Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar

Author: Judy Aldrick – © 2015 Judy Aldrick

ISBN 978-9966-7572-0-3   

Published by Old Africa Books, Naivasha, Kenya


Reviewed by Ramnik Shah


Although `Spymaster` of the title may be a bit hyperbolic, Peera Dewjee (whose name was spelt with a few variations at different times) was indeed 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 origin and his precise role in the service of the Sultans even at the peak of his career.

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` (p 21), 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, Christie and Speke.

What we learn is that Peera had somehow (though `[t]he truth will never be known` – p 29) managed to read, write and speak English during his time as a pre-pubescent boy in Bombay before arriving in Zanzibar, aged perhaps 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.  Again, how this came about is left to speculation and surmise: `It is hard to imagine Peera did not start a trading business of some kind. Like most of his generation he was a businessman to his fingertips` – p 79.  From these beginnings he was to progress into bigger and varied ventures, overcoming many challenges along the way.

But the book is really about how in the process he became an invaluable functionary of Barghash and his successors.  Barghash himself 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 (p 35) which, on his death in October 1856 (when Barghash was about 19), were carved out to Majid, who thus became the first Sultan of Zanzibar proper, as part of his inheritance settlement.

It was under Barghash`s rule that Peera rose to prominence and importance -  from a `humble lamp cleaner` to `personal barber and valet`, to informant and messenger, to chief steward and major domo and to `close friend and confidant`!   `He could speak Swahili, various Indian languages, English and quite possibly some French as well. Peera was perfect spy material` (p 62).  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 variously described or regarded as a `mover and fixer behind the scenes` (p 197) and a `representative of the Sultan` (p 68/69), and even as `the Prime Minister of Zanzibar` in an 1885 article about Sir John Kirk, the distinguished British consul, as quoted in the book`s prelude and later in the text.

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 are treated to a most fascinating insight into 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).  The first four were brothers or half-brothers, sons of Seyyid Said, while Hamed was a descendant in direct line, and so presumably was Hamoud who followed him, though this is not spelt out in the book.

But of course no history of Zanzibar during the period in question can be complete without a mention of slavery, 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 European imperial expansion and involvement in the region. All this is cleverly, if a little unevenly, woven into the whole narrative.  Aldrick has also drawn character and background sketches of the Sultans and of the various 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 also indepth 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 brought down a pretender to the Sultan`s throne in favour of the 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 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, though a lowly personal valet at the time, accompanied him, while the legendary Tharia Topan, who had a much higher status and standing, was a key member of the Sultan`s entourage. Aldrick gives a vivid and detailed account of the whole trip, which was followed by a shorter 10-day official visit to Paris, in Chapter 9, which also gives a fascinating insight into what the visitors saw of Victorian society.

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` (p 145).  For his part, Peera began to emerge as an important figure in the service of the Sultan.  From this point onwards, Aldrick`s task as a biographer is made much easier because of numerous documented references to Peera which brought him under the limelight.  For example, as she says (at p 153), one of the earliest recorded snapshots of Peera Dewjee appears from an 1878 letter written by an American merchant describing an incident in which there was a violent confrontation between Peera, who was acting for the Sultan, and a Smith Mackenzie agent Archie Smith.

There are numerous other archival citations scattered throughout the book.  In Chapter 11, `The Sultant`s Right Hand Man`, 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` – p 163.  From here on, there is an overwhelming mass of material in the form 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. 

Consider this: Peera was the driving force behind the Sultan`s decision to start his own shipping line.  In 1880, he sent a team of his closest advisers, among them Peera Dewjee, as negotiating expert, and Bomanjee Manockjee, as chief engineer, to England to acquire the steamship Nyanza.  They `duly arrived in London on 21 August 1880 and stayed once more at the Alexandra Hotel in Hyde Park Corner where Barghash and his entourage had stayed in 1875`  And further: `The negotiations were successful  ... and the ship was bought for the Sultan for the princely sum of 400,000 Rupees` (p 167).  And 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` (p 169).  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 – this is explained in Chapter Twelve under `The Fall of the Arab East African Empire and Death of Barghash`.  Barghash died in March 1888 and, according to Aldrick, Peera was part of a pre-arranged plan, involving the British and German Consuls, to ensure 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 ability to talk with European officials, Peera quickly `became the new Sultan`s chief diplomatic advisor` (p 202).  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 stave the deportation.  Peera then left for Bombay on 9 April 1889, while Euan-Smith went to England on home leave (p 216).  Peera however enlisted the help of Sir William Mackinnon to make representations on his behalf and on `29 October 1889 the Secretary of State for Foreign (A)ffairs wrote to the Government of Bombay requesting that Peera Dewjee be ... granted permission to return to Zanzibar after November 30` (p 223).  By coincidence, `December 1889 saw the return of both Peera Dewjee and the British Consul General Euan-Smith` (p 225).

