Palace of the sultan. This 50-rupee stamp is priced in the mid-$300s. The set from 1908-9 also includes a 100-rupee and 200-rupee value. This is evidence of Zanzibar’s prowess as a trade portal. The Scott catalogue notes that the two top values “were used only for fiscal purposes.”

Zanzibar has an exotic sound to it … conjuring images of minarets fringed by stately palms, caressed by trade winds carrying the tang of spice and sea. In “The Scramble for Africa,” author Thomas Pakenham constructs such a vision of 19th century Zanzibar: “Out of a sapphire sea rose a coral island of incandescent green, studded with groves of coconut and mango, and orchards of cloves, the palm forest decked with pink convolvulus, a thin line of creamy surf beating languidly on the milk-white sand. Approaching across the shimmering lagoon, one saw a city that might have been summoned from Aladdin’s lamp, its arches and colonnades, towers and turrets, flags and flagpoles, refracted upwards in the frenzy of a mirage.”

Reality never came close to the fantasy. Zanzibar may have been blessed with a mild climate, fertile soil and verdant landscapes. (It’s also where Queen’s Freddie Mercury was born, incidentally.)  But its ruling sultans were far from enlightened. The small island archipelago off the central-east coast of Africa might look out-of-the-way on maps, but Zanzibar played a major role in two key areas of the global economy: trade, and enslaved people. For the century of British involvement, the big island


Here are stamps from Zanzibar’s first set, issued in 1895-6. Before using these overprinted India stamps, Zanzibar made do with plain Indian stamps — which didn’t make much since, given that India is nearly 3,000 miles away.

Unguja and its neighbor island of Pemba thrived as suppliers of the world’s demand for cloves. Even greater was its success as a trading hub, accommodating caravans from the mainland and exporting ivory, rubber, hides and other raw materials; importing fine woven cloth, brass, knives and other manufactured goods from England. All this was done to benefit imperial overseers, the sultan and his tribe, not the struggling population of Zanzibar.

The sultanate originally was established in the mid-1700s by a dynastic clan from Oman, in the Persian Gulf. Zanzibar remained a center of the slave trade long after


Sultan Hamid bin Thuwain lasted only three years on the throne, from 1893 to 1896. Slavery continued on the sultanate’s clove plantations until 1-, a year after his death. An ugly succession battle between upstart Khalid bin Barghash and the British led to the deaths of hundreds before Barghash fled to the German consulate and exile.

1834, when slavery was abolished in the rest of the British empire. Without enslaved people, the sultans feared their clove industry would collapse, and with it the prosperous trade routes. Under British pressure, the sultan curtailed the slave trade with the mainland, though slavery continued on the royal clove plantations  until 1897.


The British eatablished a protectorate in Zanzibar in 1895, more to ensure their primacy over the Germans and the French than to provide succor to the people. Let it be said, however, that the imperialists did improve sanitation and other living conditions, such that the milk-white sand beaches no longer were defiled by the decaying waste and decaying carcasses that had befouled Stone Town for so long.


Hamoud bin Mohammed (above) was the British choice to succeed Hamid bin Thuwain in 1896. By an agreement going back decades, the British had the final say — and veto power. What a deal. This set was issued in 1899-1901, with a top value of just 5 rupees. Notice the way the margins are decorated with parallel red lines that run right through the perforations. This is the last set displaying the oddly distinctive design element.



Zanzibar has the distinction of hosting The Shortest War in History. It occurred in 1896, after the death of Sultan Hamid bin Thuwain. The British were ready to anoint Hamoud bin Mohammed the new sultan when a cousin, Khalid bin Barghash claimed the throne. One source suggests he was a national hero who wished to establish independence from Britain, but in allying with the Germans he seemed willing to trade  one oppressor for another. In any event, the Germans had little leverage. For two days Khalid defied the British, who then started shelling the royal palace. The sultan surrendered after 38 minutes — but not before some 500 of his protectors had been killed. He first escaped, then was captured and exiled to St. Helena — the same place Napoleon ended up. Eventually he was released and allowed to live on the African mainland, where he died in Mombasa in 1927.


The solemn-faced — and nearly clean-shaven — gent above is Sultan Ali bin Hamud, who reigned from 1902 to 1911. I don’t really have much to say about any of these guys, because it seems their chief distinction was to let the British have their way and preside with them over the systematic process of plunder, exploitation and extraction that was the colonial enterprise.



















Above is a stamp from the first set featuring Sultan Khalifa bin Haroub, issued in 1911. I’m just guessing, but I think the fellow had a big streak of vanity. For one thing, the bust of Comus or whoever above his head is quite a flourish, don’t you think? Then consider the following: The two stamps below were issued 10 years apart — 1926 and 1936 — yet they show the same portrait. Indeed, stamps featuring a vigorous, dark-bearded sultan continued in regular use until 1952, when a new set displayed an updated portrait of the by-now-73-year-old monarch (see image, below left). For anyone who hadn’t seen the sultan recently, it had to be a shock. He aged so fast! Why, on the stamps I bought just yesterday, he didn’t look a day over 47!

