Modernity is a curious state of mind, and it conditions us to think in curious ways. Modernity offers everything that came before it in a catalogue that tells us as much about the past as it conceals. As we casually flip through the catalogue we call “history,” we often spot out the atrocities — the inquisitions, the murders, the rapes, among other atrocities — yet we tend to look over them disinterestedly, passing an apathetic eye over a genocidal episode before closing the history book as if to say “well, that’s the end of that, then.” Through modernity, we come to think of any kind of human suffering in the same manner as we might think of smallpox, and treat it as some obsolete byproduct of the human condition that we thankfully don’t have to worry about anymore.

In this sense, modernity is something like a bubble. It keeps us safe, insulating us from difficult questions about the dark side of human nature. When we view the paradigmatic crime of the Holocaust from within the modern bubble, we find it so fundamentally incomprehensible that we are forced to soften the blow with untruthful platitudes. We might say that “Hitler was just crazy” or “never again” as a tactic to create distance between us and those people who — just over 70 years ago — attempted to systematically murder and obliterate the Jewish and Roma people.

This act of stubborn self-deception is contingent on the denial of reality. The 1994 genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda, the 1995 genocide of Muslims in Bosnia, and the ongoing genocide of Yazidis in Iraq all seem equally distant from within the modernist bubble as the Holocaust does. It appears that we are not only in denial that “never again” was nothing more than a complacent self-deception. This allows us to engage in a greater act of deceit. It lets us forget that the perpetrators — in each and every case — were no less human than we are, and that the capacity for unspeakable evil lies within us just as it did them.

The name “Zanzibar” may bring to mind pristine beaches and scenic sunsets. The touristic value of the East African island has been acknowledged for millennia, and is perhaps responsible for drawing Africans, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, and others towards the island throughout its history. Arab settlement in the island dates back over 1,000 years, and the large and successful Arab population persisted throughout the period when the island was taken as a British protectorate. The island continued to have an Arab sultan and largely Arab ruling class throughout this time.

Protectorate status ended in the 1960s, when the British hastily gave independence to the island nation, now a constitutional monarchy with democratic elections. Yet democracy was a a foreign system to the residents of the island, which had been ruled as a Muslim sultanate for hundreds of years. The British were unable to adequately explain exactly what this new system was and how it should function, due in part to the utter foreignness of the concept, and in part due to an urgency felt by the government to leave as soon as possible. The educational, linguistic, and administrative barriers meant that many Africans perceived democracy to be an immediate means of wealth redistribution, which was not the case.

Celebrating independence

At the time, the island’s population was around 300,000 local residents, comprising approximately 230,000 Africans, 50,000 Arabs, and around 20,000 Indians. The African majority was worse off than the land-owning Arabs and mercantilist Indians in both economic and educational terms, but had a demographic advantage. This led mainly African-backed parties to win the majority of the vote in the first election in 1964, but the perceived lack of change caused fury amongst the population, and before long one man began to channel that fury to its logical conclusion.

John Okello was an African preacher, and belonged to the minuscule Christian minority in the island. A convicted rapist whose Christianity held no appeal amongst African Muslims, he found racial hatred a more effective way to motivate people to his side. What began as a raid by Okello and his followers on a police station eventually turned into the “Zanzibar Revolution,” whose name conceals its genocidal character. Don Petterson writes in Revolution in Zanzibar: an Americans Cold War tale:

“He told his men that when the fighting began, they were to kill all Arabs between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five… Virgins and women whose husbands had been killed or detained should not be raped (all others, presumably, were fair game).”

John Okello

What follows is one of the most bloody yet least known episodes of the 20th century. Motivated by racial hatred and promises of wealth and women, enraged African militiamen went from house to house, murdering, torturing, and raping every Arab they could get their hands on. Those living on the island were slow to realize the seriousness of their situation until it was too late. Upon emerging onto the streets, they “saw the bloody bodies of men lying by the side of the road. Some had been mutilated, their genitals stuffed into their mouths.” Many of the island’s Indian population also fell prey to the militias, and the Sultan and his government fled into exile. When the machetes finally fell silent some months later, over 20,000 Arabs had been murdered, as well as thousands of Indians, with tens of thousands more having fled the island for good. Shortly afterwards, the island was annexed into Tanzania, and the “controversy” around one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities was largely forgotten.

We cannot bring the victims of the Zanzibar genocide back, nor can we heal the scars that the atrocity left on the hearts of both survivor and perpetrator. All we can do, and thus what we must do, when confronted with such unspeakable atrocities is to ask ourselves how to prevent it from happening again.

What happened in Zanzibar took place for a number of reasons, yet none amounted to a justification. There was mismanagement by the British, a lack of understanding by the Africans, and also stubborn intolerance by the Arabs. Yet none of the innumerable factors we might consider, nor the situation itself, is foreign to those of in the comforting bubble of modernity. We see in Zanzibar parallels of European and Jew, of black and white, of Muslim and secular played out in the riots and murders and racially motivated gang attacks that take place all over the Western World. Whether a pogrom by an aggrieved majority or an uprizing by a furious minority, the story of Zanzibar is one that we’ve seen in London, in Paris, in Milwaukee, and in other places around the Western World. The only real difference between now and 1964 is the scale.

Zanzibar teaches us that genocide is not as far away as we might like to think. Society can sometimes find itself balanced on a razor’s edge, one cut away from racial warfare. The lesson we should — and must — draw from the Zanzibar Genocide is that multiracial societies cannot exist without mutual dialogue, respect, and tolerance. For if we fail to resolve the excessive polarization and internal frictions between groups within the Western World, we may yet find ourselves back in Zanzibar


Petterson, D. (2004). Revolution in Zanzibar: an Americans Cold War Tale. Boulder, CO: Westview.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:

1 comment

Leave a Reply