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` (p 236).  From around this time, Peera`s name began to appear regularly and frequently in the Zanzibar Gazette which, as Aldrick tells us, is a `marvellous source of information about life in Zanzibar at the end of the nineteenth century`, and  `As a prominent Indian grandee and citizen of Zanzibar, Peera Dewjee is often mentioned and the newspaper provides a wealth of documentary evidence for [his] later life` (p 236).  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` (p 261).  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 ( p 241), 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` (p 255), and Peera was put in charge of the Grand Arab Banquet held at the British Agency (p 258), for which he was given special thanks by the British Consul, Arthur Hardinge (p 259).

Two further events may be noted:  in 1899 the Aga Khan came on a three-month tour of Zanzibar and mainland East Africa (p 261).  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 (p 262).   And in 1902, Peera accompanied Ali, Sultan Hamoud`s son, on an official visit to England to attend Edward VII`s coronation. As it happened, Hamoud died on 18 July 1902, just nine days before Ali returned, only to find that he had been proclaimed Sultan at the age of 18 (p 278/9).  All this is described in detail in the last chapter (Seventeen): `A Zanzibar Merchant and Grandee: Business to the Bitter End`, summing up Peera`s life and accomplishments.  He 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, even though quite a lot of it is, alas, somewhat haphazardly structured.  An Appendix with a family tree and time-line of the Sultans and a sequential overview of the major historical highlights of the period would have been useful.  The Index is also inadequate in many respects.  But there can be no doubt that this is a work of immense scholarship. This is evident from the 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 indirect references in other people`s (ie. European) literature, official records or newsprint.  Something else: she has also managed to collate and reproduce a collection of contemporary illustrations and photographs which together convey the flavour and imagery of the places and people involved in this reconstruction of an extraordinary man.

In a nutshell, 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


The author has also written widely about East African coastal art and architecture and had previously collaborated with Cynthia Salvadori on her seminal works on Indian communities in the region.

Category :- Diaspora / Reviews

પુસ્તક પરિચય

રમેશ મહેતા

આચમન (ડાયસ્પોરિક વાર્તા-કવિતા-નિબંધ સંચય) સંપાદક : અનિલ વ્યાસ - રમણભાઈ પટેલ, પ્રકાશક : નવભારત સાહિત્ય મંદિર, પ્ર.આ. ૨૦૧૦ મૂલ્ય : ૧૭૫/- રૂ. પૃ. ૨૫૯

બ્રિટનમાં વસતા સર્જકો દ્વારા લખાયેલી વાર્તા-કવિતા અને નિબંધોનો આ સંચય બ્રિટનની ‘ગુજરાતી સાહિત્ય અકાદમી’ દ્વારા તૈયાર કરવામાં આવ્યો છે. સંસ્થાના પ્રમુખ ભદ્રા વડગામા પુસ્તકના નિવેદનમાં લખે છે : ગુજરાતી સાહિત્ય અકાદમીના મહામંત્રી તરીકે બ્રિટનમાં તેમણે (શ્રી વિપુલ કલ્યાણી) છેલ્લાં ત્રીસ વર્ષથી ગુજરાતી ભાષા અને એના સતત વિકાસ માટે જે અજોડ સેવા આપી છે, તેને લક્ષમાં રાખીને તેમના બહુમાનરૂપે આ પુસ્તકનું સંકલન કરાયું છે.

ગુજરાતી સાહિત્ય અકાદમી છેલ્લા ત્રીસ વર્ષથી બ્રિટનનું ગુજરાતી ભાષા અને સાહિત્યને માત્ર જીવંત નહીં પરંતુ ધબકતું રાખવાનો પ્રશસ્ય પ્રયાસ કરે છે. ડાયસ્પોરિક સાહિત્યને ઉત્તેજન આપે છે. વિદેશમાં વસતા સર્જકોની સર્જકતાનું પ્રતિબિંબ આ ગ્રંથમાં પડે છે. ‘આચમન’માં તેર જેટલી વાર્તાઓ, ૩૯ જેટલી કવિતાઓ અને આઠ નિબંધોનો સમાવેશ કરવામાં આવ્યો છે.

