and where foreigners come to learn Swahili. I’d thought of studying there myself. I found myself wondering idly if such a place would have any use for a British colonial library from the 1930s like the one where I had just spent half the night. Probably not, though. It would be better for the library at the Africa House to remain sequestered where it was, as a period piece, a shrine, a memento of that time on the coast when the people of the gunboat and the liberal arts held sway.
I did not say any of this to the translator, though. He was in a trance once more. And he did not seem to be bothered about the contents of the library. The source of his distress was the disappearance of the social distinctions it had once reflected, the vanished hierarchies of class and race from which he had derived his identity. The fact that the rows of books and the green baize table remained as they had always been appeared to calm him.
Perhaps he had been in the habit of coming here in the evening. Perhaps it had been he who spilled the index cards in their casual arc across the baize table. Perhaps he had the key to the library, to the lock I had broken, and this was where he habitually slept off his drinking bouts. He and I were the Box and Cox of the Book Museum, characters from the long-forgotten Victorian farce in which two characters occupy the same lodgings unbeknownst to each other, alternating by day and night until, by accident, they finally meet. I was the interloper, usurping the translator’s nocturnal retreat, his refuge from a present he found hard to bear.
The translator was slumped in one of the leather chairs now, his head on the table. His trance, I saw, had turned to sleep. So I left him there in the library, as the sun rose, stifling an impulse to bolt the door on the outside. The manager scowled as I passed through the lobby. I decided not to confide in him my idea to make a shrine of the book room in his hotel. The Chinese doctor was shadow-boxing on the beach. He, I supposed, in his heart of hearts, thought we were all barbarians .★
For a more recent—and more scholarly—account of the Africa House library, see Jono Jackson’s article, The Lost Library, in the London Library Magazine, Spring 2016, and the same writer’s MSc thesis.