Khalifa bin Haroub, who took over as sultan in 1911, age 32, is notable for his durability and longevity. He remained sultan until his death 50 years later, on Oct. 9, 1960, age 82. He was said to be more popular than his successor, Abdullah bin Khalifa.  To be fair, Abdullah  didn’t have much of a chance. Already  50 when he became sultan, he seems to  have been in fragile health indeed. By the time of his death two years later, the sultan had lost both his legs.    fullsizeoutput_34c1

 It’s understandable, then, that Khalifa bin Haroub would have been comparatively popular: such a familiar figure. During his long reign, roads had been fullsizeoutput_34c2built, the port was developed, sanitation and living standards improved. It’s not as though the people had anything to say about it, though. The British overlords deserve at least as much credit as the sultan for any  improvements and honest administration.  






















Two stamps from the long definitive set issued in 1957 (see below) show an aged but pretty darn benign-looking sultan. The engraved pictorial set itself is gorgeous, with black borders holding the portrait, and centers in a soothing variety of colors. Alas, the sultan would succumb just three years later. His successor was the ill-fated Abdullah bin Kalifah. As mentioned above, Abdullah would survive only two years on the throne. To save time and take advantage of all the work done on the 1957 set, designers simply engraved a portrait of Abdullah and substituted it for the one of the late Sultan Khalifa (see further below). The new set was ready to go in 1961. By 1963, Sultan Abdullah was dead.


fullsizeoutput_349dThe sultans and their British masters had been in cahoots for more than a century, lording it over the people. It’s sadly predictable that a month after Zanzibar gained its independence (“uhuru”) in December, 1963, a bloody insurrection overthrew Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah (pictured at left). The last sultan was able to escape into exile. At this writing, he is 90 years old and living in Portsmouth, England, where he settled with his wife and seven children.

The revolutionaries had to use the old Abdullah definitive set (example below) with the overprint ”Jamhuri” — republic — because the fullsizeoutput_3491last sultan, Jamshid, didn’t have time to put out an updated definitive set using his own portrait. The fullsizeoutput_34b9stamp at right is a record of unfolding history — “uhuru” in 1963 and “jamhuri” in 1964. How Is a republic an improvement over a constitutional monarchy? Discuss.





Citizens of Zanzibar must have been confused in 1964 when the fourth “new nation” appeared on stamps in their local post offices. Just months before, their stamps had carried the name “Zanzibar,” the way they had since 1895. There was the matter of independence, and a month later, the Zanzibar Revolution that sent the sultan packing. But the name on the stamps stayed the same: Zanzibar. 






Not for long. Suddenly there were stamps from “Tanganyika and Zanzibar” …..










… then “Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar” …








… then “Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania” …











… until finally, just “Tanzania” — all by 1965! 


Possibly there were stamps available in Zanzibar post offices from three for four postal authorities at the same time. Can all these stamps be valid? Is it OK to put any or all of them on an  envelope? Is this a collector’s dream, or nightmare?

Here’s another oddity: Tanzania was proclaimed in 1964, to unite Tanganyika and Zanzibar — phonetically, geographically, politically and one would presume, philatelically. Yet Zanzibar continued to produce its own stamps, including this  set in 1965 (examples below) commemorating the “first anniversary of the revolution”    that is, the bloody coup that kicked out the sultan, one month after Britain granted Zanzibar independence.  

Version 2

fullsizeoutput_3492Later in 1965, revolutionary postal officials finally acknowledged Zanzibar’s official merger with Tanzania, though they brashly stuck their islands’ name ahead of the mainland in the ungainly title   “Zanzibar  Tanzania.”  Stop a moment and consider how bizarre is that name: After all, “Tanzania” was meant to combine “Tanganyika” and “Zanzibar,” wasn’t it? So to call your nation “Zanzibar Tanzania” is sort of … redundant, isn’t it? 

fullsizeoutput_4a88At right is a stamp from a short set of 1966, celebrating the second anniversary of the Zanzibar Revolution. Notice the rifle. Notice at the bottom of the stamp is the name “Zanzibar Tanzania.” Is Tanzania implicated in the Zanzibar Revolution, or what? Would the merger have happened without the revolution? Discuss.