પ્રસ્તુત સંપાદનની વાર્તાઓ પ્રમાણમાં વધુ સર્જકો-ઉન્મેષ પ્રગટાવે છે, તેમ કહી શકાય. આનંદરાવની ‘મીનાક્ષીની મૉટેલ’માં વિદેશમાં વસતી નારીના સંઘર્ષની કહાની છે. લંપટ પતિને વિદેશી મિત્રની સહાયથી પાઠ ભણાવતી મીનાક્ષી જાનદાર પાત્ર છે. ‘ત્રણ મોસંબી અને કોબીનો દડો’ વાર્તામાં સમાજમાં વાહ વાહ કરાવતા દાનવીર તરીકેની ખ્યાતિ ધરાવતા ચીનુભાઈની બધિરતાને કળાકીય રીતે વ્યક્ત કરી છે. ડૉ. જયંત મહેતાએ તેમની વાર્તા ‘રૂંધાતા શ્વાસ’માં પોતાની વ્યવસાયિક જાણકારીને ખપમાં લઈ સુંદર વાર્તા રચવા પ્રયત્ન કર્યો છે. બ્રિટનના જાણીતા સર્જક કવિ ડાહ્યાભાઈ પટેલની ‘સંસ્કૃિત ખાતર’ વાર્તામાં ઍડવર્ડ અને રોબર્ટનાં પાત્રો સાથે સંસ્કૃિતનો સંઘર્ષ વ્યક્ત થયો છે. પન્ના નાયકની ‘લેડી વિથ અ ડૉટ’માં વિદેશમાં વસવાટ કરતી અલ્પાને ભારતીય પોષાક(સાડી)ને કારણે પડતી મુશ્કેલી અને અલ્પા દ્વારા કરાતો સામનો વાર્તાનું રૂપ ધરે છે. આ જ રીતે સંચયની અન્ય વાર્તાઓમાં વલ્લભ નાંઢાની ‘ચામડીનો રંગ’, ભ્રૂણ હત્યાના વિષયને લઈ આવતી બળવંત નાયકની ‘છીપનું મોતી’, પત્રશૈલીથી આરંભાતી ભદ્રા વડગામાની ‘મારા અતિ પ્રિય ગૌતમ’ વગેરે નોંધપાત્ર વાર્તાઓ છે.

સંપાદનની કવિતા વિશે વાત કરીએ તો કહેવું પડે કે મોટાભાગની રચનાઓ ‘કવિતા’નો અનુભવ કરાવતી નથી. કેટલીક રચનાઓમાં જ કવિતા માણ્યાનો પરિતોષ અનુભવાય છે. જેમાં અદમ ટંકારવીની ‘ગઝલ’, અહમદ ગુલની ‘સ્લમ ડૉગ’, આદિલ મન્સુરીની ગઝલ, ડાહ્યાભાઈ પટેલની ‘ઇંગ્લૅન્ડની ઓટમ.. થાય વસંત ?’ મોટું આશ્વાસન છે. વિદેશની ધરતી પર કે જ્યાં પોતાની ભાષા બચાવવાના બળકટ પ્રયત્નો કરવા પડતા હોય ત્યાં સર્જન-અભિમુખ રહેવાનો કવિઓનો ઉત્સાહ જરૂર ગમે.

સંપાદનના નિબંધોમાં ખાસ્સુ વિષય વૈવિધ્ય છે. ડૉ. જગદીશ દવેના વિદેશમાં વસવાટ કરીને ગુજરાતી ભાષાશિક્ષણ પરત્વે હૃદયથી ચિંતા અને ચિંતનથી આપણે પરિચિત છીએ. તેમના આ સંચયમાં લેવાયેલા નિબંધમાં વિદેશની ધરતી પર ગુજરાતી ભાષાશિક્ષણ વિશેના વિચારો અત્યંત સહજ રીતે વ્યક્ત થયા છે. દીપક બારડોલીકરનો નિબંધ ‘કરાંચીથી કેલિફોર્નિયા સુધી’માં પાકિસ્તાનમાં થયેલા-થતા ગુજરાતી સાહિત્ય સર્જનનો લઘુ આલેખ મળે છે. મધુ રાયે ‘ઈનવર્ટેડ કારપેટ ઈયાને ઊંઘી જાજમ’માં સર્જન કૃતિના અનુવાદ પર લાક્ષણિક શૈલીમાં પરામર્શ અને પ્રશ્નો રજૂ કર્યા છે. વિપુલ કલ્યાણીના બે નિબંધો જુદી જુદી તાસીર પ્રગટાવે છે. ‘હરખપદુડાની હૈડાપાટુ’માં તેમણે પ્રકાશ શાહ સાથે કરેલા દક્ષિણ આફ્રિકાના પ્રવાસની વાત માંડી છે. તો અન્ય નિબંધાત્મક લખાણમાં અંગ્રેજી-ગુજરાતીનું વાતચીતિયું રૂપ હળવી શૈલીમાં રજૂ કર્યું છે.

સરવાળે જોઈએ તો આ પુસ્તકમાંથી વિદેશમાં વસતા ગુજરાતી સર્જકો અને ચિંતકોનો આંતર સમૃદ્ધિનો આલેખ મળી રહે છે. પોતાની ભાષાને બેહિસાબ ચાહતા આ સર્જકોને સલામ !


સૌજન્ય : “અભિદૃષ્ટિ”, 10 જાન્યુઆરી 2016; પૃ. 18-19

Category :- Diaspora / Reviews