History is Written by the Victors ……They Say

Portrait of Abdulrazak Gurnah. Photo: © Mark Pringle

I grew up, and lived the greater part of my life, in Mombasa which like the rest of the East African coast has a vibrant Swahili community. However, being a woman of South Asian and Islamic background and upper middle class status, I found it well-nigh impossible to break down the walls of colonialism and patriarchy which kept us apart. Years later, reading Abdulrazak Gurnah’s writings has given me the insights I had been looking for, as well as a growing understanding of the ways colonialism affected different Kenyan and East African communities. It is a work-in-progress……

I was in the midst of reading After Lives when the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced as awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah; so you can imagine my sense of gratification and added interest as I raced to the final chapter. As I put away the book, I noticed another book which had been sitting on my ‘to read’ bookshelf for some decades. It was The Sultan’s Spymaster by Judy Aldrick – I knew the author from my Mombasa days and had always admired her meticulous research talent.

The Sultan’s Spymaster covered the same geographical terrain and more or less the same colonial era as After Lives and being a historical novel, I thought would add a further dimension to Gurnah’s fascinating story. So I delved into it. I have learnt a lot but these were lessons I had not expected to encounter at all.

For a start, the two books could not have been more disparate; almost unrecognizably so. ……. After Lives tells the stories of Zanzibaris, and their everyday lives which of course include the impact on them of the Sultans and colonizers who ruled over them. The Sultan’s Spymaster on the other hand, is the story written through the eyes of a colonizer, Britain to be exact, and about the colonizer. The author, in her preface, accepts that history is ‘written by the winning side’ – Peera Dewji, the Spymaster, is the axis around which the colonizer’s story is woven; the first documentary evidence of this person’s existence does not appear until page 123 in this 292-page book, and much of his thinking and activities are conjecture based on the colonial history of that period.

It is a history as experienced and perpetrated by the British authorities, explorers, writers, historians, missionaries, professionals and experts. It is their interaction with, and assessment of, the Arab rulers and their entourages which they overthrew; and of this one Indian merchant, Peera Dewji. Zanzibaris, the Waswahili and African ‘children of the soil’, are absent from this narrative – they don’t exist. There is scant information about the large Indian community and the Arab/Omani citizens of Zanzibar who served the Sultans and played such a vital role in Zanzibar’s history. The history of this ‘cosmopolitan metropole’ with a thriving civilization rich in art, architecture, literature and culture does not figure in this narrative. Zanzibar in fact was a melting pot of languages, cultures and religions. The contrast is stark – while Aldrick dispenses of the ‘rebels’ in a couple of sentences, Gurnah gives details of the wide spread of these uprisings and explains their motivations and goals.

While the interpretation of history can vary with the writer’s ethos, certain facts of history are indisputable. A major focus of the Spymaster is the abolition by Britain of the slave trade. But no mention is made of Britain’s central role in the barbaric Atlantic slave trade and its crucial function in building the Empire; and no explanation whatsoever is given for the centuries later sudden British ‘change of heart’. Walter Rodney in his seminal book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, first published in 1972, has described at length how the slave system became an impediment to the growth of industrial capitalism and the colonial project. An Abolitionist Movement was then allowed to flourish and justify the change from slavery to colonization.  

Much is made of the fact that Indians and Arabs of standing owned slaves; but ‘the lack of free labour being no option’ is the excuse given for the Christians and Europeans who owned slaves. The Indians, who have been going to East Africa since Egyptian times, are portrayed predominantly as participants in the slave trade; their enormous contribution in the development of Zanzibar and the East African region is virtually unstated.  Distortion of historical facts and provocative language and imagery (describing ordinary people as ‘motley crowd’; slaves as ‘frightened pigeons’ and a drawing of a near naked ‘banyan’ (Hindu businessman)) are just a few examples of a rather disparaging portrayal of Zanzibari society.

It is said: ‘Until the lions write their own histories, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ And now it appears that ‘the lions are writing their own histories’. Abdulrazak Gurnah is one those lions – After Lives, Desertion and Paradise (which I have read) and his other books open up for us a thriving and dynamic society, with all its positives and negatives. The East African story is not only about colonialism – people were talking to each other and interacted.

Class divisions had not yet become so rigid and assimilation, tolerance and mutual respect was the order of the day. Slaves were treated as family members (which in no way justifies the heinous trade); orphans were parented; belief in traditional medicine made up for the lack of ‘scientific’ health benefits and trust and family honour was the glue that held society together. The prevailing Islamic culture ensured a degree of egalitarian and humanitarian behaviour allowing all religions to exist in harmony. The tradition of the Sultan’s baraza (assembly) wherein the public could address the Sultan directly and voice their requests and complaints was democracy in practice.

But Zanzibar was not Paradise! The Last Gift describes how women were treated as merchandise, traded by their ‘uncles’ and inherited by them. And how enthusiastically the women performed their worthlessness while maneuvering their survival in this captivity. Gurnah writes about how the children of the enslaved hated the Sultan and devised ways to mock him and his entourage; about the people’s assessments of the German and British colonizers and their tacit resistance to them; and the tyrannical ways in which parents treated their children paying so little attention to their needs.

A passing comment informs us of the racism of colonialism. In After Lives we read that at the end of World War 1 when the British defeated the Germans; in Tanganyika they repatriated the German prisoners-of-war back to Germany, but abandoned to their fate the African soldiers who had been enlisted into it by the Germans.

As Gurnah has stated in an interview: ‘We know about the macro-aggressions, we need to know more about the micro-agressions.’ His well-researched and factual historical data is embedded in the people’s realities … the lions are writing their own stories.


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