This stamp (left), also from 1966, celebrates the second anniversary of the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika, soon to be Tanzania. Sorry the black-and-white reproduction is so fuzzy, but I think the stamp itself is a bit fuzzy. It pictures Zanzibar President Amani Karume and Vice President Abudlla Kassim Hanga. By this time, Tanzania had been in existence for more than a year, Zanzibar was part of Tanzania, in name and in law. Yet Zanzibar stamps continued to be issued. In the image at left, you can just make out the name “Tanzania,” roasting in the flames rising from the chalice of sovereignty. I don’t see the name “Zanzibar” anywhere on this particular stamp; nor do I see an image of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. So what exactly are we celebrating? The second anniversary of a revolution in a country that no longer exists? See what I mean by fuzzy?

For better or worse, the “Zanzibar Tanzania” gambit petered out — possibly due to sheer semantic illogic. A cryptic note in the Scott catalogue clarifies, maybe: “All Zanzibar stamps were withdrawn July 1, 1968, and replaced with current Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania stamps.”  **

fullsizeoutput_3496**Note:  Perhaps the following will help explain the sentence above, which leaves the impression that you also could buy stamps from Kenya and Uganda in Zanzibar. In 1961, the East Africa Common Services Organization was formed as a kind of common market. The idea went back to an imperial arrangement that began in the 1920s. Among other things, the new organization allowed for the circulation of postage stamps within Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Since the 1920s, the British territories had been issuing stamps with multiple names — first “East Africa and Uganda,” then “Kenya and Uganda,” and from 1935 to 1964, “Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika.”  After 1964, a few stamps were issued for “Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar.” Starting in 1965 it was, “Kenya, Uganda and


Here is an image of a stamp from the last set issued by the consortium of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, in 1976. It marks the 30th anniversary of East African Airways. Unfortunately, the design makes it look like that airplane is never going to get airborne, hemmed in by the bent edges of the triangular stamp. Sad to say, the “common market” between these countries had long since crashed and burned in a quagmire of corruption and mismanagement.

Tanzania,” which continued until the commission collapsed in 1976.  The reasons for the end of this noble experiment in cooperation should be obvious to any student of the appalling corruption and mismanagement that continue out of control in much of Africa. No self-dealing leaders want their schemes exposed in a common market. No one wants to share the loot. I’ll end with an idle philatelic question: I wonder how many of these stamps actually made it to local post offices in Zanzibar? 




Mon dieu! Qu’est-ce que c’est? The French? In Zanzibar? Well, not exactly. It seems the French were no more likely than the Germans to prevail as imperial rulers of that land. Here’s what the Scott catalogue has to say: “Until 1906, France maintained post offices in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, but in that year Great Britain assumed direct control over the protectorate and the French withdrew their postal system.”
How civilized.


I must include for all our viewing pleasure (above) this image from the Internet of the high values from the 1913 definitive set. The elegant engraving of a dhow is printed in black, with richly colored borders. The stamps are priced in the hundreds ($3,950 for the set, online).

fullsizeoutput_4a72Here is an example of why stamp collectors get a reputation for being kind of … kooky. Look at this envelope (right). The colored labels are postage-due stamps from 1931, carrying nothing more than the value and the message, “Insufficiently prepaid postage due.” They don’t even say “Zanzibar.’ The cover is selling online for $3,674. OK, it’s rare. But hardly in demand. And they sure aren’t very pretty.

fullsizeoutput_4a7fHow to summarize the 50-plus years of Zanzibar history after 1964? I’ll just say a few words. The stamp at left shows an inverted “Jamhuri” hand overprint from 1964. Looks like someone acted carelessly, perhaps in haste. You can buy these inverts online for $10 and up. The errors seem fitting, considering the upside-down story  of Zanzibar since 1964. The “revolution” itself was short and violent. My research suggests thousands were killed, mostly ethnic Arabs and Indians, and that there were few casualties among the revolutionaries. Abeid Karume, Zanzibar’s first president, was assassinated in 1972, by which time Zanzibar had been part of Tanzania for seven years.


In 2014, Tanzania issued stamps commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Zanzibar Revolution. The stamp pictured at right shows Sheikh Abeid Karume in 1964, looking spiffy in a coat and tie, surrounded by a rough-looking bunch of hombres in fatigues, identified only as “some of the revolution’s commanders.” I expect there would be some hair-raising stories to tell about each commander’s role in the blood-soaked revolution.


OK, for one brief, shining moment in 1964 there was hope for Zanzibar, right? Just look at these hopeful stamps — never mind the one in the corner with the guy holding a rifle. Uh, pay no attention to the bow and arrow, and hatchet, and scimitar. Hmmm. But look at the guy whose chains are breaking. Look at the unshackled arms with fists clenched … Come to think of it, what this aspirational set celebrates is the end of the sultanate, which had recently become a constitutional monarchy, like the UK. Down with the sultan! Down with imperialists! Oh wait. Zanzibar already had celebrated “Uhuru” — independence — back in December 1963. The imperialists already were gone. Overthrowing the sultan did bring an end to centuries of dynastic rule. Things could only improve under the republic, “jamhuri,” right? Right?